The first time David P. Godbout met Miss Essie, she whipped out a large kitchen knife from her bag, demonstrating her preparedness for whatever or whoever met her on the streets of inner-city St. Louis. Essie is 78 years old and battling cancer.
“Miss Essie is a mover,” says Godbout, a U.S. missionary with Church Mobilization. “She knows everything and everyone in the neighborhood, and they know her.”
Today, Godbout and Essie are fast friends, and he regularly prays and speaks into her life, and those of her adult sons.
Blessed with a humorous, disarming demeanor, Godbout and his wife, Sherri (a nurse), have lived in the St. Louis Chippewa community since 2008.
In an area wracked by gang activity, murder, addiction, and racial divisions, their goal is to foster Christ-like relationships that begin to heal painful divides and bring stability.
In 2007, Godbout says a question took form in his mind and wouldn’t let go: What would an inner-city neighborhood look like if the kingdom of God became a significant influence within its boundaries? He quickly sensed a simple reply from the Lord: Move to St. Louis and spend the next 25 years in one neighborhood. Then you will have your answer.
Within months, the Godbouts resigned their position as Masters Commission directors at Sheffield Family Life Center in Kansas City, Missouri, and trekked across the state to St. Louis. Today, they run Novation Church, operating as a neighborhood-based community center that opens itself to “people who have a dream.”
“The road we traveled before landing here has given us the staying power that is necessary to plant a gospel presence in a context that ranks difficult on the spectrums of sustainability and receptivity,” Godbout says. “The people of our community live with little or no hope, without any understanding that there is even such a thing as hope. Most have no thought of changing things for the future.”
In their tenure in St. Louis, David has led more funerals for people under the age of 25 than for those over it. “That is just unnatural,” he says.
Because of their enduring presence, the Godbouts are trusted with such fragile situations and are welcomed into an impressive array of communities, including Black, immigrants and refugees, homeless, young professionals and artists (who are on the front lines of a bit of a renaissance in part of the Godbouts’ neighborhood), the LGBTQIA+ community, and law enforcement.
“Racial and other boundaries dissolve with time and Jesus’ love,” David says. “Residents are looking for people who will keep their word. They can sense manipulation the second it starts.”
DIGNITY OF HELPING OTHERS
The Godbouts believe strongly that every human being possesses the need to be needed, and the ability to serve. In their ministry, they labor to impart to each person what they call the “dignity of helping others.”
One practical example of this concept combined with their desire to foster healthy friendships is their organization of a basketball playoff. The unique event gives prizes and features teams comprised of firefighters, police officers, and young men from the community, allowing each to contribute to the experiences of others. In a community where distrust of law enforcement runs deep, this is extraordinary.
“We all need the dignity of helping others,” Godbout says. “And the metric by which we must measure Kingdom advancement in our context has little to do with the number of people that pray a salvation prayer, or who gather in church on a Sunday. Rather, it is measured by the number of authentic relationships we can cultivate and the spiritual conversations we are privileged to have. It’s about moving the needle of gospel understanding and acceptance.”
The Godbouts believe their community is filled with people who, though they live in hopelessness, still love each other, help each other, and watch over each other as best they can.
“But without the gospel, there is no foundation upon which true life may be built,” Godbout says. “Something in their hearts tells them that the Bible is true.”
The Godbouts encountered such yearning hearts among a group of Indian immigrant men. All Hindi speakers, the 20 Hindu men barely spoke a word of English when the Godbouts met them through their food and resource distribution network about nine months ago.
In a divinely orchestrated convergence of events, Godbout met several Hindi speaking individuals with hearts for ministry while preaching at West County Assembly of God (WCAG), a church in the St. Louis metro area with a strong contingent of Indian families. While most Indians at the church speak Telugu, a small number of Hindi-speaking people call WCAG their home.
In partnership with a few of these Hindi-speaking Christians, a weekly meeting has developed in the Godbouts’ neighborhood, which includes a meal, a few Christian worship songs sung in Hindi, and a discussion about the Christian God and the Christian Book (the Bible).
Godbout has learned his colors and numbers in Hindi, goes to cricket matches with men, eats with them.
“This is my first time trying to cross these kinds of lines,” Godbout says. “I am very open with these friends about my goal.”
LIVING, FORGIVING, PRESSING ON
Godbout recalls moments of failure on many levels over their years in St. Louis. The most significant involved the time he forgot a father/daughter event he committed to attend with a young woman, Tiffany, who had become like a daughter to him and Sherri.
Tiffany and her son were virtually homeless (sleeping on friends’ couches) when the Godbouts met her, having moved to St. Louis to get out of a violent situation. She eventually came to faith in Jesus, and the Godbouts worked to help her find safe and clean housing, obtain her high school diploma, and earn an associate of arts degree at the local community college.
The night of the father/daughter event, Tiffany called 90 minutes after Godbout had planned to pick her up.
“She was all dressed up, and she was crying,” Godbout remembers. “I apologized for failing her.”
Over time, Tiffany forgave Godbout, continuing to walk in fellowship with God and with the Godbouts, learning about her value and how to process emotions healthily. Then, in October 2021, her 19-year-old son died in a shooting.
Recently, the faith community held a memorial birthday party on the weekend of the teen’s first birthday since he died.
“Family and friends gathered to celebrate his life and to grieve with his mom,” Godbout says.