Three years ago, Pastor Brian Schmidgall moved from Wisconsin to St. Louis on a mission: to try to right the racial wrongs of St. Louis City through faith. He bought a home on the north side of Delmar Boulevard, and spent the next two years learning the folds of what the community needed in order to come together and move forward.
After sending out flyers to announce their arrival and setting up shop in the auditorium of the Eddie Mae Binon center on Union Boulevard, Pentecostal-based MiddleTree Church held its first service on the last Sunday in January 2012. Schmidgall believes that people living on both sides of Delmar – an unofficial dividing line of race and class in St. Louis – have something to learn from each other, both socially and spiritually.
“It’s almost like one of those glow sticks - if we could just crack Delmar - it’s almost like the light of God would just light up and glow,” he says. “The way we’ve done church in the past - just lay down those expectations. We’ve got to do church in a whole new way.”
Ronnie Jones admits that when Schmidgall and his family moved next door to him in 2009 stated their lofty projections, he had his worries.
“This is a thought that was put into action. And being a white guy and starting a church up in an area where that denomination is not even talked about anymore, you had to have God on your side,” Jones says.
The 54 year old has been attending MiddleTree since the beginning, and plays guitar regularly in the church band. He had fallen into the wrong crowd, he says, and had taken a fifteen year reprieve from playing his instrument. But now that he’s in a place where he feels appreciated and accepted, he has no plans to stop attending MiddleTree – or to stop playing his instrument – any time soon.
“I don’t see [anything] right now that could compare. I’m thankful for being a part. I’m thankful for standing for something, instead of nothing,” Jones says.
The older and younger dynamic, in addition to involving different races has been a big aspect within the church’s outreach, says Schmidgall. They’ve also had to learn how to blend a mix of Catholic and Baptist backgrounds in a Pentecostal church. Morning services begin with a varied selection of faith and worship songs, meant to get attendees on their feet and ready to hear the word.
“We’re very strategic in who’s on stage,” he says. “We try to get some ladies up front. We’re just really trying to be intentional of making up our community and trying for health, cause we think there’s health in that – young, old; black, white; male, female; rich, poor.”
The path that MiddleTree has taken – sending out flyers, embracing social media, doing community outreach – has led several different individuals through its doors. They’ve built up a staff of worship leaders, facilitators, and musicians, and have between 60 and 80 members in attendance on Sundays. In the past year they participated in a community “Day of Hope” by helping format resumes for those in need of a job, sent a missionary team to Los Angeles, and administered three baptisms.
Charlotte Jackson White began attending MiddleTree this fall. She’s just starting out as a greeter on Sunday mornings before the start of worship at 10:30 a.m. Sensing she needed a change, she began coming to MiddleTree after her fiftieth birthday in September.
“I wanted to get into a church that I felt comfortable, accepted, preached - not preached AT, and taught, and I can grow in. And I wouldn’t get lost in the crowd.”
Joining MiddleTree has pushed her to make other changes as well.
“Hospitality wasn’t the first thing that I would have chosen, and I believe God chose me to do that. My choice is singing – but I’m going where he wants me to go,” she says.
Jeremy Goss, a medical student at Saint Louis University, is hoping to make a dent health-wise by informing his fellow students of the disparities occurring north and south of Delmar.
“These are some of the same people that we’re seeing in our hospitals, these are some of the same people that we’re seeing in the news," Goss says. "It’s not a north/south, black/white problem. It’s if you live in St. Louis – these are your neighbors, this is your community.”
In the years to come, Schmidgall wants to show that he is committed to making a difference no matter what.
“I look forward to the day when someone says Delmar and that’s no different than saying Lindell. I look forward to that day when Delmar means nothing but how you get to The Loop or something. I think God can do it. I believe God can do it,” he says.
In the coming year, the church is planning to further their community relationship and address cleanliness with what they’re calling an “Adopt A Block” program, and have created a February lesson series titled “Bridging Delmar."
Follow Erin Williams on Twitter: @STLPR_Erin