Angelo Velis smiled broadly Thursday night as he gestured toward a group of young adults and teens playing basketball on the courts at Myrtle Street Park in Gainesville.
Several of the players are members of his church, Christ Church. They use the game as an opportunity to minister to the residents of the neighborhood by building relationships and meeting their physical needs.
For the last eight years, Velis and several other local missionaries have been visiting impoverished and under-served neighborhoods in Gainesville and Hall County as part of The Torch Urban Outreach ministry.
The group has been visiting the Myrtle Street community since April of this year and meets regularly at First Baptist Church on Green Street.
Velis said the urban outreach mission has had a tremendous impact on the lives of people in the communities they serve. One way they measure the ministry’s success is by looking holistically at the young people in the communities.
He said that in several neighborhoods, students who were once failing out of school are now going on to graduate college, there is less gang activity, people with health issues are living healthier lives and families are paying attention to their spiritual needs.
"This is one little spark of a major flame that God has sort of ignited in the city of Gainesville," Joab Rico, pastor of Christ Church said.
Calib Yarbrough, 21, has lived in a house across the street from the Myrtle Street Park all of his life. He became a member of the church about a year ago.
"We mainly try to help people out in Gainesville. Especially in this neighborhood because there is a lot of gang activity going on here," said Yarbrough.
He said the gang activity seems to have died down in his neighborhood slightly in the last few years. But he said he’s seeing more young kids, eighth and ninth grade students, getting involved with gangs.
"I used to roll with people who were in gangs and stuff like that — of course not anymore because a lot of them are in jail or have been killed," Yarbrough said.
He said watching his friends be arrested or buried made him want to get involved with the ministry even more; he’s tired of seeing bad things happen to his neighbors.
Now he meets the group at the park and talks to his neighbors about Christ and the Gospel. Sometimes, instead of playing ball, the group will walk down the street and talk with or pray with anyone they see.
Josh Ford, a member of the church and resident of another neighborhood served by the church, said the people in all of the neighborhoods seem to be very receptive of their message. On Thursday, he helped pass out coats to the residents of Myrtle Street.
"We see a lot of need, a lot of generational sin, a lot of poverty. And so we, just as Christ came and served us, wanted to come and serve these people out of that abundance," Ford said.
Velis said his church focuses primarily on the movement of young Christian people who are putting the teachings of Christ into practice — something he said some other congregations haven’t done.
"Everything here is so religious and so traditional," Velis said. "Everyone wants to look nice and smile on Sunday. And just like in the times of Christ, there is a lot of hypocrisy. Well, the young generation has rebelled."
He said the average age of the his congregation is late 20s.
Velis founded Christ Church a little more than a year ago. The church is part of the Acts 29 Network, a network of congregations that aims to advance the mission of Jesus through church planting.
Velis said 100 percent of the more than 100 members of the church are involved with missionary work in some way or another.
"If this is real, if Jesus is real, then why don’t we do what he said to do. Let’s serve the needy, the poor, the orphans and the widowed," Velis said.