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Turning wheels of opportunity for true believers in a better Buffalo

One of Buffalo’s foremost political and religious leaders launched a new push for employment and economic opportunity on Easter Sunday – complete with a unique job fair and an “Opportunity Bus” – but apparently learned that many of the jobless either weren’t interested or aren’t churchgoers.

Preaching amid the singing and the dancing before his capacity flock at Kleinhans Music Hall, Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, senior pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, emphasized the importance of personal responsibility and empowering people when they’re struggling by helping them find jobs.

Interviewed before the service, he said the key is to “motivate a few thousand people into taking advantage of every advantage that is out there.” He then chided the audience about “the way we spend money, and waste money, and waste opportunity.”

“One of the complaints that I constantly hear on the East Side and in the inner city is the lack of opportunity,” said Pridgen, who represents the Ellicott District on the Council. “I don’t think that there’s a lack of opportunity. I think that there’s a lack of connection to opportunity.”

So, based on the past success of the church’s mobile food truck and clothing van, he unveiled a new multicolored Winnebago stocked with computers and Internet access, which will bring job-hunting services to Buffalo neighborhoods in need.

“The church has left the building,” he shouted to the faithful, echoing a theme that is emblazoned on the new van and on black T-shirts that were being sold in the lobby. “We are no longer interested in just doing things in the building.”

Pridgen also brought representatives from the Police Department, the Buffalo Employment & Training Center, the state Labor Department, an employment agency and the carpenters union to staff information tables and take job applications before, during and after the religious service.

“Because if I help them when they’re broken, they’ll come back when they’re not. You gotta help people when they’re struggling,” Pridgen said of the first-ever job fair during his Easter service, an annual nontraditional extravaganza that packs Kleinhans. “If you are unemployed or underemployed, I brought people who are going to connect you, because nobody is going to do for you like you are going to do for you.”

Yet only a small fraction of the large crowd stopped at the tables, and only a few people looked at the new Opportunity Bus, parked just outside the building. Kleinhans, which seats more than 2,800 on two levels, was nearly packed for the service.

Jamella Holmes, 31, of Buffalo, stopped at the Police Department table to get an application for her sister, a practical care aide who is interested in police or correctional officer jobs. She said holding the job fair with the church service, particularly one staffed by members of the African-American community, makes it more comfortable for the congregants to come up. “It’s definitely beneficial for the community in general,” she said.

Tracey Todd, 28, of Buffalo, already employed as a manager at People Inc. but interested in “more of a career,” sought out both the Police Department and BETC tables to see what was available in law enforcement and manufacturing. “It’s an opportunity to network and see things you may never even thought of trying,” she said.

That’s just what Demone A. Smith, director of the BETC and a former Council member from the Masten District, wanted to hear as he sat at the table, answering questions from people who didn’t know what they wanted to do, or who had criminal convictions or whose kids needed jobs.

“I’m glad I spent my Easter Sunday here helping people. It’s a good cause,” he said. “We try to make sure people are ready to work. We had a lot of people coming and talking.”

Pridgen is known for his highly choreographed and creative services, as well as his economic-development efforts on the East Side. His church opened a Subway restaurant on-site more than a decade ago, followed by additional locations, and was even featured on an episode of the television show “Undercover Boss.”

Last year, Pridgen kicked off the church’s new food truck, which has since provided more than 5,000 meals, and also launched a new clothing bus, which has given out hats, gloves and shoes “when the temperatures were below 5,” he said.

The new Opportunity Bus carries 10 Dell desktop computers and a copier-printer, on two long counters on either side of the carpeted van. True Bethel is paying for the Internet service, gas and insurance, so the cost to anyone using the bus is “zero,” Pridgen said.

Rather, he said, it’s all part of his dual roles as pastor and Council member “in connecting people to jobs and opportunities in the City of Buffalo.”

“We have to continue to push the revitalization that we have seen in downtown Buffalo, the West Side of Buffalo, to all parts of Buffalo,” he explained. “Today is another effort to do that.”

The service itself featured musical and dance pageantry, including a mime performance, an orchestra, and a choir of about 70 people onstage. The full sound system carried their voices throughout the main auditorium, as congregants alternatively sang along, danced or swayed in their seats, clapped and cheered.

And Pridgen’s guest speaker, four-time Grammy-winning music producer and now reality TV star “Stevie J” Jordan, acknowledged his past failings as a father of five before taking a seat at the keyboard to close out the service.

Jordan, 43, a Utica native and son of a gospel singer, grew up in Rochester and then spent five years honing his musical skills in Buffalo. He said he has worked with artists such as Sean “Puffy” Combs, Jay Z, Mariah Carey, Sting, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin. The albums he has produced have sold more than 120 million copies. He’s now starring in the “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” spinoff “Stevie J & Joseline: Go Hollywood” on VH1, and is working on a movie.

“He knows what it is to struggle and work hard,” Pridgen said. “So today’s message is not one of just hope, but is one of help yourselves before waiting on others to help you.”