By LINDA M. LINONIS
Though small in number, the congregation at Victory Lutheran Church maintains a mighty spirit through its ministries.
Members of the South Side church, celebrating its 65th anniversary, are mainly African-American and have belonged for many years.
Recently, the Rev. Hosea J. Ekong, pastor, and his wife, Lillie; Leotha Arnold, a 65-year member; Kenny Thomas, 45-year member; Garland Sims, a 51-year member; and Pearl Underwood, a member since 1958, met to discuss the church.
“I express gratitude to God for His faithfulness ... seeing His hand at work at good times and bad,” said the Rev. Mr. Ekong, who has served 10 years as pastor.
The inner-city church has a membership of 50, the pastor said, but carries on a food pantry started in the 1980s by the Rev. John Plump. Mr. Ekong said the pantry, held from 9 to 11 a.m. the fourth Saturday of the month, does draw people to the church. The faces of recipients have changed over the years, the pastor said. Now, recipients are mostly elderly; young, single mothers; men raising their grandchildren; and middle-income people who have experienced a job loss.
Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Canfield provides a breakfast the weekends of the food pantry.
Lillie Ekong coordinates a clothing giveaway four or five times a year. “We get things from our sister churches,” she said.
The pastor and members said one of the most important ministries of the church remains Operation Learning Community Program Inc., which was established as a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization. It was founded in 2003 after Mr. Ekong discovered students in the confirmation class had trouble with the material because they had poor-to-no reading skills.
The pastor said learning about this situation was shocking but provided an avenue for the church to help at-risk students. The afterschool tutoring program was developed with the Youngstown board of education and a local elementary school. “We saw a need and addressed it,” the pastor said.
The after-school program is from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays during the school yeaer and is based at Christ Church Presbyterian. It focuses on second and third grades.
The church also has a Lutheran Women Mission League, which is affiliated with state and national organizations, and Bible studies are among its activities. Thrivent for Lutherans, a financial organization within the Lutheran synod, also helps members and provides matching funds to fundraisers. The church has an annual garage sale on the second Saturday in August.
For the longtime members, the church is a spiritual home. “I’ve been here all my life,” said Arnold, who coordinates the food pantry and is vice president of the congregation. “I love the church, the services and the people.”
For Underwood, the small church provides a closeness and is a place where “everyone knows your name.” When she lived in Philadelphia, she attended a large church and was basically anonymous. She said she didn’t feel like part of that church but at Victory it is the opposite. She’s belonged since 1949.
Underwood also said the “services are meaningful” and the doctrine is explained so people can understand it.
Thomas, who came to the church with his mother, said Victory has been “his family’s church.” “No one is a stranger here,” he said. “This is a close-knit congregation. You know the pastor and he knows you,” Thomas said.
A lector, Thomas said membership at Victory “has been life-changing” for him in very positive way.
Sims also added “the doctrine ... the word ... is explained and everyone can understand it.” He said that makes participation in services “meaningful.”
Sims, who coached ninth- through 12th-grade football with Buckeye Elks for 20 years, set an example by his church participation to youth. One young man told Sims he had “inspired” him to become a minister.
Mr. Ekong said he believes “the church is here for a purpose” though churches in the inner city “face so many challenges.” He said a door-to-door evangelization campaign in neighboring streets revealed that many residents were transient. “In the suburbs, it’s more stable. But here it’s difficult,” he said, adding “it takes a long time to build relationships.”
The members said Victory has a reputation as a “helping church.”