'Some of the things occuring...are... just beyond belief.'
—Pastor Semaj Vanzant
Musicians from eight churches unite as choir and orchestra for a benefit concert, "Christ at Christmas," on Dec. 14 at OKC-Christ Church (now The Christ Experience). Anderson Harrison III is the church’s music director.
Photos by Holly McCray
By Holly McCray
For an urban Oklahoma City church, New Year’s bestowed a new name, clearly a sign of the new life emerging at The Christ Experience (formerly Christ UMC).
People supply the best evidence.
High-spirited contemporary worship draws about 80 on Sundays. Quarterly events attract crowds to the multi-ethnic church a few blocks from the state Capitol. Attendance at tent revivals has topped 500. An afterschool program, Studio 222 East, has exceeded expectations, with 30 children enrolled and parents interacting, too. In December, a joy-filled holiday concert featured musicians from eight churches.
In mid-2011, Semaj Vanzant counted 30 people in worship at Christ UMC and toured the aging building, 40,000 square feet. The clergyman from Brooklyn-Philadelphia-Houston-New Orleans was asked to relocate to Oklahoma City. He declined.
Then he had his first sleepless night.
"I have always been able to sleep. But this time, after I said no, I really could not sleep," Rev. Vanzant recalled recently.
"I felt the Lord leading me to come here."
But Oklahoma City "is a much different setting than where I’ve ever been," he said. His premature baby son had just been released from the hospital. His wife needed only two more college classes to graduate. Their closest family members lived in Houston.
"I wrestled with it all night."
The next morning, his wife spoke up. Maybe they should consider moving.
On Christmas Day 2011, Vanzant preached his first sermon as the new pastor for the Oklahoma City church. That service marked its rebirth as a mission congregation, the official terminology.
"I’m here on assignment by God, which is why some of the things occurring have occurred, things that are just blowing people’s minds, just beyond belief," the pastor said. "I’m casting vision everywhere, and people are funding that."
As well as more people, he sees new energy, higher morale, and spiritual growth. Generous people give money for needed projects, then offer to help more. A sister relationship with OKC-St. Luke’s is treasured and fruitful.
Linda Truitt, a deacon, served at St. Luke’s prior to her appointment as associate pastor at The Christ Experience. When she took up her post, before Vanzant, the Helping Hands program impressed her. The small number of worshippers fed about 200 people twice monthly.
"They couldn’t take care of their building, but they cared enough about their community to try to do something," Rev. Truitt said. Some core people "really stepped up" when the church restarted. "I see their faith and their dedication to this church, and it inspires me."
Vanzant agreed. "They were saying, ‘We may be diminishing, but we’re not dead.’"
Alive and growing are words they use now.
The Christ Experience is envisioned as a place to experience 1) love, 2) belonging, 3) transformation, 4) the joys of connecting, and 5) potential fulfilled.
"Think about the context of where this church is in this urban place," Vanzant said. "I think every city has a forgotten place."
Within a 1-mile radius from the church, the population density is 8,500 people, mostly African-American. Yet the geography includes Capitol grounds and the OU Medical Center, billion-dollar operations.
In the church neighborhood, "you’ll find people who are lonely, by themselves, family members in the penal system and foster system. It’s easy for people in this community to think nobody cares," Vanzant said, "and some people don’t know what it really means to be connected to somebody in a way that is authentic.
"I feel a special calling in ministry to those particular people, who are in need of hope and optimism in the midst of despair, dilapidation, and dereliction.
"We don’t want anybody to just accept what society or stereotypes may say they are, but to embrace the fullness of who God has created them to be. We can bring a ministry that can be a spark of hope to them. That’s what this church is going to focus on."