(RNS) — James Clark has a perfect recipe for getting to know your neighbors.
Set up a grill.
Light some charcoal.
And put on some hot dogs.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Clark, vice president of community outreach at the nonprofit Better Family Life, was offering hot dogs to passers-by at Christ's Southern Mission Baptist Church in North St. Louis.
Even the mailman dropped by to see what was going on. He joked that he planned to stop by for hot dogs at five other churches having similar cookouts for neighbors that day.
“That’s what I am talking about,” Clark responded and laughed.
The cookouts are part of “Grill to Glory” — a partnership between local churches and Better Family Life to build community in North St. Louis, an area plagued by violent crime.
In 2016, almost 70% of the homicides in St. Louis occurred in North St. Louis, according to an analysis of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department data done by the news organization The Trace and the Missouri School of Journalism.
That chaos creates a sense of hopelessness among people who live in that area, Clark said. And he thinks churches are the institutions best positioned to host barbecues and in doing so, change the psyche of residents who might otherwise be drawn to crime.
“It becomes a neighborhood magnet and conversations begin. Members of the church are there, and they are not aggressively trying to push the Bible. They are just saying, ‘We are the church. We’re here. Come fellowship with us. And if you are free tomorrow morning, why don’t you come to service?’" Clark explained.
So far, Cook has helped organize events at more than 60 churches around North St. Louis.
Grill to Glory is an offshoot of Better Family Life’s “neighborhood opioid triage,” in which the group tries to help addicts in open-air drug markets by handing out toiletries and Narcan (used to revive someone who is overdosing from opioids), offering to take them to treatment centers and grilling hot dogs.
At one such drug market near a liquor store on North Grand Boulevard, police were called “104 times in a 12-month period for assaults, shootings, drug use, fights and unruly behavior,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in March 2018. Crime analysts and community leaders have linked the growth of such drug markets to increased gun violence in recent years.
In January 2018, Leonard Missionary Baptist Church, located near a drug market, started to hold barbecues on Saturdays.
Some 60 guests would come each week, Clark said.
After seeing the growth, he thought, “what would happen to the neighborhood if we could get the collective church body to buy into this model? And it’s low-hanging fruit. The ask of the church is relatively small.”
So on May 4, Better Family Life, which is not a religious organization, launched the program.
The group has received a few $1,000 donations and has spent about $3,500 so far on grills, lighter fluid, charcoal and food items, said Clark. It's also asked the churches to contribute supplies such as tables and tents.
Clark, who has worked for Better Family Life since 1997, received the 2018 Nonprofit Executive of the Year Award from the St. Louis American Foundation, which runs the newspaper that covers the local African-American community. President Trump met Clark at a national conference and thanked him for his efforts to reduce violence.
Around 11 a.m. on May 18, Clark and BJ the DJ, the assistant program director for iHeartRadio’s local hip-hop, R&B and gospel radio stations, left the Better Family Life headquarters in North St. Louis with the goal of stopping at as many barbecues as possible.
BJ had been promoting the effort on his morning show on Hallelujah (1600 AM).
“James and I talked about it, and we saw that the churches were not connected to the community,” said BJ, who has invited clergy to talk about the program on air.
“A lot of times you go past the church and you don’t see any activities,” he said. “It’s like they are there but they are not there.”
At the first stop, Christ's Southern Mission Baptist Church, Arlene Mckenzie stood over the grill; she’s the church’s culinary specialist.
She’s 63 years old and started attending the church as a young child. She now lives three houses down.
“My heart is for feeding the people. I pass out food up and down the neighborhood, and it’s just a vision of mine. I believe it’s really coming true,” she added.
Another longtime church member, Deborah Mason, said she thinks this is one of the church’s first such efforts since it moved into the neighborhood in 1960.
“People want to know that you care, especially the church. If we are supposed to be models of Christ — that’s what he did. He got up with the people. He was a party animal,” said Mason.
At the next stop on Clark’s hop, Cheryl Collins, a member of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, offered a hot dog to a young man walking by. He declined.
“How about a prayer?” Collins said.
He stopped and came over.
Church members were all smiles as they embraced Clark and BJ the DJ. Clark hopes to enlist 112 churches around North St. Louis.
“I’m having a ball, man,” said one church member. “This is where it’s at.”
Ike Ghee, a homeless 70-year-old man, said he was unable to bring anything to the barbecue — the church already had the necessary supplies — but wanted to participate.
“I had a divorce and things kinda turned but I’m still God’s child,” he said. “He’s showing me that he’s still here.”