The Ellwood phenomenon

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 6, 2003

Something’s happening at 1705 Selma Ave., and it’s drawing a crowd. A very large crowd.

The building sits on a three-acre lot a bit east of the historic downtown district. It looks a bit like a grocery store, which it once was. But today it houses Ellwood Community Church, the fastest growing church, black or white, in the city of Selma. The church claims 1,500 members &045; up from a mere 40 a decade ago.

Why is this church growing in a town where the population has been slowly declining for years and there is no shortage of other churches?

The church’s vision statement appears on the wall of the entry foyer and in every Sunday bulletin: &uot;Through the teaching of God’s Word and through righteous and holy living, we will build a teaching and training center church to embrace the unsaved, the unchurched and the untaught. Providing wholesome fellowship where God is honored and worshiped, his Word is respected and all people, regardless of race, color or class, are valued.&uot;

The statement continues with words about equipping members for their own upbuilding, and that of their families, and for their ministries beyond the walls of the church. Also mentioned is a commitment to partnership with other ministries for the purpose of making an impact &uot;locally, nationally and internationally for the advancement of the kingdom of God.&uot;

It concludes: &uot;Through a focused commitment to the present and future generations we will assist in developing the leadership potential of each person so that they can take their place on their God-assigned destiny path.&uot;

A complex phenomenon

Ellwood is a complex phenomenon. At the heart of it is Pastor Gary Lamar Crum and his wife Alesia Ketton-Crum, known to church members as the First Lady. A picture of the two together is superimposed on the church’s seal appearing on the front of the weekly Sunday bulletin.

Crum, 36, has an expansive vision for what he wants his church to be and to do, and he has boundless energy. He has taken what was once a sleepy country church and transformed it into a 1,500-member urban center of churchly activity in the 10 years he has served as its pastor.

Crum is a native of Dallas County and principal of Southside High School, from which he graduated in 1986. He is also a lifetime member of Ellwood, originally located in nearby Tyler. Since 1991 he has served as a school administrator after a brief teaching stint.

Ellwood has three lively, well-attended worship services &045; two on Sunday morning and one on Wednesday evening &045; which together bring around 900 people to worship weekly, according to Crum. Worship is the center of the life of the church, and the preaching is at the center of worship. Crum preaches every Sunday, according to a member of his staff.

In church circles Ellwood is what’s known as a program church, with a vast array of programs and ministries seven days a week designed to meet a wide spectrum of interests. In Crum’s words, &uot;It is a church that never sleeps.&uot;

Ellwood has all the essential ingredients for growth: a dynamic leader with a vision and a powerful drive, lively worship services, numerous programs, and a good location on a major cross-town thoroughfare near the heart of the city. It fits the profile of churches nationwide that are growing.

And there are other vital elements:

It has abundant space for its worship and programs &045; 17,000 square feet of it in its leased facility that it hopes soon to purchase.

It has ample parking.

It provides transportation for churchgoers who need it.

It is a welcoming church. Visitors feel appreciated and are greeted

warmly.

Ellwood is predominantly African-American but expressly open to all. Crum reports that there are some white members and he hopes there will be more, reflecting the kingdom of God on Earth, as he put it.

Ellwood has put together an extensive staff &045; pastoral, administrative, music and child care,

only a few of whom are full-time. Those who are part-time frequently work extra hours and many have other jobs in the community. Clearly, such workers have a very high level of commitment to their pastor and church.

Beyond staff members are a number of officers and functionaries such as ministers, teachers, elders, deacons and deaconesses, trustees, who perform various internal and external ecclesiastical functions and ministries &045; all of whom are appointed by the minister and serve at his pleasure.

Life at Ellwood is not neatly compartmentalized or easily categorized, as with many more traditional churches. There’s very much a fluid quality to activities there. And all of it swirls around the vital center &045; Pastor Gary Lamar Crum, who somehow manages to be there every day, even with his full-time responsibilities as a high school principal.

Clifford Hunter is a former student of Crum’s at Keith High School in Orrville, where Crum began his career in public education in 1991. He serves as a personal assistant to Crum while holding down a full-time job. He explains the importance of Crum’s role to the church by saying, &uot;Gary is at the center, he’s the root of this great movement in people’s lives.&uot;

Why is Ellwood Community Church growing? Gary Crum would give the credit to the work of the Holy Spirit in his life and the lives of those who attend his church. But it’s clear

that Crum is the earthly key to what is happening at 1705 Selma Ave. in a former grocery store whose parking lot is full on any given Sunday morning.