Missionary Eric Watkins takes the gospel to the streets of Memphis, offering hope in Christ By Jami Becher
“I came off the streets,” says semester missionary Eric Watkins. “Drugs, gangs and violence were all part of my life. I was just like these guys I see every day hustlin’ on the corner. I was masking the hurt and pain going on in my life—until God found me. Now He uses the pain of my past to connect me with the people I meet in the present.”
Most any day you can find Eric out on the streets of Memphis sharing the love of Christ one street, one house and one person at a time. He operates a ministry called Hope 4 Memphis TEAM: Takin’ Evangelism Across Memphis, where he goes door-to-door talking to people about Christ and looking for persons of peace within the community.
Having grown up in Memphis he knows the language of the inner city. He knows how to make lasting connections in a place where most Christians make short-lived efforts at evangelism, then quickly retreat to the suburbs when the going gets tough.
Eric often meets gang members as he walks the streets. “God just seems to draw them to me,” he says. “I don’t target them, but I don’t pass them by out of fear either. When I speak to them, they realize I speak their language and they’re willing to open up.”
Eric wants to show them that Christ is the way out. “They usually want to do something different,” he says. “But they don’t know where to start. These guys don’t have much education or a skill set. What they do have is a criminal record and a baby to support, and drugs and violence are the most consistent ways they know to make a living.”
A person of peace
This is how Eric met Anthony*, a young gang leader who had been asked to take over operations for the whole city of Memphis. “I didn’t make any effort to hide the fact that I was there to tell him about Jesus,” he says. “But I was also there to help him in a holistic way.”
Anthony was one of those guys who was just drawn to Eric. “It was a divine appointment,” he says. “I was out on the streets and just started a conversation with him. The Lord did the rest.”
Anthony’s father had been in prison for most of his life. He found a surrogate family and a role of importance in the gang. He knew his lifestyle was wrong, so he was open to hearing how Christ could help him make a change.
“I don’t let people off the hook,” Eric says. “If they make a commitment, I want to know they’re serious.” After Anthony accepted Christ, just as he does with everyone, Eric required Anthony to call him every day for five days. Each day they go over one verse in the plan of salvation to make sure Anthony understood the commitment he’d made.
“They think I’m crazy for requiring that much,” Eric says. “But if they respond every day, I know they’re ready for change and they know that I’m committed to them. We can build a relationship of trust from there.”
Anthony turned down the gang promotion and meets with Eric regularly for Bible study and to prepare to take his GED. “He had no idea how to make an honest living or what it looks like to be a Christian man,” Eric says. “I’m trying to show him how to do that.”
Anthony is now part of a local church and has become a person of peace within the gang community. He uses his influence to teach Biblical principles to other gang members.
It takes a village
Until three years ago Eric operated pretty much on his own. He would go out on the streets by himself or with a partner, just sharing because that’s what he knew God was calling him to do. Then he met the minister of missions from Germantown Baptist Church, a large Anglo congregation in suburban Memphis. “They wanted to do something to reach the city,” Eric says. “But they knew there was a color barrier there so they asked if they could assist me in what I was doing.”
Eric was skeptical at first. “I thought, ‘how is a white church from the suburbs going to assist me out here on the streets.’”
Considering the racially tense atmosphere of inner city Memphis, Eric wasn’t sure if volunteers from Germantown would be a help or a hindrance or even if the church would stick it out. But they did, and Eric has found the partnership opens more doors than it closes.
“If people see my face at the door, even in a black neighborhood, it makes them nervous,” he says. “But if they see an Anglo face, or an Asian or Hispanic face it brings down their defenses and they’ll open the door. Once we’re invited in I can relate to them. I can speak within the context of their lives in the inner city—then they open up to Jesus.
It’s been such a blessing to see God work through this partnership,” he says. “Not everybody can share the way I do, but God has gifted us all uniquely. I love to see people’s gifts develop as they’re willing to get out of their comfort zones to share the Gospel.”
A life unhindered
Living outside his comfort zone is what it’s all about for Eric. “I don’t want to put the Holy Spirit in a box,” he says. “God gets the glory for every lost soul that’s found out here. If the Lord opens a door all I do is walk through.”
Eric will meet people wherever they are and see them through until they are mature enough in their faith to stand on their own.
“I get down a lot of times,” he says. “It’s not easy for me out here. I remember where I came from and how easy it would be to slip back into that life.
It’s intimacy with Christ that allows me to be intentional, passionate, bold and unhindered in ministry. I have to prepare daily through prayer and Bible study to go to war against the enemy. I’m fighting—no holds barred—for souls in this city.”
Jami Becher is editorial assistant for On Mission.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC