A local church became one of Missouri’s biggest free meal providers, with $29M from taxpayers

And during the COVID-19 pandemic, Influence Church launched and operated what in a matter of months became one of the largest U.S. Department of Agriculture child nutrition meal distribution operations in Missouri.

Pastor Darnell West/Facebook

An approaching helicopter quickly drowned out the chatter of parents and their children enjoying a warm Sunday morning on the grounds of an unassuming church along Interstate 55.

The Bell 407 chopper descended to the church’s parking lot near Meramec Bottom Road in south St. Louis County, landing just beyond the crowd. Out climbed the Rev. Darnell West, who made his way to a side entrance of the church, where one of his three congregations was waiting.

It was a week before Halloween, so West spoke of death and eternity to the more than 100 people gathered inside the dimly lit sanctuary. At one point, the 42-year-old West mentioned his own north St. Louis roots, saying he had been born into a drug and gang culture.

“Jesus,” West proclaimed as his message approached its crescendo, “saved my life.”

He left before the service was over, heading back outside where the waiting helicopter, pilot ready, flew him to Influence Church’s Bellefontaine Neighbors campus in north St. Louis County, nearly 30 miles away.

A throng of parents and children remained, milling outside the church’s doors on the parking lot. Signs advertising a free helicopter candy drop had been dotted throughout the region and widely advertised on social media. Soon, a second, smaller helicopter arrived, delivering the promised candy for the Halloween season.

It’s a competitive marketplace for congregants, and West’s showmanship has helped him grow Influence Church to three locations — at one point it had five — since it was founded under the name Church In Action in 2005.

West arrives by helicopter weekly, something he said he has done since 2015 to travel between campuses. He has a personal security detail. His sermons are broadcast on local television stations. The church has purchased billboard space along busy Interstate 55.

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