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Meyer's charity work begins at home

Reprinted from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Monday, Nov. 17 2003by Bill Smith and Carolyn Tuft

The former Holy Rosary Catholic Church rises from the intersection of Margaretta and Clarence avenues like a hulking giant, its rough stone facade the color of bone in the late-afternoon sun.

It's a Tuesday, just after 5:30 p.m., and yellow buses already have begun to arrive for the 7 o'clock worship service, their riders spilling onto the street. Women in flowered housedresses, girls in ribbon-tied pigtails and men in baseball caps pulled snug on their heads gather on the sidewalk — laughing and talking.

Just four years ago, the church in the O'Fallon Park area of St. Louis was little more than a tired neighborhood relic, desperate for life and purpose.

Not any more.

In the fall of 2000, the church and adjacent school were reborn as the St. Louis Dream Center, an ambitious, privately funded effort of Joyce Meyer Ministries, a $95 million-a-year TV ministry based in Fenton.

The center is modeled in part after a similar program in Los Angeles and is the largest and most visible local example of Meyer's charitable work, which also includes support for a proposed home for troubled young women in Jefferson County and orphanages in India and Latvia. Recent figures compiled by the ministry report that it donates more than $650,000 a month — nearly $8 million a year — to charitable groups. They include a radio ministry in Warren, Mich., and outreach programs in Africa, England, Brazil and Ecuador.

This year, Joyce Meyer Ministries also will contribute nearly $2.8 million to the operation of the Dream Center and get back about $600,000 in donations collected there, a ministry spokeswoman said.

Covering nearly an entire block, the St. Louis Dream Center is a grand experiment in faith-based social service outreach in the midst of a neighborhood in urgent need of help.

A brochure given to first-time visitors calls the Dream Center "a healing place for a hurting world ... a place of unconditional love ... a church of second chances."

Extensively renovated, funded and staffed by Meyer's ministry, the Dream Center offers a wide range of Christian-based social service programs, from a teen drop-in center to nursing home visitations to efforts to reach out to area prostitutes and the homeless.

It operates Christian education centers for neighborhood children from prekindergarten through high school, including a traveling "KidzJam" Bible school program and a "Super Saturday" program of music, videos and games in the church sanctuary.

At first, the Dream Center seems far removed from Meyer's $20 million, red brick- and-glass corporate headquarters in Jefferson County and her carefully landscaped $2 million home in south St. Louis County. Just three blocks west of Fairground Park, the church sits in the middle of some of the poorest areas of the city.

But Meyer, who preaches at the center several times a year, says it is a natural extension of who she is and what she believes.

"The Bible said that Jesus came for the sick and not the well," Meyer says. "We're just trying to relieve suffering any way we can."

"Cubbies" and warehouses

On a clear Friday night in August, about a dozen church workers and volunteers from the Dream Center made their way along a dirt path cut through a tangle of tall weeds near the city's riverfront.

They carried bottles of fruit drink and sandwiches wrapped in plastic, gifts for the people who live there. Others carried fliers printed on brilliant red and pink paper, invitations to church the following Sunday.

Earlier that evening, Richard Jones, who runs the center's homeless ministry, spoke to a gathering of volunteers who would be traveling with him into the gritty shadows of the city.

"Some people do things for power," said Jones, best known simply as Pastor Richard. Other people, he said, "do things out of greed. We do it for love."

At the start of each weekend, three Dream Center vans loaded with food head into the city's parks, tunnels and alleyways, searching for the people of the streets. Most are known only by their first names or nicknames.

Jones, whose work with the homeless began years ago as a volunteer with the Rev. Larry Rice's winter patrol, has known many of the men and women for years.

Along the riverfront, Jones led his group to little plastic- or tarpaulin-covered tents, reminiscent of Depression-era lean-tos, and hidden back among the weeds and the litter.

"Cubbies," the people who live there call them.

Outside one of the tents, a toy firetruck sat in the crook of a tree for decoration. At another, a large number 9 had been painted just above the entranceway, an address in a place without addresses.

A man known as Steve approached the group, showing off a shopping cart equipped with makeshift headlights: flashlights taped to the sides of the cart.

"We've got four people cutting hair on Sunday," Jones told him.

Not far away, inside an old warehouse littered with wood pallets, a thin man with short, wiry hair appeared from the shadows with his pet dog.

Suddenly, the man pulled himself up on a forklift and stretched himself out until his body was parallel to the ground as his guests applauded politely.

The workers traveled into the little city parks, where men were drinking from bottles wrapped in paper sacks. And they drove deep into the old railroad tunnel under Tucker Boulevard, where people live atop rocky embankments.

They stopped near an enormous pile of sand under the Interstate 55 Highway Bridge and called to a young man who sat there atop the sand, in the darkness.

"I'm all right," the man said, as he waved them away. "I'm all right."

"A whole lot of friends and...enemies"

The day-to-day operation of the Dream Center is in the hands of senior pastor Terry Gwaltney, a one-time heating and air conditioning worker from rural Southern Illinois who gained notoriety in the winter of 1999 for leading a fight to post the Ten Commandments in public schools in Harrisburg, Ill.

Gwaltney was cheered and vilified by a community that split deeply over the issue. Supporters tied white ribbons around trees outside their homes; opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that posting the commandments violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

Ultimately, the local school board decided against the commandments idea. Gwaltney, facing additional criticism over his running of his Harrisburg church and a not-for-profit clothing and food giveaway program, left for St. Louis in the spring of 2000.

"Unfortunately, it seems in the ministry you make a whole lot of friends and you make a whole lot of enemies," Gwaltney said, referring to his time in Harrisburg.

In the months before he left, still more controversy surrounded Gwaltney. Several members of his local church quit, accusing Gwaltney of blocking their efforts to obtain financial records. Gwaltney denies the claims and calls much of the criticism a vendetta against him. There were people, he said, who wanted to "destroy my credibility and the credibility of the church."

Several former associates of Gwaltney said their most serious concern involved his handling of the purchase and sale of the Saline County home where he and his wife lived.

County records show that the ministry bought the house for $63,000 in 1966 and sold it to the Gwaltneys for $58,000 in 2000. Gwaltney, as president of the charity, and his wife, as secretary, both signed off on the transaction. The Gwaltneys sold the house in February 2001 for $71,000.

Federal tax laws bar private individuals from profiting on the sale of charitable property, which Gwaltney said he did not know.

Gwaltney said that after paying for repairs of termite damage, and a fee to the real estate company that sold the house, he and his wife made very little on the sale of the property.

Gwaltney and his wife now live in the House Springs area. His wife, brother, sister-in-law, father and a longtime friend are listed as staff members of the Dream Center.

Meyer said Gwaltney has done an exceptional job running the center.

"We love on the people"

The center offers a variety of programs for women, especially women in trouble.

On Friday nights, immediately after its sandwich-and-juice ministry to the homeless, a Dream Center van takes sandwiches, matchbooks with the Dream Center's address and long-stem red roses into some of the St. Louis area's toughest alleyways and bars, in search of prostitutes.

Led by Alliece Cole, a woman with seemingly boundless energy and faith, the prostitute ministry stays on the streets until 3 a.m. or later, talking and praying with women who have become numb and hardened.

"We just go in and love on the people," said Wes Gwaltney, brother of Terry Gwaltney, who often drives a van for the prostitute ministry.

Recently, the center opened a Women of Hope program, a project that offers transitional housing to women trying to make changes in their lives.

A 47-year-old resident of the program, who asked not to be identified, said she owes her life to Meyer, Terry Gwaltney and to the Women of Hope project. She said the Dream Center helped her beat a long drug addiction, has dramatically reduced her need for prescription medication for depression and, hopefully, will soon help reunite her with her children.

"If not for Joyce Meyer and Terry Gwaltney, I might be on the streets of Missouri looking for my next fix," she said. "I'm not angry any more. I'm not angry at people; I'm not angry at God."

Sunday at the Dream Center

On a recent Sunday, the buses began arriving at the Dream Center shortly after 8 a.m., filled with homeless men and women picked up at the Rev. Larry Rice's New Life Evangelistic Center, the Salvation Army's Railton Residence and St. Patrick Center.

Some were ushered into a second-floor room to wait for showers, haircuts or clothing. Others were directed into the church chapel, where music was already echoing across stained-glass windows and two enormous video boards on both sides of the pulpit.

"Let your hair down," Terry Gwaltney called to those filling the church on a Sunday in August. "This is a celebration. We're excited about what God has done in our lives."

Terry Horiace, 52, a resident of Rice's New Life shelter, said he had been to several churches before joining the Dream Center.

"The people here look on the inside of you, not on the outside," he said.

On Sundays, the Dream Center is split into two areas: the sanctuary, where services are held three times a week; and the nearby administration and activities building. There, the center runs a small clothing boutique, a women's gymnasium and three lively children's areas, one of them a teen drop-in center called "The Court," similar to a program Gwaltney operated in Harrisburg.

Good for the neighborhood

Residents who live near the Dream Center say the local ministry has been a godsend to the neighborhood. They praise the center's work with children and older residents and its desire to integrate itself into the community.

Pat Allen, who has lived across the street from the church for 45 years, said center employees went door-to-door soon after the Dream Center opened, introducing themselves to residents. She said that workers from the center regularly pick up litter in the neighborhood and that the center's private security staff keeps an eye out for problems in the immediate area.

One downside, Allen said, is an ongoing problem with parking in the area, particularly on Sunday mornings and during special holiday events. Still, she said, employees have seemed sincere in working with neighbors to ease the situation.

Keishia Curtis, of the 4300 block of Margaretta Avenue, said the center's programs have been "good for the kids. It keeps them out of trouble." She said her daughter LaKeishia, 4, and son Winston, 8, regularly take part in center activities.

Brian Zimerman, principal of Ashland Elementary School, which is just west of the Dream Center, said that before the start of the school year, volunteers from the center sanded and painted the school's wrought iron fence.

He also said the center has been involved in a wide range of in-school activities. He said center volunteers have donated gifts to the children, organized recreational activities and put on plays designed to teach respect and citizenship.

Not once, Zimerman said, have center workers tried to influence the children with their religious beliefs while they were at the school.

Last year, Joyce Meyer Ministries and its Rage Against Destruction Program came under attack from civil liberties groups for using that program to invite high school students to a Christian-oriented after-school rally. The groups argued that the ministry was violating laws mandating the separation of church and state. The ministry eventually ended that program.

Rosemary Townsend, who lives about a block from the center on San Francisco Avenue, said center employees regularly check on her elderly mother. She also said the church has made great strides in promoting racial understanding in the area. Most of the top staff at the center are white, while the congregation is racially mixed, she said.

In a recent interview, Meyer said she knew from the moment she entered the ministry that part of her work would involve reaching out to the poor.

Since the Dream Center opened, Meyer said, visitors from several other cities have been so impressed with the work there that they have taken the idea back to their own communities.

"I've seen firsthand what God and His word have done for me in my life," Meyer said. "God is taking all the abuse I went through, and it's made me that much more determined to try to make sure that other people are restored."

Reporter Carolyn Tuft
Phone: 314-340-8105

Reporter Bill Smith
Phone: 314-340-8125

More information is available at St. Louis Post Dispatch's index of Joyce Meyer articles.

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