ANTIOCH -- The Bible refers to the Syrian city of Antioch as the place where Christ's followers received God's grace and were first called Christians.
Thousands of years later, a group of early-rising worshipers meets at City Park each Saturday morning and prays for divine guidance for the biblical city's struggling East Contra Costa namesake, which has been ravaged in recent years by crime, foreclosures and growing poverty.
A group of men of various ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, but united in faith, has gathered at sharply 7:30 a.m. every Saturday for the past year -- some holding oft-used Bibles while a few carry metal thermoses of coffee or Styrofoam cups. The men, usually numbering 25 to 40, share handshakes or hugs in the parking lot as they make their way toward a corner of the park, gathering in a circle and one by one asking for strength to overcome the tribulations afflicting the city and surrounding area, as well as in their own lives.
"Help us Lord. Help us lift up your name in this city. Help us lift up your name in this county," said Adam Valenzuela, pastor of Victory Outreach in Antioch, during the May 25 meeting. "Lead us and cause us to be faithful as we stand in the gap to prevent drugs, prevent gang strife and what other sins may entangle (others.)"
Added Anthony Grose of Antioch's Golden Hills Community Church: "We're not just here for ourselves but for our city and its leaders. We're not on a cruise ship but on the battleship."
Along with praying for city leaders, the group seeks God's help for local preachers and those ministering to youths entangled in gangs, drugs and prostitution, particularly in crime-ridden areas such as the Sycamore Drive corridor.
While not necessarily in a crisis of biblical proportions, Antioch is 18 months removed from fears of bankruptcy, and the city reported a 24 percent jump in crime in 2012. Gunplay has become a regular occurrence in the city, which, until a handful of recent hires, had the same number of sworn police officers as in 1995, when the population was about 30,000 smaller.
The city also was considered "ground zero" in Contra Costa County for the foreclosure crisis and plunging home values during the Great Recession.
Against the backdrop of those struggles, the "prayer warriors" must rise, Valenzuela said.
Antioch Mayor Wade Harper, a former pastor with a degree in theology, joined the group on May 25 for the first time.
He thanked God for the group's continued prayers for city leaders as they try to make wise decisions "like Solomon" to move Antioch forward. Harper pointed out that the crime rate was down for the first three months of 2013, and he credited the group with having an impact.
Antioch's religious roots run deep.
Before it incorporated as Contra Costa's first city, Antioch was founded by minister William Wiggin Smith in 1851. A plaque at City Park dedicated at the city's centennial, which stands about a foot from where the men's group gathers, publicly acknowledges the role of faith in city leadership.
"Today we rededicate ourselves to him in grateful memory of our founding fathers who envisioned a city and a world under the rule of this spirit of Christ," reads the plaque mounted to a 4-foot-high brick statue. That plaque became the obvious place to gather, Campbell said.
The prayer group started in May 2012 when Golden Hills Community Church members Brian Campbell and Don Muse felt a need to reach beyond church walls.
"There was just this feeling like there was a need for a revival within the church, a lot of stagnancy and not a lot happening outside where we're supposed to be," Campbell said.
The idea, Campbell said, came in part from an inner-city Brooklyn ministry.
The prayer circle ended last Saturday with a chant, as the two dozen men clapped and sang along.
"I'm gonna see my city saved before I die. I'm gonna see Antioch saved before I die."
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.