Church Planting in a Trailer Park: An Interview with Phil Fletcher
“Why doesn’t someone plant a church in a mobile home park?” One noted theologian (https://twitter.com/drantbradley) has often made this challenge to evangelical leaders and denominations that tend to focus their attention on the inner-city and “reaching” blacks.
But we found a church planter who started a church in a low-income white community–a mobile home park–in Conway, Arkansas. And the church planter is black. His name is Phil Fletcher and we had a chance to ask him a few questions about his church plant, The Church at Oakwood, and the non-profit he started.
Brother, Fletcher. Tell us about yourself. Your conversion, family, education and ministry experience.
I grew up in a two-parent household in Louisville, Kentucky and moved to California when I was ten. I grew up in the Episcopal tradition and attended a Catholic school during the week. That period of my life was simply going to church because you were supposed to. At the same I was exposed to this other tradition–Catholicism–and there were both many differences and similarities to Episcopalianism.
Once I graduated from high school, I attended the University of California Riverside and pursued a degree in African-American Studies. My college career was marked by zero desire for Christ, the Scriptures, or his Church. During my senior year, I started attending a Church of God in Christ Church because I was trying to date this woman, Nicolle, who would later become my wife. During that time, I was exposed to the gospel and was converted in 1997 on Easter Sunday.
I can remember like it was five minutes ago, sitting in the third row, seventh seat, my eyes were opened! From that point forward I poured my energy into the Scriptures, became a youth pastor and was ordained. I enlisted in the military in 2000 and two years later became a combat officer. During my time in the military, I completed my Masters of Arts in Theology and Apologetics and volunteered a lot of time assisting chaplains and preaching from time to time.
When I redeployed from Iraq in 2006, I pursued an opportunity to become a military chaplain, which brought my family to Conway, Arkansas the next year. It was here in Arkansas that God brought together all my experiences to accomplish our current work in low-income areas with the gospel.
Why did you decide to plant a church, The Church at Oakwood, in a mobile home park?
My plan in the beginning was not to plant a church. I discerned a call to go into this trailer park and simply preach the gospel. Over time, people from within the community and in the surrounding city started to hear about the “trailer park pastor.” As things were beginning to pick up, I discerned the need for some accountability and met two men who are now my close friends–Kevin Hale (a PCA pastor here in town) and Cary Cox (pastoring a Reformed Charismatic congregation).
In those early years, we would meet together to discuss how things were going in the churches and how to pray for one another. Going on seven years, we have been blessed to plant two additional churches in trailer parks with the hope of another congregation in the next two to three years.
We are diverse groups, meeting outside during the majority of the year. Our gathering is very participative and we have men who put forward strong gospel preaching. I enjoy seeing and hearing the stories of the women digging deep into the word and seeing the gospel effects.
In 2012, I was blessed to pass the pastoral duties to others and now I focus on strengthening the local churches and look to establish new expressions among the poor. It is a privilege and joy to see young people I have discipled become strong in the Lord’s gospel and serve the Church he purchased.
How did the local residents respond? Was race or culture and issue?
Honestly, race has not been an issue with local residents within our trailer park communities. Resident response always varies because it is unfamiliar to see a local church meet in a trailer or under a tree. Yet as time went on and as we strengthened relationships through a continual presence, the local church became a natural rhythm within the communities.
I am constantly encouraging others and my own heart to celebrate our ethnic distinctions and to rejoice in the God who created variety because it is through that variety God pursues his glory. My calling to the poor and poverty does not discriminate. Therefore, I want to see local expressions of the Church within their contexts.
Bonhoeffer, Piper, MLK, and Kuyper have been very influential in my understanding of how to engage multiple ethnic groups within poverty situations. When I read how Christ created within himself one new man because of the cross, it fuels me to look beyond the skin and love the soul made in the image of God.
What is City of Hope Outreach and how is it connected to the church?
The City of Hope Outreach (CoHO) is a 501c3 nonprofit I launched in 2009 as a response to many of the social needs I was observing. The mission is to promote holistic renewal in under resourced communities with a gospel foundation. The focus of the nonprofit is education, homelessness, and community building. We offer a CoHO Academy, which educates children and offers English as a Second Language for adults.
Our Hope Community Center offers laundry facilities and an emergency shelter. The emergency shelter was a response to the need to provide immediate shelter for the homeless because no such facility in our city exists. Our connection to the church involves employing some church members and working with the local churches inside and outside the trailer parks to engage locally with as much zeal as they do overseas. My goal is to mobilize the local church to engage in the lives of the poor on a very relational level beyond the occasional service project.
What have you learned from ministering to low-income whites?
I have learned that their struggles and sins are no different than any other ethnic group. Low-income whites want to have a better life for themselves and their children. Some of my closest friends within the community do not look like me, but the time spent with them and listening to their lives has secured a level of respect that allows me opportunities to speak the Word of life to them. I desire for the poor–regardless of their ethnicity–to see, hear, and experience the power of the Gospel across every aspect of their lives.
How might more works like The Church at Oakwood and City of Hope Outreach get started?
I have implemented a strategy in which the nonprofit plows the ground into new communities and then works to see new local churches established right behind the nonprofit work. I have found this approach relieves some burden so that church planters can focus on understanding the spiritual issues confronting people in the community.
I would encourage a brother wanting to engage in low-income areas to begin with simply being present, building friendships and from there a strong understanding of the context will develop. If someone wants more in depth mentoring on this, I am more than willing to listen and advise.
How can people support your ministry?
People can visit our church website: churchatoakwood.com (http://www.churchatoakwood.com/) and the nonprofit website: cityhopeoutreach.com (http://cityhopeoutreach.com/) to learn more about what we seek to accomplish in the city of Conway.