The southwest Houston neighborhood of Alief ranks among the highest nationwide for prostitution, and crime is high. The community lacks resources — both money and mentors — yet it’s the very place God has called The West Church to minister, propelled by Jesus’ encounter in Samaria recorded in John 4.
“A lot of people drive around the neighborhood in order to get to other places, but we sensed the Lord was calling us to not go around it but go toward it,” Ayo Omopariola, pastor of The West Church, said.
Omopariola was born in Nigeria and has lived in the U.S. since he was five. He and his wife, Amaechi, were part of a church plant years ago and remember it as a formative, “wonderful” time, he said.
While he was serving as a church planting resident at City Church in Houston, God stirred his heart about Alief.
“The Lord started a work within our hearts to want to see that part of the city be transformed by the gospel,” Omopariola said.
The West Church started meeting on Zoom for monthly prayer calls during the pandemic. Each person on the call would share a verse, and the group would pray. After about eight months, they started interacting in the community, mainly asking people questions. The core group wanted to learn how people in Alief viewed church.
‘Already been doing’
“God has been at work in this community for a very, very long time,” Omopariola said, “so we weren’t starting a new work. We wanted to find out what the Lord had already been doing.”
Despite the difficulty of the neighborhood, some groups had been working faithfully to reach it for years. They allowed The West Church to use their facilities, and they met Omopariola for coffee to answer questions.
The church hosted a vision meeting at a stadium in Alief in July 2021, and then they launched a Bible study that slowly picked up attenders. In January of this year, they launched at Best Elementary School in Houston with about 25 people. Now they have about 115.
“Outreach is such an integral part of what we do,” Omopariola said. “We’ve been able to build a lot of relationships with people in the community.”
The West Church has in a way adopted Best Elementary, the pastor said, ministering to the faculty, staff and students. Church members have been mentoring students, building bridges which lead to reaching families.
After about five months of ministering at the school, The West Church received an award of appreciation from Best Elementary, Omopariola said.
The church also partners with The Landing, an anti-trafficking organization in the neighborhood.
“They’ve been one of our biggest advocates in the community, and a lot of our missional outreach is in large part due to the relationship we have with them,” he said.
West Groups, the small group ministry at The West Church, has been “a source of life and community,” the pastor said. “We’ve been so impacted not only by what the Lord has been doing in the church but also outside of it.”
Being like Jesus
So why has John 4 become the missional thrust of the church?
Omopariola says it is because Jesus viewed it as a divine necessity to enter a place so many avoided. Samaria, like Alief, was a place with so many difficulties, yet Jesus engaged in a theological conversation with a woman there in order to show His care for all people.
“She isn’t ashamed or even talked down to, but she’s encouraged to want to live a different life, and as a result of that, she becomes one of the greatest evangelists in the New Testament because after her interaction with Jesus she goes back to her community and tells them, ‘Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done,’” Omopariola said.
Alief is a community that has been neglected by most, but The West Church is striving to “bring the love and light of Christ into the community and be able to point people toward hope,” the pastor said.
“Our church is slowly starting to resemble the diversity that is around us,” Omopariola said. “It’s going to be a long process, but we want to see the reality of John 4 in our church.”
So far the response from people in the community has been positive toward the church, the pastor said, particularly because they sense church members are authentic about what they believe and how they practice those beliefs. “Surprisingly, they want more of it.”
For churches that want to reach out to hard communities, Omopariola advises developing a strong prayer strategy first.
“The needs are so great, and you feel overwhelmed all the time,” he said, “like there’s no way one single individual or one church or organization is going to be able to solve all the problems.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Erin Roach and originally published by the Southern Baptist Texan.