COLUMBIA — With her right arm extended toward the ceiling and her feet planted firmly, LaTonya Petrie looks like she’s about to lift off.
The 33-year-old's bellowing notes seem to come out of nowhere as the rest of her body stands as still as stone. Even her dizzying black-and-white polka-dot-patterned dress doesn’t manage to steal attention from the command of her voice.
“This is the day the Lord has made," she sang. "Let us rejoice and be glad.”
There’s a big presence up in front of the pews. On Petrie’s left, Jerell Vaughn keeps a determined rhythm on the Pearl drum set, and next to him is Steven Petrie, LaTonya Petrie’s brother, who plays smooth chords at a Roland keyboard.
It’s a family staff at God’s Creation Worship Center in Columbia. Eric Petrie, his wife and their adult children all participate in a ministry they said is nondenominational, nonprofit and managed by the Petrie family. About 30 people attend services each week, Eric Petrie said.
Eric Petrie said the church’s new location at Garth Avenue and Business Loop 70 will be beneficial in reaching out to Columbia youth, a cornerstone of the church’s mission. Petrie’s church has worked to help underprivileged youth in Columbia for the past seven months.
Eric Petrie said he thinks children are forced to solve problems they lack the skill sets to solve, particularly in what he calls the urban hip-hop culture. He said the family chose its new location in the First Ward because that's where it observed a deep-seated urban culture.
“We’ve been called to that area," Eric Petrie said. “God has a vision for the inner city. We would like to keep youth out of a troubled path, to get them an education and to see them make the jump from high school to the real world. And I don’t think people can do that unless the spiritual piece is in play.”
In his Sunday sermon, Eric Petrie said that living spiritually shouldn’t be a casual routine and that genuine enthusiasm about God spreads. Sharon Taylor, a praise leader in the church, said the Petrie family should be successful in its aim to reach urban youth because of the family’s dedication to the religious principles it preaches.
The Petrie family began its independent ministry 15 years ago in Fort Wayne, Ind. It then moved to Phoenix and Jefferson City before moving to Columbia earlier this year. Before setting up the church in its present location, the family ministered in the Hampton Inn & Suites near Stadium Boulevard.
Eric Petrie completed a five-year Bible study fellowship that he said was separate from seminary but provided what he calls a "comprehensive understanding of Scriptures." He is also a special education teacher with a master’s degree in education. He has taught at Hickman High School for the past four years.
The Petrie family rented a space within a shopping mall owned by Real Estate Management Inc. and put about $30,000 toward renovations. About a third of that was spent on equipment such as new drums, microphones, an organ and console mixing boards.
The Petrie Project is one of the ministry’s methods of youth outreach. Through son Steven Petrie’s business, Key Beats, children from the community are given the opportunity to produce professionally recorded songs.
The church has relied entirely on word of mouth or, as Petrie calls it, in reference to God, “his will, his bill,” and money offerings to sustain itself in the past. Several months ago, when the church was still housed at the Hampton Inn, a visitor at the church named TaShona Thompson mentioned the church to her friend Liz Welpman.
Today, Welpman and her youth ministry, The Blaze, are an integral part of the services at God’s Creation Worship Center. Her group brings in guest speakers for youth services and rap artists such as Contrast and One Life. The aim is to bring gospel to the streets rather than to conform people to traditional Christian structures.
“This ministry is geared toward inner-city youth as well,” Welpman said. “The bottom line is we want to see souls saved — it’s not about entertainment.”
Eric Petrie said there have been several success stories that exemplify the church’s goals for youth. He mentored Bernard Pollard, a strong safety for the Kansas City Chiefs. Pollard said he has known Eric Petrie all of his life.
“He’s just ... a real person. I was just a person that was caught up in worldly things. I truly believe God has sent him to be in my life,” Pollard said.
Eric Petrie lived near Pollard’s mom before Pollard was born, and the families grew close. Pollard has a troubled past but came out of it, Eric Petrie said. Pollard's mother, Regina, came to the family’s Fort Wayne church, Milestone Academy, in 1994 and asked if her son and daughter could get involved.
Bernard Pollard and his family are still members of the church and attend on Sundays during his off-season.
“A lot of people don’t understand that we’re in a recession,” Pollard said. “People struggle, and we at the church see that. We understand struggle, we understand all of this. Everything here is circled around wanting to help and do things for others.”
Eric Petrie said that while the recession hasn't affected his ministry, the church has set up a program to instruct 5- to 12-year-olds about money management. Children who attend the church and who participate in the program receive a set amount, often $20, and are taken to the mall to spend it. Children may buy food or a toy.
Many choose to give 10 percent of the money they are given to the church. The Petries stress the importance of tithes and offerings. The Petries help the children create a summary of their spending using their receipt so they see how they've managed their funds.
The emphasis on wise spending is one of the needs that has not been met for children in communities toward which the ministry is targeted, said Taylor, one of the praise leaders in the church.
“We believe we’re going to see more of these kids,” Taylor said. “If you start with them while they’re young, embedding practices, then you’ll see that when they’re older, people will gravitate toward that style and it will create that domino effect for others.”
At one point in the Sunday service, Eric Petrie shouted, “Can I get some help today?”. That elicited calls and shouts from the congregation. He said the moral fiber of the home has declined to a point where fathers don’t know their role in the household. But with a “heat-treated spirit,” Petrie said in reference to the Bible's account of Moses and the burning bush, the community could curb the decline in youth education.
The church has a benevolence fund of more than $2,000 that has gone toward people in need, Eric Petrie said. Members of the church also mentor youth in how to play musical instruments and sing. At 11 a.m. Aug. 15, God’s Creation Worship Center plans to give away 100 backpacks with school supplies to Columbia youth.
Through The Blaze, Eric Petrie and Welpman have organized children into groups with such titles as "trendsetters," "trailblazers" and "sunbeamers" in an effort to give them a path to follow depending on their age and relationship to Christ.
“We do plan to spend time helping our youth, especially the hip-hop culture, to find a place in the church and feel that they have a sense of belonging from that standpoint,” Eric Petrie said. “There’s been a big disconnect between the church and this hip-hop culture. A big disconnect. And we want to bridge that gap.”
He said he thinks the church is well-suited for this area because it preaches the love and acceptance that youth ministry demands.
“The older generation has regressed in setting the example and setting the precedent for them,” Eric Petrie said. “I feel that in many respects, the church has a tremendous responsibility to reach this generation.”