By Grayson Hester
Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., officially joined CBF’s Encourager Church initiative in 2019. But it had been doing the work of field personnel encouragement years before that.
“Our Encourager Church program came about naturally. It wasn’t something we sought out particularly,” said Andrea Woolley, co-pastor and minister of spiritual formation, families, and community. “We were already doing that, so we simply made it official.”
The basic idea of the Encourager Church initiative is to give CBF field personnel, both here and abroad, a partner church on whom they can rely for prayer, community and various kinds of material support—donations, supplies and the like.
For those spending their lives away from where they grew up, Encourager Churches can be something like home.
“This has opened up great opportunities to partner with these folks on the ground to really engage and assist them in their good work,” said Jason Crosby, co-pastor and minister of preaching, pastoral care, and administration. “Without that intentionality, we would not be as knowledgeable and aware of the good work they’re doing.”
Currently, Crescent Hill encourages three CBF field personnel ministries across the country: Rick and Ellen Burnette with Cultivate Abundance in South Florida; Scarlette Jasper with Olive Branch Ministries in McCreary County, Ky.; and Steve Clark and Annette Ellard in Louisville.
Doing this work “made perfect sense,” according to Crosby. “We were already doing it with Steve and Annette, so it was really low-hanging fruit. We said, ‘Sign us up! We’ve got those bases covered.’”
Clark and Ellard are long-time members of Crescent Hill whose ministry focuses on the Karen people of Burma. It is their ministry, and the broader ministry of Crescent Hill, that made the church’s transition to the Encourager Church initiative so seamless. What sets Crescent Hill apart from most Baptist churches is their longstanding relationship with Karen members and the broader Karen community in Louisville, who have lived there since 2007.
The U. S. State Department, at the time, made a concerted effort to resettle the Karen community, in light of their home country, Burma—more commonly known as Myanmar—refusing to grant them citizenship. Due to favorable job conditions, Louisville suddenly found itself a hub of Karen life in the United States. The Karen population there numbers roughly 500, a not insignificant chunk of the 10,000 who live in the country as a whole. And due to ties that had previously been established with the Karen people, a shared Baptist identity and, most crucially, the availability of an interpreter, Crescent Hill suddenly became a main artery of Karen religious life in the city.
“One Sunday in February 2007, about a dozen Karen folks showed up. The next Sunday, it was 24, and then 48! It was doubling each week,” Crosby said. “Now we have 100 Karen folks coming every Sunday.”
The ethos of CBF Global Missions and its Encourager Church initiative intersected and manifested in Crescent Hill’s serendipitous identity, as the church sprang into action caring for its new members by providing services like interpretation, homework help, and assistance in navigating the minefield of bureaucracy associated with citizenship, housing and other key features of American life.
But it was not merely a one-sided, paternalistic effort. If Crescent Hill provided the Karen people services, the Karen people provided Crescent Hill with something more inestimable in its value. “Rather than the gospel going forth from the U.S. to Burma, in many respects, the Karen brought the gospel we needed,” Crosby said. “It’s not their theological perspective. It’s their way of being, their faithfulness. That kind of experience and faithfulness was the good news that they brought to us.”
Crosby goes so far to say that, if not for the Karen people, Crescent Hill likely wouldn’t exist. When nearby Southern Baptist Theological Seminary cut ties—a result of the SBC’s fundamentalist takeover—the church experienced nothing short of an existential crisis. The Karen people helped provide a resolution. They helped provide, in short, an identity.
“This whole event makes me believe in God. I don’t think there’s an identity that could have been manufactured by any individual within the church that could have filled the void,” Crosby said. “It was a divine, providential power sweeping in and putting it in our lap for that new identity to be made manifest.”
Crosby described the new identity as being defined by “radical hospitality” and instilled by people from thousands of miles away, that lent itself so easily to the Encourager Church right here in the Southeastern U.S.
“A natural part of being church is encouraging field personnel in that capacity,” Woolley said. “We can’t be everywhere, and that’s why we have CBF field personnel. If we can walk alongside them, even at great distances, if we can support them, that’s the natural response of a church.”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read online and subscribe at www.cbf.net/fellowship.