By various government measurements of crime and poverty, Helena-West Helena might be considered the least desirable place to live in Arkansas. But Qwashun “Qway” Duvall thinks it’s a city of vast ministry opportunities.
In 2019, Duvall took over as pastor of a congregation that had dwindled to eight members. The revitalized Hope Church in West Helena now is attracting an average of 70 people on Sundays.
Although more than three-fourths of the city’s residents are African American, Duvall says about 60% of adherents are white. Several interracial families attend the church. That’s likely no coincidence, given that Duvall is Black and his wife, Mikala, is white. Although Mikala is a full-time virtual public school teacher, she keeps busy as a church volunteer. Mikala, a fourth-generation Assemblies of God believer, has helped develop the kid’s ministry, nursery, and sound and media teams at the church.
The two cities consolidated in 2006 in an effort way to gain more economic leverage. However, the combined population of Helena-West Helena has plummeted by more than a third since the turn of the century, to 9,519.
By any violent crime statistic — robbery, burglary, larceny, murder — Helena-West Helena exceeds the overall Arkansas and U.S. per-capita rates. Like many rural America shrinking cities, job opportunities have dried up and opioid temptations have moved in. The poverty rate in the city is 42.5%.
Duvall, who grew up in Hot Springs, had never been to church until invited to Lake Hamilton AG by a friend at the age of 16. After serving as youth pastor at Unity Church in Magnolia for 3½ years, Duvall accepted an AG Arkansas District invitation to pastor Hope Church. Hope Church is in a parent-affiliated relationship with First Assembly North Little Rock.
“A lot of people here are in poverty and frustrated with their living situation and the way the town looks,” says Duvall, 30. “We hope to be an aide in our community and lead people to the Lord.”
In July, Leroy “Lee” Kitchen joined the Hope Church staff as associate pastor, overseeing kid’s ministry and youth ministry. He says he lived in a rough part of Little Rock for 15 years.
“Coming to West Helena wasn’t a stretch for me,” says Kitchen, 36. “I’m comfortable coming to an area that is crime-ridden with a lot of poverty.”
Although raised in church, Kitchen says he lost his way for 3½ years in early adulthood.
“I was living in sin — fornicating, getting drunk, going to strip clubs,” Kitchen recalls. “I never planned to go back to church.”
But largely to brush up on his language skills as a Spanish interpreter, one night he wandered into revival services at Centro Cristiano, an inner-city Hispanic church in Little Rock. The encounter changed the course of his life. He humbled himself, expressed true repentance, and committed to serve Jesus. John 10:10 is his inspirational verse.
“Jesus came to give us life more abundantly,” says Kitchen, who also ministers through rap music. “Jesus doesn’t want us to live a life of lacking, of poverty, of just getting by, of emotional distress.”
Kitchen went on to obtain a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Assemblies of God University.
“Broken people are coming to Hope Church and having their lives transformed,” says Kitchen, who helps oversee the newly implemented Celebrate Recovery program at the church.
Kitchen’s wife, Akaya, is the only ordained African-American woman minister in the Arkansas AG. Although she has no official role at Hope Church, she teaches a Wednesday night prayer service and oversees the hospitality team. She previously served with her husband on staff at Trinity Assembly of God in Little Rock.
Akaya says the rural Arkansas Delta is a challenging place to minister.
“It’s isolated and impoverished,” says Akaya, 35. “Many residents feel hopeless.”
Akaya, who has a master’s in communication from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says when she tries to strike up conversations with local residents, they often question why on earth she decided to move to the area. She responds with a motto of parent church First NLR: every soul matters to God.
“Any time Lee and I are out in the community — at Walmart, at a restaurant, at a flea market — we let people know God loves them,” she says. “We invite them to church, whether they are young or old, Black or white.”
Rod K. Loy, lead pastor of parent church First NLR, is optimistic about the possibilities at Hope Church.
“When we started talking about the Delta region of Arkansas with our district leadership, they identified Helena-West Helena as the most difficult place in the state to plant or revitalize a church,” says Loy. “We pray that Hope Church will be a church planting church — reaching out in the Delta.”
Loy, who has been First NLR lead pastor for two decades, in recent years has been a promoter of racial reconciliation.
Three of the four ordained African-American ministers in the Arkansas AG — all ordained in May 2020 — are part of Hope Church. Willie R. Gordon, pastor of Forrest Park Assembly of God in Pine Bluff, became the first ordained African American minister in the AG Arkansas District in 2017.
Akaya says recently installed Arkansas District Superintendent Ronnie S. Morris wants to be more intentional about ethnic diversity among AG leaders.
“Ronnie Morris has been warm and welcoming,” she says. “I’ve felt completely embraced.”
Bottom Photo: Akaya and Lee Kitchen are reaching out to residents of the Delta community.