Editor’s Note: Amy L. Sherman serves as Editorial Director for the FASTEN initiative and has been active in the MNA’s Urban and Mercy Steering Committee. She is a member of Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the founder and former Executive Director of Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries. Sherman has authored many books and has been a regular faculty member for the CE&P and MNA’s bi-annual mercy ministry conference. She writes about one PCA congregation that has grabbed an opportunity to make a difference in their community.
The members of Southwood Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, are heavenly minded–and earthly good. The most visible example of this is the giant replica of the solar system they’ve constructed for Lincoln Elementary School, where 94 percent of attending children are poor enough to qualify for the government’s free lunch program. Bright stars and six foot planets bedazzle the eye as they stretch across the 2000-foot black-painted ceiling of the school’s old gym, now remodeled as a giant science laboratory complete with a salt-water aquarium and terrarium. “The whole idea was to study sea, space, and earth,” enthuses Southwood’s Director of Mercy Ministries Mark Stearns. “We wanted the kids dreaming.”
The science lab’s not the only new thing at Lincoln. With help from Southwood and other churches, the school now boasts a refurbished library with a state-of-the-art computer lab and scores of new books. And in a renovated greenhouse attached to the school, Lincoln students are now busy taking horticulture classes.
These kinds of facilities may be standard fare at private, suburban schools, but they are a rarity in the school districts serving Alabama’s low-income kids. As Lincoln Elementary principal Christy Jensen says, “I don’t believe there is any other elementary, middle or high school in the Huntsville City School District that has anything like this connection” with a congregation like Southwood.
The most important service Southwood PCA has offered to Lincoln, though, hasn’t been money or things. It’s people. Over half of Lincoln’s 212 students now enjoy personal, one-on-one mentor-tutors, thanks to volunteers from Southwood and other congregations, like Cove United Methodist, that Southwood leaders have recruited.
The Ministry of Overhead Projectors
Southwood’s collaboration with Lincoln Elementary won the church $5000 in a ten-state competition sponsored by FASTEN (Faith and Service Technical Education Network), a capacity building initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Southwood beat out 33 other Alabama entrants for FASTEN’s “Partners in Transformation” award. The award honors faith-based organizations that operate a successful social program in collaboration with some organization outside the faith sector. The mercy ministries department of MNA promoted the contest and at the most recent Mercy Ministries conference, I had the opportunity of talking about the need for PCA churches to engage in non-traditional partnerships to transform their communities. Southwood is a great example of putting this concept into action.
The partnership began when Mark Stearns became acquainted with the low-income neighborhood surrounding Lincoln Elementary, the community a mere eight minute drive from the church. One day in 2002, he walked into principal Jensen’s office and asked her what needs she had that the church might assist with. Taken aback – and somewhat skeptical – Jensen thought for a while. Then she proposed that some new overhead projectors would be a boon to the teachers. A few days later, five projectors arrived. “I’d wondered,” Jensen admits, “whether this guy was for real. I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again.” With the credibility of five overhead projectors behind him, Stearns shared his heart for the community with Jensen, emphasizing that the church really wanted to help. Now, three years later, Jensen reports she and her teachers have been “overwhelmed” by the support. “I’ve been in the education business for a long time,” Jensen says, “and I’ve never seen anything like this. It is very unique.”
When asked whether she is concerned about church-state issues, Jensen says no, because the church volunteers know “what’s allowed and what’s not allowed between 8:00 and 2:30.” In fact, she wishes that more collaboration between the faith community and needy public schools were occurring. “In the U.S., in schools when people say they’re coming from a church, sometimes people get fearful. [But] there’s not anything to fear-it’s a help.”
Poured Out Like A Drink Offering
The collaboration has been a new experience for church members, too. “Southwood was great at equipping people and taking care of its own folks,” Shari Jones, assistant mercy ministries director, notes. “But as far as really getting out into the community and serving-golly, not much. It was more [about] having comfortable settings to bring people in, instead of really getting out.”
With a largely affluent membership, Mark Stearns knew it would be a stretch getting Southwood’s congregants hands-on engaged in the distressed Lincoln neighborhood. He knew he’d need support from the pulpit. So he took Senior Pastor Mike Honeycutt on a home visit to one of the families from Lincoln. The house “reminded me of something from a third world country,” Stearns recalls, noting that the plumbing was broken and the stench was pungent. A few minutes into the visit, it became clear to Stearns that Honeycutt was bothered by the odor. “I remember praying that he would suffer,” Stearns chuckles. “And he did. It was hard. It was difficult to see [the conditions]; difficult to be there.” After they concluded the visit and walked outside, Honeycutt turned to Stearns and declared, “This is where the Kingdom of God needs to be.”
Honeycutt began challenging Southwood to be “poured out like a drink offering” for the Lincoln Village community. Congregational response has been tremendous. “Out of 1100 members, I bet half have done something over there,” Shari Jones reports. “We have people who are falling in love with the kids, taking them with them on their vacations,” Stearns adds. “It’s definitely a really important part of what our Body does now.”
In addition to the tutoring program, several businesspersons from Southwood have launched the Lincoln Village Preservation Corporation. Their aim is to attack the problem of indecent housing in the Lincoln neighborhood. So far, the Corporation has purchased 25 properties to refurbish. Many church members are also active in the neighborhood food pantry, connecting with Lincoln residents as they meet practical needs for food.
Studies by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that effective tutoring programs tend to have the positive impact, on average, of increasing reading comprehension by half a grade level. Principal Jensen says that reading and math scores are gradually climbing at Lincoln. In the first years of the collaboration, tutors especially focused on the kids’ writing skills. Aggregate scores in this area were in the “red zone,” well below expected state standards, when Jensen first arrived four years ago. Now, students’ writing assessment test scores have quadrupled.
Kids aren’t the only ones being touched through this ministry. Church volunteers are slowly forging relationships with the students’ parents as well. Jensen is thrilled with one effect of that: PTA attendance has skyrocketed from about a half a dozen participants to over 100 at the most recent meeting. “We pack out the place usually now,” she exults. “And I think that part of that is that [the tutors] have helped the parents see the importance of parent involvement.”
Shari Jones is quick to add that the transformation occurring is mutual: “I feel like I have every bit as much to learn as I do to give,” she stresses. “I look at the culture in Lincoln and think, ‘You know, it’s probably better to sit on our porches more like the folks there do, because they’re not so busy with so many activities. So,” she sums up, “I feel like it’s an exchange, more than a ‘we have so many answers we want to share with you.’”
Asked to describe what the partnership with Lincoln has meant to Southwood parishioners, Jones talks about tutor Cliff Ibsen. Recently retired from Boeing, Jones says Ibsen is the type to take notice of things. He discovered dyslexia in his first “tutee” and encouraged the school to do some additional testing. Now he’s paired with De Angelo, a third grader at Lincoln. One of ten kids from a single-parent home, DeAngelo is “bright,” “responsive,” and “eager to please.” In addition to the weekly tutoring session, Ibsen has helped DeAngelo and his brother obtain needed dental work and treated them to visits to the beach, the theater, and the Botanical Gardens. It’s about enlarging the kids’ worlds, Jones explains. A long-time member of the board of directors for the Community Ballet Association, she laments that poor kids in under-resourced schools like Lincoln “are almost cut off from the arts community as a whole.” Last year, she facilitated a whole-school field trip to attend The Nutcracker. Three children from Lincoln have also earned scholarships to the ballet school.
These kinds of opportunities expand the kids’ horizons. As Jones puts it, DeAngelo is “more broad in his thinking [now]; more open to possibilities.”
She adds, “When I first went out there and asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, it was professional football player or hairdresser. That was pretty much the range. DeAngelo’s one who will consider other possibilities now.”