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A Christian Stronghold East Central Church Is A Temple Of Peace And Devotion In A Neighborhood Wracked By Gang And Drug Violence

Thu., March 5, 1998

On a good Sunday, the music can be heard all the way down the block.

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder …

Neighbors say they’re comforted by the mighty voices and jangly tambourines rolling from the Zion Temple Church of God in Christ. It’s a relief, says one woman who lives a half-block away, after some of the other things the neighborhood has witnessed in recent weeks.

The East Central church sits at the end of a block already touched twice by violence this year.

The church’s 50 parishioners are used to praying. But lately, says the Rev. Luis Solomon, “Oh, there’s been a lot of praying.”

Two fatal shootings have cast a shadow on the 2500 block of East Pacific Avenue. On Jan. 14, Curtis Ricky Jones, 19, was shot to death in what police said was a gang-related killing. Jones had a record of drug trafficking.

Just five weeks later, residents at the opposite end of the block awoke to sirens when 38-year-old Samuel F. McNeal was shot and killed in a brick house across from the church.

Neighbors said police had recently raided the home for drugs.

“There was a sadness,” said church member Loraine Shipp. “I know the pastor’d tried to witness to them, but they hadn’t responded. They had an opportunity to make a change, and they didn’t take advantage of that.”

Solomon said he had tried for months to reach the people in the brick home.

“We have invited the people to come here so they could avoid some of that stuff,” he said. “They know they’re welcome here. It says it right on the front door.”

Solomon, himself an East Central resident for nearly 50 years, sees a community that’s shaken, but he says the church remains steady.

“It hasn’t had no effect at all,” he said. “We’re just here praising the Lord and living our lives.”

Solomon said he’s saddened the community is getting an increasingly bad rap from a few people causing prostitution and drug problems. East Central’s greatest strength, he said, is actually its stability.

“Some of these people, they’ve been here for years,” he said. “They’re not going nowhere.

“They don’t want to see things destroyed here.”

Scott Blyer lives just two houses from where the second murder happened. He said the neighborhood has become a mix of longtime residents and troublemaking newcomers.

“On our side of the block, the houses are well-kept and well-maintained,” he said. “You go down a block, and it goes to hell.

“It’s getting so I actually hate to say I live in this part of town.”

Church member Chris Shipp, who lives on Fairchild Air Force Base, said he was warned by several friends on the base when he chose this church.

“I was told this was one of the roughest parts of town,” he said. “In fact, people told me to be careful if I brought my family here.

“But I feel completely safe.”

Even so, parishioner Tonya Duke, a five-year member of the church, said she’s seen things worsen in recent months. The activity around the neighborhood reminded her of her home in Los Angeles, which she left after the 1992 riots.

“(In L.A.) I could drive by a gas station, then drive by again 15 minutes later and it would be on fire,” she said. “All I could ever see in my rearview was black smoke. I needed some peace.”

Duke thought she’d find it in Spokane. Until recently, she, her husband and their five children lived in the same Pacific Avenue apartment building where Jones’ body was found in January.

They moved to another East Central home a month before the murder because of increased crime in the neighborhood.

“I wouldn’t ever let my kids go outside,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe letting them out.

“That peace I was looking for, it was leaving this neighborhood.”

Duke said she saw prostitutes and “gangbangers” walking the same streets where her children played.

While she has moved her family, Duke said she’d never considered moving to a church in a less trouble-ridden neighborhood.

“The spirit of God is here,” she said. “(Rev. Solomon) not only looks out for our spiritual well-being, he looks out for everything else. He’s really like a father.”

Solomon says not a week goes by when he’s not asked by a neighbor - church member or not - for help with rent or putting some food on the table.

The church kitchen is stockpiled with cans of clam chowder and vegetables for those who need it, and the congregation tithings are often spent helping East Central neighbors with bills or transportation problems.

The church holds services throughout the week, trying to reach struggling community members.

“We teach against drugs, against fighting,” said Solomon. “Our role here is to get people to accept Christ.

“A lot of the tragedies that are happening here wouldn’t happen if they did that.”

Some of Solomon’s own children have had criminal problems in the past.

“Some have a hard time, and that’s how it is,” he said. “We all just have to keep on going and ask the Lord to stay with us.”

Last Friday was the final night of a three-day revival to do just that. It kept the church blazing warm and packed late into the nights.

Revivals, Solomon said, renew hope.

“For whatever’s wrong with you, this is the time to get it right,” he said.

The front lobby closet was stuffed with shoulder-to-shoulder coats. The church brimmed with singing as the congregation’s youngest members bounced popcornlike on the church’s red carpet aisles.

The drums could be heard up and down a block where residents say they’ve seen enough violence.

“The community here - the people here - they want peace,” Solomon said. “They expect that.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)

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