Alabama’s largest church plans to start a new fellowship in the highest crime areas of Birmingham, the state’s largest city.
The FBI ranks Birmingham as the third most violent city in the United States with a population of at least 100,000.
Rev. Chris Hodges, founding pastor of Church of the Highlands, that has congregations around Alabama, said in his sermon on Sunday that he had met with Birmingham’s mayor to tell him of the plans.
Rev. Mayo Sowell, currently a staff member for the Dream Team at the main campus of Church of the Highlands on Grants Mill Road, will be the campus pastor for the new branch. Sowell played football at Auburn University in 2004 for the 13-0 SEC Championship team and signed with the Buffalo Bills. But after failing to make the team, got involved in drugs and crime. He was sentenced to 50 months in prison for intent to distribute cocaine, according to a video testimony he taped for the Church of the Highlands. While out on parole he lived with his parents on Grants Mill Road and began attending Church of the Highlands because he had to wear an ankle monitor and could only attend church within a five-mile radius.
Hodges hopes for similar outcomes with the new campus in Birmingham’s inner city.
“We’re going to reach the drug dealers and we’ll get the crime to stop,” Hodges said. “Come on everybody, we’re going to be the local church. I can’t wait to report back to the mayor, and he says ‘great job, hey let’s go over here now.’ That’s what the church should do.”
Although a part of Highlands, Hodges suggested the new campus will have its own identity. “We are going to do a live service with live speaking and different music and it’s going to be different in a lot of ways to meet the needs of that community.”
The church hasn’t selected the exact location yet for the new campus but Hodges said Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin had a few suggestions.
“He said, ‘Chris, there are four of them that are keeping me up at night,'” Hodges said. “‘There are four of them that people should not live the way they are living, and the fear they’re living in, the crime they are living in, the poverty they are living in. We have to do something about these four communities. All of our communities need stuff, but my priority are these four.’ And I said, ‘Mayor, I want to know which ones they are. If there’s anything we can do to help, I’m committing it to you right now.'”
A recent ranking by 24/7 Wall Street used things such as crime rate, employment growth, access to restaurants and attractions, educational attainment and housing affordability to rank Birmingham the second worst place to live in the U.S.
Birmingham is also one of the poorest cities in the U.S. About 29 percent of the city’s population lives in poverty, roughly double the U.S. poverty rate. The typical household in Alabama’s largest city earns just $32,378 a year, more than $23,000 below the national median household income.
The new church plant will be a cooperative effort between Highlands and the city. Hodges related that Woodfin told him, “‘Pastor, if you go in there and just do anything you feel led to do, we will come alongside you and help you.'”