By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
NEW ORLEANS – Ever since opening Jesus Project Ministries soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the city, Debra Hoffman had prayed for God to send godly men to partner with their ministry.
Started in 2007, the ministry is in the Hollygrove neighborhood known for a reputation as poor, often-violent and home to rapper Lil ‘Wayne. Hoffman was thankful when six years later God sent Joshua Holland and his family to the neighborhood, who moved into a home one block away to plant a church, Level Ground.
“For us it is important to us to work with churches like Josh’s to be established and rooted in the community,” Hoffman said. “We are committed to Level Ground being a successful church plant here. It’s a blessing the whole Southern Baptist Convention is committed to the inner city of America.”
Before becoming pastor of Level Ground, Holland never even considered church planting.
A native of Eastern Kentucky, Holland believed he would serve as a student minister for the rest of his career.
But when he arrived to study at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, God began to change his plans. One of his classmates knew her pastor, Tommy Green of First Baptist Church Brandon, Fla., was considering sponsoring a church plant in New Orleans and she believed Holland would make a great church planter.
Green then visited the NOBTS campus and was introduced to Holland, his wife, Taran, and their sons. After the hour-and-a-half conversation, Green told Holland if they felt this was God’s will for their lives, than First Baptist Brandon wanted to partner with his church.
“I was like what are you talking about?” Holland recalls. “My wife and I didn’t even know anything about church planting and hadn’t even though about it. But as I began to talk to more and more people and my wife and I prayed about it, we felt this was what God wanted us to do.”
Holland’s first day on the job was April 1, 2013, when he started what was Revive City Church at the time. The church continued to meet until April 6, 2014, when they merged with The Grove, which was another church meeting at Trinity Christian Community not far away. Their new name was Level Ground.
“We were praying about a name and asked the Lord for what that should be,” Holland said. “One night as I was driving home late, I was reminded that at the foot of cross is level ground. I knew this is what this church needed to be, on level ground. No matter the race or economic situation, we all need level ground.”
Ever since that day, Level Ground has strived to accomplish that mission, which concentrates heavily on building relationships in a neighborhood that desperately needs Christ. In addition to sharing a meal and holding Bible study on Wednesdays and then having a worship service on Sunday evenings, Holland and his fellow members reach out into the community beyond its church building at 3613 Cambronne Street.
Many of their outreach projects are conducted with Jesus Project Ministries, which include a back to school giveaway, backyard Bible clubs, after school tutoring and basketball games. Level Ground also uses nearby Conrad Park to participate in community events.
Holland, who is a former college football player at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, believes his church can utilize the park’s baseball field for ministry, fielding a team from the neighborhood to compete against teams from outside the neighborhood. Though a league held its games at Conrad Park in 2014, not a single team from Hollygrove participated.
“The park is all potential because of the work of TCC and The Grove, God has the door wide open,” Holland said. “It’s a work in progress and hopefully we will have teams next year, and as a church our mission is to engage all people with the gospel to make disciples for the glory of God.”
Holland said he is thankful for Jesus Project Ministries and Trinity Christian Community. He said all three ministries work together, not with an attitude of competition but as one reaching their community for Christ.
“We really have seen God work by bringing people together,” Holland said. “I truly believe God has brought people to be part of the church with the capacity to make lots of disciples.
“We are part of a bigger story,” he continued. “There are a lot of people who have been working here for a long time and we are getting to see people know Christ. It’s this collaboration of people who want to see Christ change the community.”
Jarvain Bingmon, director of Trinity Christian Community, echoed Holland’s attitude.
“We all live in the community and are in this fight together,” said Bingmon, who also is a member of Level Ground. “That’s huge when it comes to the community. It took the community three years to really accept me. They saw people come and go. After about three years they said you are a Hollygrove resident too. There is value in that. You are not just preaching the gospel but talking the talk. Folks are all in and ready to make this home. That’s the only way we will do it. We are planting gardens and watching this grow.”
Level Ground is one of the churches planted in the New Orleans metropolitan area through the SEND North America strategy. NAMB’s goal is to plant 120 churches in the area by 2023.
New Orleans is one of 32 cities in the US and Canada that is a focus of the NAMB’s SEND North America strategy of mobilizing Southern Baptist churches to plant churches in cities without a thriving gospel presence. The Send North America: New Orleans website estimates a ratio of 9,700 residents for every Southern Baptist church in the city limits, four times higher than many state conventions in the South.
Of those living in New Orleans, only 13.9 percent are identified as evangelical, the website said.
Until every single person is reached with the hope of Jesus Christ, Holland said Level Ground will continue to work with other ministries in the neighborhood in spreading the good message of Christ.
“Jesus commissioned His followers to make disciples in Matthew 28:18-20,” Holland said. “At Level Ground, our goal is to live out this mission. We engage all people with the Gospel by living, working, and serving in our neighborhoods and in our city. We are at our local parks, participating in community work, serving in local schools, watching Saints games and enjoying life in our city.
“We go with the purpose of seeing many people trust Jesus as their Savior and become disciples,” he said. “Our goal is to establish a culture of disciple making through worshiping God, living life together, and following God’s mission. We do all of these to further the name of Jesus among all people and to bring glory to God.”