When Jamal Alexander felt called to ministry, he didn’t expect the location God assigned to him: 51st and Compton in inner-city Los Angeles, right back where he had grown up.
In obedience, Alexander in 1991 started First InnerCity Assembly of God. The church, comprised primarily of African-Americans, is the only AG congregation in inner-city L.A.
A life of crime consumed Alexander until age 37. At 13, he began committing home burglaries and later he stole vehicles. Selling and addiction to heroin and crack cocaine followed. Multiple incarcerations, sometimes for years at a time, accompanied his wayward years.
But at a U.S. Missions Teen Challenge program, Alexander committed his life to Jesus and was filled with the Holy Spirit.
The neighborhood has changed since Alexander’s formative years, when only two Mexican families lived there. In the meantime, many African-American residents have moved elsewhere amid an influx of Latino immigrants. Yet long-term problems persist: drug dealing, prostitution, gangs.
Today, Alexander, who holds a master’s degree in theology and biblical studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, wants to see other local residents better themselves so they aren’t reliant on government programs, crime, or illicit drugs.
“We work with individuals to create a plan,” says Alexander, who with Gwendolyn, his wife of 40 years, has three adult daughters. “Sometimes it takes years to get them to focus on education and really get in a position of taking care of themselves rather than being dependent.”
Alexander, who will complete his doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary next year, stresses the need for education with local residents, pointing to the church as a source for job training and referrals. First InnerCity AG urges local employers to hire people without a strong work history, and partners with non-black congregations to try to help African-Americans be comfortable in ethnically diverse social settings.
“Some people have never dealt with others from a different demographic in a positive way,” Alexander says. “They have to learn to exist outside their own ethnic community in a workforce or university environment.”
Woody Robinson, pastor of Lynwood Worship Center just south of L.A., has known Alexander for two decades and considers him a mentor.
“He has a heart for the inner city and those caught up in life-controlling problems,” says Robinson, 55. “He’s committed to the work of helping people advance economically, academically, and spiritually.”
Robinson says the fact that Alexander has advanced degrees after a difficult youth and early adulthood is an encouragement to those who are struggling to escape the area’s chaos.
“He’s not a quitter,” Robinson says, noting that Alexander keeps from burning out by setting boundaries, delegating duties to others, raising up leaders within the church, and taking sufficient time off. “He perseveres.”
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