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Night after night, a pastor ventures into St. Louis’ streets. A new film tells his story

A high visibility vest that says "Nightlife," worn by volunteer from Rev. Kenneth McKoy's Night Life ministry.
The Rev. Kenneth McKoy's Night Life ministry is the subject of a new documentary.

The Rev. Kenneth McKoy has been called St. Louis’ “pastor of the streets,” and he’s earned the title. From the dead of night to the early morning, he leads teams of pastors through dark St. Louis streets, seeking out people struggling with addiction, mental illness and homelessness.

McKoy has been on this mission since 2015. He calls it the Nightlife Ministry.

A portrait of Reverend Kenneth McCoy.
Danny Wicentowski
The Rev. Kenneth McCoy, of the progressive AME Zion Church, is the subject of a new documentary.

Three nights a week, equipped with high-visibility vests and bearing sandwiches and cans of water donated by Anheuser-Busch, he tries to bring hope to those streets — even though, at times, the people he meets there are suspicious, or even hostile to his mission.

“What's important is that we give of ourselves, that we make that human contact with people,” McKoy, a pastor at the Progressive AME Zion Church, said during Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It's the streets, and we're essentially trespassing; we're on somebody else's turf. So I expect, oftentimes, the unexpected. Most of the time, nothing really happens. … But the nights that it does, it's just kind of off the chain.”

Indeed, several scenes in a new documentary, called “Night Life,” show McKoy and other pastors dealing with the unpredictability of life on a St. Louis street between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Other scenes capture the sounds of gunshots echoing nearby.

Most of the documentary’s scenes, including interviews, are presented in striking black-and-white imagery. More than five years in the making, its premiere is set for July 17 at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

Seth Ferranti, the St. Louis filmmaker who wrote and produced “Night Life,” said he became fascinated with McKoy after writing an article about his ministry for VICE in 2015. From there, Ferranti and a camera crew captured more than 100 hours of footage, which ultimately become a 70-minute final cut.

St. Louis filmmaker Seth Ferranti.
Danny Wicentowski
St. Louis filmmaker Seth Ferranti, who co-wrote the 2017 true crime documentary "White Boy," is making his directorial debut with "Night Life."

“What he's doing, it's not for everybody,” Ferranti told St. Louis on the Air. “These people are just caught up in it, you know, they need help. Some of them, maybe they don't want help right now, but if that help is there, like the Rev. Ken McKoy is trying to extend to them …think how many lives you can save.”

McKoy does have success stories. He recalled a young man “who was on his way to kill someone” before running into the Nightlife ministry. There was a hotel room and rehab for an unhoused woman who, at first, had been too embarrassed to ask for help because she had lived on the streets for a week without a bath.

But there are other cases. In 2016, McKoy attempted to connect a woman named Felicia with housing and substance abuse support. In one scene of the film, McKoy, wearing his yellow vest, is shown meeting her on the street in order to give her food for the long night.

Despite McKoy's efforts to get Felecia help, a local rehab facility turned her away because it had no room. He had to drop her off at Hodiamont Tracks, where she lived with other people who are addicted. Days after the filmed meeting, McKoy learned she had died of an overdose.

“To be perfectly honest with you, after that, I really thought about discontinuing the ministry,” he said.

He still hasn’t gotten over that tragedy. It’s one of many he’s witnessed in the past seven years. But even after such a loss, McKoy said he couldn’t let himself end the ministry.

“There are other Felicias out there,” McKoy said, recalling what he told himself in those moments of doubt. “You need to keep doing this.”

Related Event
What: “Night Life” at the St. Louis International Film Festival
When: July 17
Where: Edison Theatre, 6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63105

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."