The growing church offers hope in the Mahoning Valley.
By D.A. WILKINSON
VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR
YOUNGSTOWN -- "The community is beginning to turn around," said the Rev. Kenneth L. Simon, observing from his office in New Bethel Baptist Church.
On the city's South Side, many older homes are kept in repair, houses are being constructed, and run-down and abandoned houses are being demolished.
New Bethel has been involved in the South Side's improvements and is expanding itself, the Rev. Mr. Simon said.
At 2 p.m. Sunday, New Bethel will break ground on a $3.5 million expansion.
The first phase is the construction of a 1,050-seat sanctuary, choir and board room, offices, a library and resource center and adult classrooms. The construction should be finished about this time next year, the pastor added.
The new sanctuary will be built at Hillman Street and Cleveland Avenue in what is now a parking lot south of the church.
Phases II and III of the expansion aren't scheduled yet, but the second phase calls for the renovation of the building for youth programs. Phase III would be the construction of a multipurpose center and banquet facility.
The expansion plans reflect the church's practicing the message that it preaches.
The message, Mr. Simon said, is "that there's hope. There is hope for this Valley, hope for the city of Youngstown, hope for the people here. That's what we want to bring to people."
That hope comes from the church's faith.
"We believe that the gospel is an empowering agent that helps people improve their lives," Mr. Simon continued.
The church has bought some of the wrecked homes nearby to make room for additional parking.
New Bethel's outreach ministry also teaches homeowners how to do repairs to maintain their homes, manage their money and implement other life skills.
Mr. Simon said the church tries to meet all the needs of the individual. That approach to ministry has helped to create the need for the expansion.
He said the church had 647 members when he took over as pastor in 1996 from his father, the Rev. Lonnie A. Simon, who was called to the church in 1962.
Mr. Simon credited his father with laying the foundation for what is occurring now.
The church was filled to capacity in 1997 and now has more than 1,100 members. The church has been making do some Sundays by using large-screen television monitors in the basement and the fellowship hall to accommodate the overflow.
The church has more than 30 ministries now, ranging from food and clothing distributions to pee-wee football teams.
New ministries include addiction and grief recovery, seniors and couples programs, mime and praise and worship, hospital and prison visitations.
For years, the church has provided funds for books for members who went on to further their education. The proposed library and resource center would provide schooling and tutoring. The center also would provide access to computers, which many families can't afford, the pastor said.
Other youth ministries include team-building skills, conflict resolution and drug prevention, along with a mentoring component.
The ministries taken together, Mr. Simon said, "empower them in their life's work and mission."
The church draws about 40 percent of its members from the South Side and other parts of Youngstown. Other members come from Boardman, Campbell, Girard and Warren.
"There's a broad base that we draw from," Mr. Simon added.