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June 2012
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Pastor prays neighborhood will stay safe

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

The view from the front door of Christ Apostolic Temple Church looks peaceful enough. A couple of young men ride by on bicycles; another does yard work on the opposite side of North 12th Street. The neighborhood hardly resembles one that would be featured in a newspaper series called "Mean streets."

But the church's pastor, Anthony Walton, has a collection of such articles. Looking over the photocopied stories he obtained through the city of Paducah, Walton says the calm the neighborhood enjoys today is close to a miracle - a miracle, he believes, that may soon be threatened.

The neighborhood near North 12th and Harrison streets was once notorious for its drug trafficking and other crime, prompting the police department and city to target it for cleanup efforts in the late 1990s, according to Sun files.

So when Walton and his wife Deborah first started commuting to the area from Nashville in 1998, he had his doubts about the prospect of building a congregation there. He still remembers the day someone threw a whiskey bottle through the church's window.

"I wondered at first, 'Lord, are you sure?'" he recalled, laughing. "But what better place for a church to be: smack dab in the middle of chaos."

Walton and his family relocated to Paducah in 2005. Through street services delivered via loudspeaker and other community outreach efforts, the church's congregation tripled, outgrowing its original space, Walton said. Its new 347-seat sanctuary opened adjacent to its first location about two years ago, The church continues to offer programs to support the community, from marriage counseling to help for addicts and ex-offenders attempting to re-enter society. He dreams of expanding the church's reach to lots across the street, where he'd like to build low-income apartments.

"Maybe 70 percent of our members have backgrounds as dealers or addicts that have been transformed, and that has been the show of God," Walton said.

But Walton frets that the reopening of a restaurant across the street will bring a criminal element back to the neighborhood. Having spent time in prison himself - he was arrested for armed robbery in 1984 - Walton knows how difficult it is to turn one's life around. And the last thing addicts need, he added, is to look across the street from the church and see drug deals in progress.

"I don't want to hurt business," Walton said, "but I'm concerned about what could hurt what God has done."

The business Walton refers to is Happy's Chili Parlor, a family-owned restaurant with a community presence dating to 1929. The bright orange building that houses the business sits across the street from the church.

Many news reports cite Happy's as the landmark nearest to drug-related arrests. But about as many mention the efforts of Happy's proprietors to do good in the community through free cookouts and other family-friendly events.

Eugene Thomas, Jr., who hopes to return from California to reopen the restaurant this July, says he doesn't see how his business could be a problem.

Thomas, 58, grew up on the 1100 block of Martin Luther King Drive, a stone's throw away from his family's restaurant. His father, Eugene "Happy" Thomas, was shot and killed in the neighborhood in 1998, so the last thing he wants to do is promote crime, he said.

"It probably inspired me the most to try to change things around," Thomas said of his father's death. "(The restaurant) is a blessing to people. They've got somewhere they can go now. (We can) offer jobs."

He said business owners can only do so much to deter crime near their establishments.

"Have good quality product, good quality service and don't tolerate the nonsense. You can do your best, but that's where I go downtown to talk to the police chief and local officials," Thomas said.

Thomas said he left town for California in October of 2006, but treks to Paducah every year to cook at Barbecue on the River. Other family members tried to run the restaurant, but it proved more than they could handle on their own, Thomas said. As the oldest son, he feels it's his duty to carry on the family tradition and to bring business back to the neighborhood.

"Now I'm the right age to really be effective. I've gained a lot more experience. I can be more help to people in the community," Thomas said. "It's in my blood."

He said the family has been hard at work to bring the restaurant up to code so it can once again offer its chili dogs, fresh ground beef burgers, barbecue and other delicacies to the community.

Much as Walton believes God has blessed the church, Thomas believes God has blessed his business. He says he'll do whatever he can to help Christ Apostolic Temple, pointing out that when that whiskey bottle flew through their window, the folks at Happy's were the ones who helped fix it.

Christ Apostolic Temple congregation member Michael Miller, 44, agrees that the church has helped transform the neighborhood.

"Since the pastor's been here ... God has blessed this whole street, this whole block," Miller said. "I really love this church, and it shows love back to its members."

But Miller doesn't feel as threatened at the prospect of crime returning to the neighborhood. He says the people who aren't coming to church are the ones God wants the most.

"God's going to be everywhere," Miller said.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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