Urban MBC congregation truly ‘Set Free’
By Brian Koonce
February 21, 2006
KANSAS CITY – Fritz Cobb isn’t the average pastor.
There’s the long, blond hair, the tangle of greenish-black tattoos on his arms and don’t forget the prison record. Then again Set Free, the downtown Kansas City church where Cobb is assistant pastor, isn’t exactly the average Missouri Baptist church.
On a cold, clear January morning, even before the sun rises, more than 170 homeless people from around downtown Kansas City have showed up at the historic church building at the corner of Ninth and Harrison for the 7 a.m. service.
Sure, many are there waiting patiently (some impatiently) for the free biscuits and gravy that will follow the sermon, but many have Bibles open and listen intently as Assistant Pastor Reggie Carter preaches, wearing a Set Free cap and chewing his gum. It’s a message out of Job, a message of keeping faith no matter the circumstances that may surround you.
One man, a latecomer who sneaks into a back pew, leans over during the sermon and asks, “Is that preacher boy chewin’ gum? That’s unusual.”
But the scriptural message from the pulpit is not.
Set Free meets in what was originally called Calvary Baptist, a church built in the 1870s. In 1948 it was renamed Temple Baptist. Since August of 2004, the once-fashionable church has been the home of Set Free, cracked stained glass windows and all.
Set Free Church feeds hundreds of people each week, gives clothes to the homeless and meets their physical needs. More importantly, they preach the Gospel. In its first year, Set Free baptized 60 people.
“Yeah, they’ll come for the food but we give them Jesus prior to the food,” Cobb said.
For those not familiar with this area of Kansas City, it isn’t the “best” part of town. When the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) media technician, Chris Rhodes, asked Cobb to turn down a police scanner so it wouldn’t interfere with a video interview, Cobb replied, “This is Ninth and Harrison – we live by the scanner.”
Cobb isn’t kidding.
Within the last month, a body – riddled with bullets in a car – showed up in the parking lot. The result, Cobb said, of a drug deal gone bad. Within the past four months, there have been four murders in the area. It gives new meaning to the phrase, “frontline ministry.”
“There are times that I thank God for these two-foot-thick concrete walls,” he said.
Not that that stops Set Free’s ministry. A main focus of the church is what they call “the Ranch,” a 60-day residence discipleship program that makes use of donated duplexes. The first two weeks are limited to the Ranch and no phone calls are allowed. “Phase 2” is 30 days of service at and for the church with a little more freedom. The next two weeks is spent either continuing to minister with the church, or looking for a job outside.
“It’s not an easy program,” Cobb said. “We’re not dictators and we’re not a cult, but we are going to drive a lot of Jesus into them to show them that Jesus is a better way of life. It’s a no-nonsense ministry: beans and rice and a lot of Jesus Christ.”
Despite not being easy, Set Free’s Ranch can be an attractive alternative to living on the streets for two months surrounded by drugs, namely crack cocaine.
“Crack and alcoholism are our main problems here,” Cobb said. “These people have burned so many bridges, they don’t even have real families anymore. Folks come here looking for a quick fix. They think if they can just get a job, that will get them what they need. But that doesn’t always work. You can’t come here and be cured in two weeks, go back to your family and everything be warm and fuzzy. But without Jesus in your life to make a real change, all the rest of it is insignificant. Until they find Jesus, there won’t be a cure. They’ll fall right back down as soon as they leave the Ranch. All we can do is put a Band-Aid on a shotgun wound. Only Jesus can heal the shotgun wound.”
Though you won’t find “Baptist” on the sign outside, the church subscribes to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and is a member of the MBC and Blue River-Kansas City Association. After breakfast, in the 9 a.m. service, Carter begins preaching out of Revelation, urging the churchgoers to dive into theological puzzles even the most “usual” or “normal” Southern Baptist church may be reluctant to tackle.
“God forgive me if I step on some toes here, but we’re doing what other churches want to do, but are either scared or won’t do,” he said. “The reason we work so well here is that we come from them. We are them. That’s what you’ve got people like us for.”
Cobb is indeed “them.” He has been through the Ranch – several times in fact – in his native California where Set Free began as a biker and prison ministry. That’s where he was saved in 2002, after years of drug abuse and 23 years in prisons. Because of this and his life experience, he is particularly well equipped to minister in an area many would fear to go.
“I did the Betty Ford thing a few times,” he said. “It didn’t work. Nothing worked. Finally my boss told me I could go to the Ranch, or I didn’t have a job. There I found Jesus. That worked. Like me, people are going to mess up. They’re not going to be perfect, but God forgives. By the grace of God, I finally picked myself up and was able to move on.”
Despite growth and a booming ministry, Set Free Church has encountered problems of its own. On the fire marshal’s orders the balcony had to be closed and they’ve had to discontinue housing people in the church at night.
“But where the fire marshal closes a door,” Cobb said,” God opens another one. A better one.”
Cobb said churches around the state can be a part of those new open doors.
“Find me a building in East St. Louis, and we’ll start another Set Free.”
Set Free is also always on the lookout for financial assistance.
“We have some serious financial output,” Cobb said. “Gas alone for the Ranch alone runs over $1,000 a month, not including other utilities, food or toilet paper. If you can’t give much money, just give us some toilet paper. Whatever your family needs, we need it too.”