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100 Years of Kindness and Mercy at East St. Louis Community Center

By Susan J. Meister

"100 Acts of Kindness, 100 Acts of Mercy" is the theme of the 100th anniversary of a United Methodist community center that is part of the social and religious bedrock of East St. Louis and surrounding St. Clair County.

Some 300 board members, volunteers, friends, and staff of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House gathered on October 25 at a dinner launching the centennial celebration of the facility that operates today in two locations.

"Tonight we celebrate the commitment of The United Methodist Church to this ministry, and thank God for the opportunities to be in mission in East St. Louis," said William R. Kreeb, executive director, who described the center's service as "a source of hope and inspiration for our families."

Retired Bishop Woodie W. White, who served in the former Southern Illinois Methodist Conference from 1984 to 1992, was the guest speaker. East St. Louis Mayor Alvin L. Parks, Jr., who was a student at Lessie Bates in the early 1960s, was also on the program, as was current board chairperson Mary L. Blackmon.

The center is named for Lessie Bates Davis (Mrs. Frank L. Davis), a leader of what is today the Great Rivers United Methodist Conference, who helped to raise funds to erect the building. But the facility's roots are much older.

The work of the neighborhood house began in 1909 in the midst of a large Bohemian-Slavonic population, immigrants who had come to the United States to start new lives around the National Stockyards in East St. Louis.

Deaconesses from the Women's Home Missionary Society, a predecessor organization to today's United Methodist Women, began to respond to the social, physical, and spiritual needs of the community. The population has changed over the last century. Today, the center serves a multiracial community; 45 percent of the residents live at or below the poverty level.

Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House provides direct services and social action models that empower and strengthen individuals and families. Programs include:

  • child care
  • crisis intervention and prevention services
  • family support services
  • home health care
  • employment
  • housing
  • senior services
  • community organizing.

In his remarks, Kreeb acknowledged the ongoing partnership the ministry enjoys with the city of East St. Louis, the church, and community organizations.

Mayor Alvin L. Parks, who took part in the center's activities in the early 1960s, offered the city's continuing support and praised the ministry. "The citizens of East St. Louis love Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House!" he exclaimed. Theresa Saunders, superintendent of East St. Louis School District 189, also pledged her support.

Lessie Bates is one of 103 National Missions Institutions related to the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries across the United States, including community centers, schools, colleges, health-care facilities, and women's residences.

Contacted in New York at Global Ministries headquarters following the local celebration, Jerald McKie, an executive who relates to National Mission Institutions, called Lessie Bates "a kind of miracle of the Midwest. The center contributes to the welfare of the community while the community's participation makes the center a place of excitement and vibrant ministry. The ties to the church are strong, valuable, and valued."

In his remarks, Bishop White recalled the words of the Rev. W. F. Fransee, an early missionary to the area: "He said that we should 'try to see the face of Jesus Christ in every person who walks through the doors of the Neighborhood House.'"

"It's not enough to sing about Jesus," White said. "It's not enough to shout about Jesus or raise your hand to Jesus, you must be Jesus. Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House sees every person as a child of God, with infinite worth."

The bishop recalled the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, the passage where loving service to the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned are commanded. "Imagine what the world would be like if we saw each other as a child of God," he asked. "Remember, God looked on all he created and said, 'That's good!'

"Lessie Bates has said, 'We will stand and stay in this neighborhood!' Lessie Bates says to the children, 'We're here--you can achieve, learn, and grow.' Thank you, Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, for being there."

Last Updated: 01/27/2012

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