Bringing in new people is only the first step. The harder part is keeping them there, Cobb acknowledges.

"You almost have to think of this the same way as if you are going to another country," said parishioner Rochelle Smith, who knocked on doors at the housing complex to invite residents to a church-run block party.

Yet traditions die hard. When Cobb arrived two years ago, he replaced a pastor who had spent 40 years in Emmanuel's pulpit. The congregation skews dramatically older, with many members in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Some of his first changes were cosmetic: painting the walls, polishing the pews and installing new lights to brighten the place.

Other changes, such as music programs that appeal to youth and a different dress code so newcomers will not feel like outsiders, will take time, he and church members acknowledge.

Janette Holland, who joined Emmanuel in 1926 at age 10, still wears a hat and dress to Sunday worship but says, "We older women have to learn to accept the change. That's the hardest part. We've got to quit looking back."

Like other churches in the area, Emmanuel struggles to find money for expenses such as roof repairs and filling a hole in the parking lot.

Those challenges would be enough, yet one more obstacle looms over Cobb and the church.

On Saturday nights, a church deacon hooks up Cobb to a kidney dialysis machine in the pastor's home and waits six hours as he undergoes treatment. On Sunday afternoon, his brother, also an Emmanuel deacon, does the same.

Cobb learned he had a kidney disease six years ago. He has been on dialysis awaiting a transplant since May 2007.

The illness has cemented the relationship between Cobb and Emmanuel.

Several members say Cobb's honesty about his disease and sincerity about his faith won them over right away.

Still, church members have doubts: Is the pastor asking too much of himself and them? Even Cobb admits to his own dark nights of the soul.

"There's a lot of times I ask God for strength," he said.

It is then, the pastor says, he hears the Holy Spirit responding that Emmanuel Baptist is where he is meant to be. Sometimes, he says, the confirmation can be as simple as a phone call or a letter from a church member thanking him.

"God, I guess, he knows how much I can bear. He knows it is rough for me," Cobb says. "He also knows I'm not going to quit and run from the challenge. Because I'm in it for the long haul."

David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
c. 2008 Religion News Service