Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Chad Belew, 35, looks like a certain segment of the Southtown population. In black skinny jeans, a black shirt, retro eyeglasses, and a full beard, he could easily blend in at any of the restaurants along South Alamo Street.
Instead, he stood on the auditorium stage at the KIPP Cevallos campus, talking passionately about the love of Jesus.
The worship service at The Arsenal is broadly appealing and non-denominational. The female-led band is polished and sings songs from Hillsong Worship, a popular praise music producer. The quality of the church's signage alone would make you think the congregation was more established than it is.
Curious churchgoers shouldn't worry about wearing the right thing to The Arsenal. The 50 to 70 worshippers that gathered wore a mix of T-shirts – some Banana Republic, some Harley Davidson – tennis shoes, khakis, button-down shirts, and everything in between. Some nodded politely as Belew preached, some spoke back to him in the call-and-response style of black traditions, saying things like, “Tell it!” and “That’s right!” Some sang quietly with arms crossed. Some lifted their hands and moved to the music.
Using Eugene Peterson’s contemporary vernacular translation of the Bible, The Message, Belew worked through Chapter 3 of Ephesians verse by verse.
He read Ephesians 3:9, in which Paul, the writer of Ephesians, says, “And so here I am, preaching and writing about these things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ.”
Here Belew got personal. “I feel a lot like Paul,” he said. It was only his second week as pastor of The Arsenal. Since it started meeting at KIPP in January, the church was led by a team of elders – laypeople in charge of guiding the evangelical church. Belew was ministering to the youth and young adults. The elders commissioned Belew as lead pastor in April.
The Arsenal is the rebirth of another congregation called 210 Church that dissolved last year. The staff members then took a few months to regroup and pray about where they would land.
“We said, ‘Let’s step back and see what God is doing,'” Belew told the Rivard Report. “Southtown just kept popping up.”
Even as new churches appear regularly in midtown and established churches carry on downtown, Southtown has been a bit of a puzzle for pastors trying to determine where to plant a church. In addition to the lack of affordable real estate, the area is culturally far removed from “church row,” as Belew calls the northern arch of Loop 1604 where non-denominational megachurches such as Community Bible Church, Cornerstone Church, and Oak Hills Church thrive.
Lavaca and King William, two high-profile Southtown neighborhoods, have a reputation for being politically liberal and longtime havens for the LGBTQIA community. Both neighborhoods are attractive to Millennials, a generation leaving the church in in large numbers. From a demographic standpoint, the area doesn’t play to many of the church’s strengths. In fact, it hits right in the weak spots.
But Belew loves the area for that very reason. The father of three spent six years in the United States Army as a human intelligence collector, running sources in Iraq and Afghanistan for 12 to 15 months at a time. When he left the armed services, he opened a Texas Motorcycle Warehouse. He also attended The Art Institutes to learn graphic design, which he used in business.
His personal history has given him a real appreciation for different kinds of people, all of whom he believes need God’s love. Since God knows no target demographics, that’s where The Arsenal decided to start. It wants to find ways to “love on” and serve the people of Southtown, not as a way to get name recognition, but as the entire endeavor of the church, Belew said.
“We teach a message that’s very freeing," Belew said. "It’s very grace-based.”
Another challenge will be the area's economic disparity. The boutiques and eateries of the King William Arts District tell one story, but the percentage of low-income students in the area’s public schools tells another. Belew is determined to show God's love to all.
While meeting for regular Bible study with some men at the Halcyon coffee bar, Belew ran into Will Parker, the theater teacher at KIPP University Prep. Parker connected Belew to the Mennonite congregation assisting with the influx of migrant women and children released from Dilley and Karnes City detention facilities with little warning. While helping with that effort, Belew asked Parker if KIPP would consider leasing space to the church for Sunday worship. Within a week, Belew was meeting with KIPP staff to discuss the lease. By January, The Arsenal was meeting on campus.
The church is committed to being more than just a tenant at KIPP. Its members see themselves as a pool of active volunteers for the school. So far they have participated in the Spring Fest carnival and are planning a cleanup on the KIPP property. As the school considers opening a food pantry, the church has been invited into the discussion to consider how it could participate.
“They’ve been the most welcoming staff and school we’ve ever dealt with,” Belew said.
That spirit of participation, serving as a pool of resources for the community, informed the church’s name. “Arsenal,” in addition to referring to one of Southtown's street names, means “an array of resources available for a certain purpose.”
For Belew, that purpose is God’s kingdom. He doesn’t see The Arsenal as a unique or ultimate institution.
“We aren’t looking to build the Arsenal brand,” he said. He sees it as an arm of God’s mission to love people. “I believe The Arsenal serves a purpose, but we’re not the only ones.”
The Arsenal plans to participate in the many things already going on in Southtown, leaving room for people to ask questions, find healing, and receive love.
“The new testament church was part of a community," Below said. "It affects that community. It loves that community. It gives back to that community.”
The Arsenal’s leadership deliberately chose to leave the word “church” out of its name. There’s no doubt or denial that it is a church, but Belew felt that the term was loaded for many people. Rather than using a term that conjures images of the ways the church fails people, the leadership of The Arsenal want people to experience the best of what churches were intended to be.
“You don’t wear a shirt around that says ‘human,’” Belew said. "It is just what you are, and people know that by interacting with you."
The 10:30 am Sunday worship at KIPP is an opportunity to celebrate and learn about Jesus, but most of The Arsenal’s activity will focus on informal opportunities for the questions and conversations that inevitably arise around the teachings of the Bible and people's past experience of the church.
Those conversations will be the litmus test for The Arsenal's relationship to its community. They will reveal whether the evangelical church's meager presence in Southtown (compared to the Northside) is primarily cultural, or whether it is something more fundamental. At its heart, The Arsenal is committed to an evangelical expression of the Christian faith, with all of its awkwardness in a pluralistic society. Sooner or later come the hard questions about the nature of the Christian faith, and its implications for the life of the believer.
The Arsenal, according to Belew, is ready to meet those questions with grace and love.