Ministry takes different shapes at Tree of Life Missionary Baptist Church. Under the leadership of Pastor Marcus Murchinson, the Watts congregation goes beyond the church walls to provide services to benefit the local community.
Through partnerships with area nonprofits combined with grant funding, the church uses its facilities to offer a youth feeding program, substance abuse treatment, a nurse managed clinic, transitional housing, and reentry classes for formerly incarcerated individuals. Professional staff manages all of the programs, which are free to the public.
According to Murchinson, the outreach programs operate under Tree of Life’s community development corporation, Watts Up. The multi-prong goal is to transform outcomes for the people of Watts, change outside opinions and provide spiritual and tangible services to the community.
“We want to help revitalize Watts and to really make it the epicenter that it once was. I remember all of these stereotypes about Watts, the bad things said about it. So I started driving around and I saw the needs of the community and where we could put our fingerprints,” he explained.
“I teach our congregation that we cannot only do ministry in the building. We can only do worship. Ministry takes place after the benediction and we leave the four walls. Now, you can do ministry and I don’t believe that you have to re-create ministry. You just have to identify where the needs are. That in itself becomes ministry and that is what Jesus was so good at,” said Murchinson, who has served at Tree of Life since 2014.
Referring to his approach as “church unusual,” Murchinson said he uses the ministry of Christ as his role model to develop and implement community programs, collaborations and activities. “A lot of Jesus’ ministry was done outside the church, not within the institution,” he said. And while Murchinson insisted that he will never compromise the message of the Gospel, he is adamant that the presentation of the Word requires flexibility.
One reason for his philosophy is the fact that the demographics of Watts have changed from African American to predominately Latino. As a result, Tree of Life was becoming a commuter church where members worshipped, but failed to serve the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods. Aiming to change the situation, Murchinson embarked on creating outlets to enhance the quality of life for all of the people of Watts.
“We partnered with a Hispanic church and we worship one Sunday a month together. They also have services in our building on other Sundays at 4 p.m. and midweek services, too,” said Murchinson. “We need that cohesiveness if we are going to be effective and reach the masses. We have to blend together. We must bring unity like Christ did. He was unity in division.”
On July 12, Tree of Life launched its Teen Club where young people can meet each Friday to dance and socialize. Also, once a month, the church parking lot will be converted into a roller rink for youth.
“There is nowhere in Watts for young people who live here to do anything in Watts. There is no skating rink, no movie theaters or a mall. So we are going to provide a place for young people to come on Fridays and have fun,” he said.
Also, plans are underway to open another youth-focused program to educate students who are at risk of being expelled from other schools. Through a partnership with L.A. Unified and other agencies, Watts Up CDC will manage a charter high school and also recruit Tree of Life members as volunteer mentors.
“We plan to match each child with one of our senior sages. Many of these children have never had a grandparent because they live in the foster care system or with a guardian and they have never had a nuclear family,” noted Murchinson. “We will try to partner them with someone that can be like a grandmother, big brother, friend or confidant for them. That is ministry.”
The “innovative ministry” team includes nonprofits such as Canon Human Services, a facility located across from Tree of Life that provides residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment. Dr. Richard Harrison serves as the executive director and Watasha Huff is the program manager.
The National University Nurse-Managed Clinic is located in the Tree of Life edifice. Staffed by Dr. Angela Williams and Ariana Peralta, medical secretary, the clinic performs free services ranging from physical examinations and behavioral health screenings to vision and hearing testing, women’s health assessments and social services referrals. It is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dad’s Back, a program of Friends Outside in Los Angeles County that is also housed on the church’s campus, conducts classes in Parenting/Responsible Fatherhood, Job Readiness/Parole to Payroll, Healthy Relationships/Healthy Marriage and Financial Literacy. Murchinson said, “It is a 30-day program that teaches formerly incarcerated people how to transition back into society and the participants receive a stipend for coming to help themselves.”
As part of its re-entry services, Watts Up recently opened a transitional house in South L.A. with separate sections for men and women. The property contains 10 bedrooms that sleep two-to-three persons per room, six bathrooms, two laundry rooms, and an exercise area. Nutritious meals are provided along with transportation.
“We were blessed to have grant funding to pay for these programs and providers. Since all of our programs come from grants, all of the services are free to the community and we serve everybody, no matter what color or background,” Murchinson said.
“Innovative ministry is our church’s goal and we want to support the community, not just spiritually, but on all levels.”
Tree of Life Missionary Baptist Church is located at 9702 Holmes Ave., in Los Angeles. To learn more about the church’s programs, call (323) 566-1202 or visit treeoflife-mbc.org.