ANTWERP — Lecelle D. Providence is used to challenges.
She was raised in a run-down part of Queens, where drug-dealing, alcohol abuse and profanity infect the lives of youth. But through hard work she earned a college basketball scholarship, and used her education for a career in sales and marketing, eventually living in Atlanta.
Her next challenge returned her to Queens, to raise her nephew and three nieces when her sister died in 2003. Back in familiar surroundings, Ms. Providence started a fitness club for at-risk youth.
Now the 46-year-old, who moved with her family to Gouverneur in May, is taking on an ambitious new role: she was hired in November as a part-time minister for Antwerp United Methodist Church, which has closed its doors for the past year because of low attendance. Her assignment is to bring the church back to life, recruiting youth and families to make the church a nucleus in the community again.
When her 18-year-old niece, Kayla A. Providence, received a scholarship to enroll in the preveterinary medicine program at SUNY Canton, the Rev. Ms. Providence bought a town house in Gouverneur during the summer and transplanted her family there, where her 17-year-old nephew and 12-year-old niece attend Gouverneur Central School. She also has a 25-year-old niece who lives in Manhattan.
“I’m on a mission here,” said the Rev. Ms. Providence, who gave her first sermon at the Antwerp church Dec. 13. “I believe I’ve been sent by God to restore this church. I want it to be a lighthouse in the community.”
That mission already has started. On Thursday at the church, there were sounds of hammers rapping and saws buzzing near the entrance. Two church volunteers were busy building wooden frames for two bathrooms. A 60-inch flat-screen television has been ordered to be used in the sanctuary for praise and worship Sunday mornings, and to host family movie nights on Fridays. The Rev. Ms. Providence also has begun recruiting volunteers to start a praise band and choir. And the gymnasium at Antwerp Primary School, which neighbors the church, will host a youth program on Sundays after services.
Busy working Thursday was Ivan D. Filiatrault, 77, who has attended the church since his youth. The passion the Rev. Ms. Providence brings to her job, he said, is exactly what the church needs to increase its membership. In the past, the congregation has included mostly older adults.
“We’re going to get young people in the community involved, because there’s not much for them to do here,” he said. “As a church you get kind of stuck in your ways over the years, but this year is going to be altogether different with her in charge. She’s the extra spark plug we needed.”
The Rev. Ms. Providence said her motivation for success started as a young girl often shooting hoops at the neighborhood basketball court. Though tempted by peer pressure, she followed the principles instilled by her mother, who took her to church every Sunday.
“After school I would leave my apartment building, jump over the fence and walk across the street to the court to play basketball,” she said. Boys in the neighborhood found her hard to beat in one-on-one games.
“They would ring our doorbell all the time to play with me,” she said.
As the only girl in the neighborhood who played, she earned respect among older men who protected her from the dangers of gang culture. “If they were cursing, or getting ready to drink and do drugs, guys would stand up and say that I didn’t do that. I didn’t have to do that to be accepted,” she said.
She went on to become a three-sport athlete at Jamaica High School, excelling in volleyball, track and basketball. She shined during her senior year for her basketball team by shattering rebounding and scoring records, which earned her a scholarship in 1984 to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. After her freshman year, she transferred to play basketball as a scholarship athlete at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, where she was the top rebounder on the team.
After graduating cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in communications in 1988, she spent several years working for marketing and sales companies. She found her true calling in 1995 in Atlanta, where she became the director of a sports clinic. While there, she started innovative sports and exercise programs for troubled youths, and also became an ordained minister at New Covenant Metropolitan Baptist Church.
“I worked with troubled rich kids from the area who couldn’t make sports teams and fit in with their peers,” she said.
She brought her training program back to Queens in 2004, launching a nonprofit sports training business called I.M.P.A.C. (Intense, Motivational, Positive, Aggressive, Competitive) Performance Inc. She started a Sunday basketball league at two middle schools in Queens, providing an outlet for disadvantaged youth to turn their lives around. Time for prayers and Bible reading is included in the training.
“Many of them were in trouble with drug dealers, and I would convince them to get off the drugs and find a school to play basketball,” she said. During her career, “I felt like a scientist trying to find a formula, but I knew this was my niche.”
Transitioning from Queens to life in the north country, the Rev. Ms. Providence plans to find outlets for her athletic training to complement her ministry. In November, she started a fitness group for women at Gouverneur Recreation Center. And as she did at middle schools in Queens, she hopes to transform Antwerp Primary School into a hub for youth after church services on Sunday afternoons.
“Her energy and enthusiasm is huge,” said church member Wanda J. Daniels. “I see her bringing ideas, and I think attendance within four to six months will really grow.”
Those interested in volunteer opportunities at Antwerp United Methodist Church can call the Rev. Ms. Providence at 917-399-1921. Visit www.impacperformance.org for information about her training program.