ST. PETERSBURG — No one ever said that doing the Lord's work is easy.
And on Saturday morning, as the temperature climbed toward the 90s, it was hot and sweaty work. It could also be frustrating for the 45 or so faithful who fanned out through the Bartlett Park neighborhood to pray for the community and to offer hope to residents.
"We're not here to confront. We're not here to badger. We're here to request," the Rev. Ellis Hodge of the Word of Life Fellowship told the volunteers as they prepared to "go into the enemy's territory in the name of Jesus."
The goal of the Boots on the Ground Outreach in Bartlett Park is to "take it to the streets to win the soul of South St. Petersburg." It's the idea of Seven x 7, a group of senior pastors of all races and denominations who wanted to unite at least 49 churches to battle for the soul of southern St. Petersburg by first reviving the church community. Bartlett Park was targeted because of the crime rate and eight murders that occurred during 2007.
The ministers' crusade and Seven x 7, which now has more than 60 congregations, began May 1 with a Prayer for Peace event that nearly 2,000 people attended. The outreach and evangelism will continue throughout the summer.
Boots on the Ground opened Saturday with a prayer, then those who had been affected by the murders were gathered into the center of a circle as someone recited the victim's names and Hodge prayed: "Even though these lives were taken in an untimely time, in an unplanned time, it won't be for nothing. … Forgive, forgive, forgive in the name of Jesus. … Draw strength from this tragedy. Let it be a steppingstone, not a stumbling block."
Volunteers then broke into groups of three and walked door to door in 14 areas of Bartlett Park.
"We're actually stepping out to interface with the community," said Ken Bird, a minister and member of Positive Impact Worldwide. Bird is also the author of Diary of the Coming of the Christ-Centered Age.
But it proved to be tough for Bird's group to make that connection. Few people were home. Some houses were unwelcoming, with signs saying, "No trespassing," "do not knock on my door," and "I'm not home."
At one point, the three in Bird's group approached a woman on a bicycle to explain their mission. They asked if they could pray for her.
The woman replied that she does not pray, but Bird and the others prayed for her anyway. The woman looked uncomfortable.
Bird said later that the woman might never have been exposed to prayer before and that one could never anticipate the effect such a prayer might one day have.
The only other person Bird's group could find to talk with was Walter Niemeyer, owner of A-Accurate Locksmith.
Niemeyer inherited his business from his family and has been in Bartlett Park for 50 years. But, he said, the crime has severely cut into his trade. About 75 percent of his customers, he said, will not come into the area. Niemeyer suggested that the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association needed to change its name to "Satan's Den Neighborhood Association."
Sounding skeptical about the evangelism effort, he said, "I appreciate what you're saying. I hear that every couple of years, but nothing ever happens."
Bird replied that God does the work.
"I've heard that one, too," Niemeyer said.
Bird asked if Niemeyer would like to join in prayer.
"I pray two or three times a week when I hear gunfire," Niemeyer said. "I'd rather have something else to pray about."
But Niemeyer listened as Kara'lynne Brubaker, pastor at Positive Impact Worldwide, asked for God's help for Niemeyer and the neighborhood. Brubaker promised Niemeyer she would return.