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EATON, CHOIR LIVEN UP BAPTIST COMMUNITY FEST

SHARE EATON, CHOIR LIVEN UP BAPTIST COMMUNITY FEST

Youthful faces look into the setting sun as they sing about salvation. The members of the South County Baptist Church Youth Choir have traveled many miles from their homes in St. Louis to share both their faith in God and their time with the Glendale community in Salt Lake.

Thursday night, they join Glendale Baptist Church and the Baptist Concern Center to present a gift to the neighborhood - a free carnival with ring tosses, a dunking machine, a candy walk, darts and a fishing booth. There's cotton candy and hot dogs and bags and bags of potato chips.There's also a very special guest: Jazz player Mark Eaton. Many of the children literally reach his knees. But they are rapt as his hands, so often seen clutching a basketball, fold themselves around a worn green book. His Bible. In a quiet voice, he begins to read the passages from Proverbs he believes have impact on youthful lives.

This night, he doesn't stand before the young crowd to talk of basketball. Rather, he speaks of the road he took to the NBA and his guide on that road: Jesus Christ.

"Jesus Christ and my relationship with him are the only reason I'm playing in the NBA and the only reason I'm here today," he says.

Eaton tells of his background - his father was a diesel mechanic and his mother a homemaker. It was a happy home, he says, and his family attended church together.

He was not a good athlete in high school. He spent those days on the bench. After he graduated from high school he went to a trade school and became an auto mechanic. Along the way he made ends meet with three jobs, including a graveyard shift at Jack-in-the-Box. At one time, he was out of work and on food stamps.

Through it all, he prayed.

When he made the decision to try out for professional basketball, Eaton says he didn't have a lot of hope. It was a long shot.

He was a fourth-round pick. And he has joined only a handful of players in the NBA who have spent a number of years with the same ball team.

"It is my belief in the Lord and hard work that have seen me through," he says.

"That's the point of all the scriptures. There's a free gift out there waiting for you. Eternal life. You cannot earn it. It is the gift of God."

When he's finished speaking, he walks through the crowd, shaking hands. Finally he stays with a small crowd. Two teenage boys want to talk basketball. They have dreams and he listens patiently. But he offers a word of caution: "Sometimes it's a cold business."

They talk about the draft, the trades, the game in general. But when they're through, Eaton brings the subject full circle.

"Did you understand what I was saying (about Jesus Christ)?" he asks.

The carnival is the first of its kind for the small church, located at 1235 W. California Ave. It is sponsored by the church and the Baptist Concern Center, located in the same building.

The center is open Monday through Wednesday from 9 a.m to 4 p.m. and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There, staffers operate a food pantry and provide infant and family support services, including parenting classes. A couple of nurses teach classes and the Rev. Steve Scudder, who has a master of social work degree, offers counseling. There are classes for elementary-age children and even a ceramics session.

But more and more, the center is becoming a place where kids gather.

"Kids are so bored in the summer that they'll even vacuum," laughs Jennifer Singleton, a missionary who has been assigned to the church for the past 18 months.

Thursday's party won't be the last, the Rev. Scudder says. "We thought a community carnival would be a good way to get people together to say this is a good place to live. And the willingness of Mark Eaton to be here was a special treat."