Sunday, October 29, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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One Man's Message Of Street Salvation -- Pastor Craig Jackson Hopes To Inspire Wayward Souls With His Own Tale Of Redemption

Faith led Pastor Craig Jackson to the streets of Seattle on this Saturday night. A brisk Saturday night. A night when he could have been at home, cuddling with his wife and four children, watching the late show, cozy and comfortable.

But his faith - a soul-stirring faith that lifted him from the depths of despair to a higher ground neither he nor anyone else could have imagined a few years ago - wouldn't let him. So into the darkness he went.

Heading up Rainier Avenue South, cruising past blocks of struggling storefronts and decaying lots, past dimly lit neighborhoods that trickle-down economics somehow missed, Jackson and several church members searched the streets, comforting young, lost souls.

"Some say we're dealing with a lost generation, but I think it's a forgotten generation," said the 40-year-old Jackson, who spends every Saturday night making trips like this. "People are crying out for help. But because of the way they speak and act, people are afraid to help them."

"This ain't going to last forever"

He pulled his van into a convenience store parking lot where three teenage boys stood alone, watching cars - some with sirens - roar past. Two of them wore their hair in cornrows, a common style with gang members. They were sporting knee-length coats of the NFL Raiders and Redskins and drinking malt liquor from bottles wrapped in paper bags. The third teen, his eyes red, crouched down on the side of a car, talking to girls.

They looked like the same kind of crowd he used to hang with years ago, Jackson thought. Now, walking up in a dark suit and tie, he watched them as they turned away, muttering to themselves, perturbed by his presence.

"Where are you guys going?" Jackson asked, smiling, offering them an invitation to his church as well as a Bible. The ladies' man didn't want a copy. He knew about God, he said: "This ain't going to last forever."

One of the others said flatly: "That just ain't for me. I don't disrespect nobody's church, but I'm just not into it like you."

After years of abuse, Jackson calmly revealed to the teenager, he turned his life around by believing in what the Bible teaches. Jesus would be on his mind later, if not now, Jackson told the young man, whose eyes flashed with anger. The pastor had jinxed him, he said.

"Pray for us all you want," the young man said, his tone growing surly, "but it's too late."

The last teenager stood near the store's entrance; as it turned out, he was related to a member of Jackson's church. "I'll pray for you," Jackson said to the young man, who discreetly slid the Bible into his coat pocket. He nodded, looked Jackson in the eye and said: "All right."

Jackson crossed the street to his van. "Know what I call that?" he asked with a self-assured smile. "Planting seeds. They may not give their life to the Lord right now, but one day they will."

It was well past midnight. Jackson turned down Rainier Avenue and headed toward the church, but it would be a while before he arrived. He had more seeds to plant.

How far can faith go?

Faith, it is said, moves mountains. If so, Jackson has moved some awfully big ones. But how far can faith and commitment carry someone?

In April, he and his followers in King of Glory Church of God In Christ moved into the building where a congregation more than four times larger had worshiped for decades. Such a small congregation, 300 people, attempting to fill the pews of a much larger one is about as rare as David defeating Goliath.

Yet when Renton Assembly of God, which had owned the campus, built a larger church several miles away, a sort of rent-to-own deal was created for them, largely on the spiritual merits of his outreach. Now his church, which likes to say everybody is somebody, has an immense base from which to work.

It covers two acres and has a balconied sanctuary, two chapels, three kitchens, showers, a gymnasium, three nurseries, classrooms for kindergarten through eighth grade, and more than 30 meeting rooms. Jackson's King of Glory Church is believed to be the largest church building in the state where an African-American preaches.

A new-found sense of hope

During a time of government cutbacks and bootstrap conservatism, his church has room for the needy. In an age of skepticism, his members share a new-found sense of hope, viewing what has happened as something of a modern-day miracle. And at a time of saving grace, his band of believers can further convince themselves they are worthy, too.

"I call King of Glory the church of rejects," said Sandra Davis, a church missionary who overcame a drug addiction and now fixes meals, cleans houses for the sick and delivers The Word to inmates. "A lot of us came from drugs, prostitution, alcoholism, physical abuse, mental abuse. Other churches looked down upon us because of where we came from.

"The Bible says, `I'll take the least, and make the most.' A lot of us should be dead, but through someone's prayers we were saved today. We have nothing else but Jesus, and we thank Him for his grace and mercy."

Having been at rock bottom is a common badge here. Now they are on their way up, saving every nickel and dime from pensions and low-wage checks for something they can cherish. A chance to develop their own school, their own nursery, their own community, their own freedom, doing what they believe is God's work.

But sacrifice is never easy. The church will need to come up with $1.5 million for the Renton campus. Considering there's never been enough money passed from the pews to pay Jackson a salary, where will it come from?

The pastor with the million-dollar faith believes his church will grow by appealing to a basic need: making the unwanted feel wanted. What money doesn't arrive in the collection plate will come from the church board's fund raising. If that falls short, well, that's where Jackson's belief kicks in again.

"We are paying for it with faith."

And, though Jackson didn't say it, perhaps on a wing and a prayer, too.

They'd given up on him

There was a time when money meant little to Craig Jackson.

Years ago, he was a hustler, selling $3,000 of dope a day in his native Denver. Late-night drinking turned into alcoholism.

Family members went days without hearing from him. And by the time Jackson reached his early twenties, they simply waited for a call from the morgue. They had given up on him - except for brother Garry, a Seattle lawyer.

Craig moved here, but Garry feared leaving him alone in the house: "He'd steal anything he could get his hands on." Once, Garry's wife told Craig she'd give him $100 if could go one day without drinking. He couldn't do it. He went back to the streets.

Two months later, in October 1981, Craig walked six blocks to church, wearing a stocking cap over his uncombed hair. He had been sleeping in a garage and said he was ready to change.

He became a faithful follower, rarely missing a Sunday. He became grounded in old-fashioned values, including fasting and reading scriptures. Working as a janitor, he married his wife, Turelane, nine months later, and eventually had three children.

His interest in preaching grew. Now he is studying for a bachelor's degree in religion at Seattle Pacific University. His wife, who runs a day-care center out of their home, has completed an MBA at Seattle University and is enrolled in a program managing not-for-profit organizations.

Neither he nor his wife has ever looked back.

Garry, in the meantime, opened a rib restaurant in Ballard, Ribbin's, in 1984. Craig managed it until it closed in 1992. By then, street-corner preaching had consumed Craig's interest. More children could be reached that way than through the 15 or so minimum-wage jobs he offered at the restaurant.

Since he began preaching full time, his church rose from the street to a storefront in Skyway; to a giant tent on Rainier Avenue South in Seattle; to a small church, rented and then purchased, on Beacon Hill.

All the while, Craig Jackson knew what he wanted. He had kept his eye on Renton Assembly, where his children attended school. He walked into the church office from time to time, reminding the pastor to call if the place were ever for sale.

At one point, Jackson laid his hands on the brick walls and prayed that he could hold church there someday. Twice he took members on a tour of the building. For 2 1/2 years he told them it would happen.

And finally it did.

In January, after the new church was built and church leaders had declined several unsolicited offers and decided against turning the site into a satellite campus, they kept their word. Was Jackson still interested?

"It wasn't our original intent to sell the place," said Jeff Davis, administrative pastor at Renton Assembly, who helped negotiate the deal. "But in getting a sense of his vision, we really came to the agreement that Craig's ministry could carry on a great work. His confidence and our belief in him was really a strong part of the process."

"Getting happy"

Less than a half hour into the service, well before the sermon is supposed to start, the congregation is `getting happy.'

"Put your hands together, and praise God!" Jackson bellows into the microphone, above the rhythmic melody of an organ, drums and guitar. The choir, swaying from side to side, their voices rising, bring the congregation to its feet.

An elderly woman, wearing a pink dress and white-brimmed hat, closes her eyes, holds her right hand in the air and fans herself with the other hand. A mother holding her baby boy against her chest swings gently to the music as he lies still. Tears stream down the face of another.

The spirit moves people in different ways, and at King of Glory, members do whatever feels good. Some shout, some wail, some dance out the joy or misery in their lives.

"This ministry is come-as-you-are," Jackson said later. "The church house is a place for help. If you have problems, come to church, and we will pray with you, tell you what they Bible says, love you and work with you. "

Listen to Manesbia Vasser. Three years ago, she was celebrating her 22-year-old son's birthday. She cooked dinner and baked a cake, then left him and other young family members on the porch while she went to rent a movie.

When she returned less than a half hour later she saw her youngest son flagging down a police car in front of her Seattle home. "They shot John," he told her. He was sprawled on the porch, hit twice in the chest and once in the jaw. She tried to make him breathe, but it was too late. Victim of a random drive-by shooting.

No medication soothes the pain of losing a child. Slowly she numbed herself with something that worked: drugs and alcohol. After sapping her funds, including her rent money, she was dumped on the streets.

For nearly 18 months, she shuttled from one shelter to the next. Then one day she saw a picture of herself, posing in front of church wearing her Sunday best. Her hat, dress and shoes - even her gloves - were beige.

She looked at herself in the mirror. Wearing ragged jeans, sweatshirt and tennis shoes, weighing 80 pounds lighter and holding a 22-ounce bottle of malt liquor, she cried.

She called Jackson, whom she had known for years, and asked for help. Together they found treatment for her ailments and a home of her own. Now she's back in church, in Jackson's church, feeling a thousand burdens lighter.

"I cannot get here enough because by the time I walk in, the spirit is in here," she said. "This is my support even when I'm sick or sad. I get up and shout it out. It feels good when I come here."

Cynthia Coston tried to ditch reality, too, after her daughter was shot to death. When a car ahead of them blocked the street with his car, she beeped the horn. A man fired a gun at the Costons. The stray bullet struck and killed her 9-year-old daughter, Loetta.

No one understood the agony of seeing her little girl dying, Cynthia believed, and nothing stopped the sorrow.

Finally, a friend invited her to Jackson's tent revival. A few months later, during a three-day period of fasting and praying, her nightmare ended. "It was the first time I actually didn't think about my daughter," she said. "It was so peaceful."

"God was the only way out."

Now she spends her free time ushering, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir and cooking meals. "Everything's going to be OK," she said.

Listening to The Word

It is Friday night, and 100 children of various school ages sit in church. They are taking a half-hour break from playing basketball, miniature golf and video games, from eating hamburgers, French fries and cake, to listen to The Word.

"Somebody say, more Jesus!," Jackson shouts to the crowd.

"More Jesus!" they yell.

"Jesus in the young people, Jesus in the old people, Jesus in the boys, Jesus in the girls!" he shouts.

This is called Friday Night Hangout, four hours of frolic at the church every other week. The kids hear about avoiding street life and the virtues of staying in school from a former high-school athlete who recently had gotten himself untangled. It is a joyful atmosphere.

"What brought me here is the fact you can play basketball without worrying about gang violence, or fights in the gym," said Dwight Bickham, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Washington, who joined the church last month after going to a Hangout. "People don't do that in a church. No cussing, a peaceful atmosphere, that's what I like about it."

Answering the call

Like the spirit that moves some to simply sit in their pews on Sunday mornings while others jump and shout, so it is with tragic news. The same teenage murder viewed with indifference by many spurs others to act. On another Saturday night along Rainier Avenue, Jackson answered the call.

"I want to minister outside of the four walls to bring people inside of the four walls," said Jackson, who hopes to one day drive vans to the projects, filling them up with young people who live there. "I feel the greatest commandment is to reach out of the congregation to the least, the last and the lost. That to me is the Gospel message.

"President Clinton likes to say we need 100,000 more policemen to patrol the streets and to reduce crime. I say we need 100,000 preachers with Bibles in the inner cities. The only thing that will stop the violence is salvation in Jesus Christ."

On this night, cruising by Rainier Vista, he stops at a bus shelter where six children, none of them appearing older than 15, loiter the time away. The two girls are smoking cigarettes.

"Will you take this Bible?" Jackson asks one of the girls, who says her name is Becky. She shakes her head and laughs, but Jackson keeps talking about prayer, grace and the Gospel. "As soon as you take it, it will bless your life."

"Take the Bible," her friend urges. She takes one herself, as do two of the boys, and lays one on Becky's lap. She shakes her head.

There's nothing good in the street, Jackson tells them, finally asking if he can pray. Becky bows her head but keeps her eyes open as Jackson prays for the youngsters and their families to be blessed. "Bless them right now, Lord, right now, in Jesus' name," he asks.

A few minutes later, as Jackson turns away, the children do, too. The boys in one direction, the girls in another. And in her left hand, Becky carries a Bible.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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