Amid the massive protests surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Michael Brown and other African Americans, a predominantly black group has been quietly spreading the hope Christ on the scene: the Church of God in Christ International Department of Evangelism.
“When we go out, we don’t get involved in political sides. That’s not our assignment,” IDOE President Elijah Hankerson, 48, told The Christian Post. “When we show up, the message is simple: Christ and Him crucified.”
COGIC, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States with 5 million adherents nationally, has become a major force for winning souls after Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake in 2013 tapped Hankerson to transform a department largely focused on credentialing itinerant evangelists. Today, 12,000 volunteers join in a multifaceted ministry with arms dedicated to students, responding to natural disasters, bringing the Lord into tense confrontations, and training believers to witness.
The first major event for the IDOE under Hankerson was ministry in Ferguson, Missouri, not far from the church he pastors. He wanted to calm the highly emotional faceoff between police and the black community.
“I told our people, ‘You’re not there to be interviewed on TV, you’re not there to protest, you’re there to win souls,’” Hankerson said. “We would purposely avoid the press, which some might consider a mistake, but it’s a catch-22: Yes, some people outside may not know what we’re doing, but talking can get us off track.”
After several days witnessing one-on-one to those on both sides, Hankerson decided instead of asking people to church, his team would take church to them. Outfitting a trailer with instruments and a microphone, they took off down West Florissant Avenue, which police were keeping clear. When officers heard the flatbed band playing “Jesus Is on the Main Line” and saw Christ was the focus, they let the trailer roll slowly down the street, gathering a crowd.
Bishop Hankerson preached the Gospel and an interracial group of 150 accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. A reporter asked him how the atmosphere so quickly changed from anger to celebration but moved on quickly when he replied, “That’s Jesus, ma’am.”
“Civic and social tragedies rip a hole in the fabric of a person and their soul,” IDOE Rapid Response Ministry Vice Chairwoman Sophia Strother explained to CP in discussing efforts at the Floyd protests in Minneapolis. “To see someone die affects us on a surface level, but when we see the torture and murder of someone, it rips our fabric because it could have been us.”
Strother, 40, once a victim of human trafficking, helped start the Rapid Response Ministry in the summer of 2017 with Hurricane Harvey, the new wing’s first disaster call. There was a single father with two boys rescued as their house in Beaumont, Texas, went underwater. Rapid Response volunteers brought them food and clothing, took up a collection to replace belongings, and found them housing at a boys’ school 200 miles away. The three both heard about the love of Jesus and saw it on display.
IDOE’s Rapid Response cooperates with other organizations so volunteers can witness as well as work. Red Cross is a key partner, enlisting the COGIC team to assist at the El Paso and Dayton shootings, West Coast fires and Orlando Pulse nightclub mass murder, among other tragedies. Ten in the families of the Orlando dead prayed with team members to receive Christ. Red Cross is also training the group in mental health techniques to aid those affected by COVID-19.
The Evangelism Department’s latest report showed over 113,000 “lives changed” through salvations, rededications or other decisions for Christ in calendar year 2018. The department usually meets, worships and updates regularly at in-person regional and global meetings, but with COVID-19, it’s gone online with an evangelism summit, training series, and even a revival. Hankerson is highly involved in social media, a plus in overcoming separation brought on by the virus.
The Evangelism Department increasingly is targeting youth for salvation and leadership. The Rev. Andy Beaugard, 39, helped develop the college ministry at Sanctuary of Praise COGIC in Springfield, Missouri. Drawing on several universities in town, student ranks grew rapidly. Bishop Hankerson, seeing online the ministry’s success, telephoned Beaugard in 2016 to see if he would be willing to develop a denomination-wide collegiate division.
COGIC College Campus Ministries now has 70 chapters, all led by students, who reported 737 decisions for Christ last year. Beaugard said chapters often are highly interracial; for example, Clemson University is led by an African American, but the other dozen or so members are Caucasian.
“A lot of it is taking time to spend on campus, not necessarily to minister but show that I’m interested in them,” he told CP. “You have to be strategic with them. If they think you’re just lurking, trying to get numbers for the pews, they’ll shy away.” He said he often goes to students’ ballgames and performances to support them.
Hankerson said that approach helps with older people, too: “Ask about the person, their life, their interests. Don’t be so quick to get to the next person; listen to who you’re talking to. Don’t be thinking, ‘Hurry up, be quiet, pray the sinner’s prayer.’”