It was a hot July morning, and the Reverend Robert Woolfolk mopped at the sweat that beaded on his dark brown face with a white handkerchief. With his other hand, he grasped the thick rope that hung from the ceiling just inside the oak doors of the church and pulled.

At first nothing much happened. His hand and the rope simply rose slowly back toward the ceiling, as though in a tug-of-war with God. Then, from the high steeple that pointed like a finger out of the red brick sanctuary, a bell tolled, as it has for more than a hundred years.

From the northwest corner of 25th and California, the sound rolled out across the Five Points neighborhood, an area teetering between surrender and revival, past carefully renovated homes that stand next to dilapidated Victorian houses of peeling paint and boarded-up windows. The bell called out to the winos swapping lies beneath the trees in Sonny Lawson Park and to the knots of young black men watching the streets for signs of danger and to the young girls who carried babies on their hips.

It's Sunday, the bell said. Come, join us. Within these walls you may find peace. But few heeded the call. Those who did were mostly women and children, often grandmothers watching over their grandchildren.

Woolfolk finished ringing the bell and stepped inside the sanctuary to begin the worship service at Agape Christian Church. He was always a little nervous at this moment. Representing the Lord was a big responsibility, and he wanted to say the right things.

He looked out into the church. It was a beautiful old building. Cracks showed in the structure, but the century-old polished wood beams from Germany still arched to the paneled ceiling. The pine floors had been refinished and the places worn beyond repair by the passing of thousands of feet covered with new burgundy carpet. The air was cool and filled with soft, golden light coming through the stained-glass windows once destroyed by a mob.

Above the pulpit a banner proclaimed, "Perfect love casts out all fear"; another on the wall urged the congregation to "Love one another." Both admonitions would challenge the patience of Job in a neighborhood under siege from gangs, dope and despair.

"Agape is Greek for 'God's love for man,'" Woolfolk explained. He smiled and moved through those gathered in the aisle, waiting to take their seats in the original carved-oak pews. "Welcome, brother." "Welcome, sister." "Glad you could be with us this morning." "Praise the Lord." By the time he reached the pulpit, there were about forty people in the congregation, only four of them men under forty.

The sanctuary was less than half full. But filling the pews every Sunday is less important to Woolfolk than the real work the church does the rest of the week.

Agape is a poor church that serves poor people, most of whom don't attend the worship services. It has no choir, just a few female worshipers who offer a special song each week and a congregation that on cue from Woolfolk jumps into Songs of Zion like the Second Coming was right around the corner. The background music is provided by a formerly homeless man whom the church rescued from the streets and sent to community college to study composition.

The collection plate takes in a fraction of the money collected at the city's larger black churches, like Zion Baptist, Macedonia Baptist and A.M.E Shorter, which number their congregations in the thousands. Yet pound for pound, penny for penny, none of those churches can claim to do more for the black community than Agape. There's the employment service run out of the former parsonage next door, now renamed the Community Outreach Center. The food bank on Fridays; the hot meals on Saturday. The tutoring programs for the young. Heath services for the elderly. Drug and alcohol counseling for the desperate.

This Sunday Woolfolk handed out donation envelopes for those wishing to help rebuild black churches burned in the South. "We are Christians only," he said, "but we are not the only Christians." Agape's good works, though, are most needed closer to home.

The pastor had only to look at the fresh-scrubbed faces of the twenty or so children in the pews, then tick off the reasons their parents were not in attendance, to know that was true. Drugs. Murder. Poverty. Prison. He didn't need a foundation-sponsored survey to tell him that eight out of every ten children who attended his church on Sunday or visited one of the church-sponsored programs during the week didn't have fathers in their homes.

It was his mission, one for which he had given up a comfortable middle-class existence, to retrofit these children with values they didn't get at home, and to give them an alternative to dead-end streets. Much of his hope of accomplishing this rested on the shoulders of the few young men in the congregation. Especially one who now, part-way through that morning's service, knelt to receive Woolfolk's blessing at the prayer railing in front of the altar, surrounded by children he had brought in from the neighborhood.

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Steve Jackson