Spiritual Healing

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments


Before Camden Yards, there was Memorial Stadium.

From 1954 to 1991, the Orioles entertained countless fans within its massive concrete walls. Shortstop Cal Ripken logged 821 games and 129 home runs there on his way to breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

Among some circles in blue-collar Baltimore, the game of football is even more mythical than baseball. For 31 seasons, the city's beloved Colts also played in the stadium, bringing pride and glory to this industrial port city. But in 1984, the Colts were trotted off to Indianapolis, and a few years later, in 1991, the Orioles migrated to Camden Yards in Baltimore's refurbished Inner Harbor.

Throughout the decades when professional athletics was this community's rallying point, the families and businesses surrounding the stadium were guaranteed a comfortable level of social and economic security. The teams' departure unsettled the local economy, but for the most part, the middle-class neighborhoods adjusted.

Some, however, did not cope well, and their social fabric is markedly more tattered than it was even five years ago.

Two blocks south of the stadium, the Montebello Waverly area suffers from many of the ills sapping urban communities: an influx of drugs, gangs, and violence as well as rising dropout and teenage-pregnancy rates.

Given the symptoms, the outcome for this inner-city neighborhood looks poor. But at the Garden of Prayer Baptist Church, located in the heart of the troubles, the pastor and his parishioners are refusing to accept a terminal prognosis. Instead, they are opting to experiment with their own holistic remedies.

Across the nation, black urban churches like the Garden have undergone some painful soul-searching in recent years. As a result, many are repositioning themselves as sources of secular as well as spiritual succor. And education has become one of their primary ways to intervene in the lives of those souls most at risk: children and adolescents.

Tucked among the faded row houses just blocks from the stadium, the Garden is pulsing with activity on a warm Saturday morning in late April. Organ music flows through its red-curtained windows into the parking lot, where volunteers are unloading food from the church van. Parents and children amble toward the square brick church for a morning inspirational. On their way, they are welcomed by the Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle II and his wife, Brenda, who confesses they spend more time here than in their own home.

"People call us two-four-seven--24 hours a day, seven days a week," chuckles Tuggle, a stately, soft-spoken man whose persistent outreach efforts increased church membership from 12 to 1,300 in 10 years.

This morning, as on most Saturdays from October through May, dozens of children, ranging in age from 3 to 17, have come to polish their literacy skills at the church's Calvin W. Williams Reading Center and Library.

After Tuggle leads the youngsters and their teachers in a short prayer, the playful group strolls across the tree-lined street to two small, white clapboard houses.

"A few years ago, you would not have recognized these buildings," laughs Brenda, who directs the reading center, as she opens the screen door to one. What were once crack houses are today miniature schools with cozy classrooms. Their sparkling walls are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves featuring a set of the 1996 World Book Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Black America, and scores of National Geographic magazines. One room has four personal computers and a television hooked up to a videocassette recorder.

The renovation was made possible by donations from church members, notably Philadelphia Eagle Calvin W. Williams, whose framed green-and-white football jersey hangs in the entryway.

On the first floor, three classes are in progress. Although class opens and closes with a prayer, what happens in between is strictly secular. Around one table, six 5th-grade girls work with their teachers on vocabulary words. They are preparing for an upcoming standardized test.

Nearby, the Rev. Teresa Chapman, an associate pastor, encourages four teenagers to talk about their creative--writing assignment on the theme "life is a test." "Not all tests are written," she tells them. "You are examined everywhere--at home, in church, even on the street."

Personal attention is the center's hallmark. The children are divided by age into classes that range in size from two to eight youngsters. Several teachers work with each group.

Five years ago, as the Tuggles describe it, they had a vision to start the reading center as a way to counter the dismal reading scores in the school district. Last year, Baltimore city students earned the lowest reading scores in the state on the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment.

A 1st-grade teacher in Baltimore's public schools with a master's degree in reading, Brenda Tuggle coordinates the program. At the start of each school year, she sends a letter to the children's teachers asking them to identify strengths and weaknesses. She also reviews the city's test results to see where the students are struggling.

"Language development is critical to a child's development," she observes. "It's especially important in black families, because they don't talk with the children as much on a daily basis."

The public school teachers welcome the supplemental help, says Tuggle, and most allow their students to bring textbooks home over the weekend so they can use them at the center.

Currently, 12 volunteers teach the 53 students for two hours each Saturday. Most are not professional teachers. Before the start of each semester, Tuggle organizes a training program for them, which she supplements with biweekly skill-building lessons.

Many of the children and their teachers worship at the church, but the free program is open to any student in Baltimore. "It's the best-kept secret in the city," boasts Rev. Tuggle.

In addition to building literacy skills and vocabulary, the center offers a way for children to form relationships with adults.

This morning, Yusef Shabazz starts his reading class with a short game of touch football outside. After a few minutes, he moves his students, two 10-year-old boys who are having trouble in school, inside to work on their reading skills.

"It's a good feeling and a good avenue for helping the community," says the full-time graduate student. "They present challenges, and I can't always assume there is one way to get the information across."

Many of the teachers, including Shabazz, have children who attend the center.

"Parents just don't have the time to be able to give children all they need, and teachers can't do it all," says Marcia Hardy, who teaches the 8-year-olds. "Now, the church is having to step up and play a bigger role. It really helps me out."

Other parents are equally thankful for the program but are less conciliatory toward the public schools, which they feel are failing them and their children.

"Recently, they made 60 passing. It made me cry. Sometimes, it feels like they want the black males to stay at that level," sighs Hortense Wallace, another volunteer and the mother of a 16-year-old boy. "I thought schools were supposed to make kids as advanced as possible."

"I feel our children are really privileged to be here. It's like what some private institutions offer," says Gwendolyn Crawford, who teaches the 11- year-olds. "But I feel very let down by our public schools--they don't give the kids the attention they need. We hear about the problems in the newspaper every day, but when are they going to do something about them?"

But rather than waiting for the government to solve their communities' problems, more and more black churches are taking matters into their own hands.

"If the church doesn't do something for these kids, then we are going to lose them," observes Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, a pediatrician whose husband is the pastor of Boston's African Methodist Episcopal Bethel Church. "When the government loses interest, and kids and violence are no longer the flavor of the month, then we'll sell a few more chicken dinners so we can do what we have to."

Churches can offer youngsters the sense of community lacking in many urban neighborhoods, says White-Hammond, a graduate student at Harvard University's divinity school. "Many children don't know the people living around their houses. The church is in a unique position to provide a real community, to find people who can help you with your problems, and who will keep loving you."

As a result, she says, the church is the best vehicle for meeting the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of children, black or white.

"Black kids are the manifestation of what's wrong in youth culture," she says, "but the same problems are affecting children in the suburbs."

From small storefront congregations to imposing stone edifices, black churches are tailoring their education programs to target their community's needs. Often, they are providing additional staffing, resources, professional skills, and a faith that their children can be saved.

Leading this crusade are some of the communities' strongest and most respected leaders, their pastors.

"The church goes back to African religion and society, where the fate of the individual was directly related to the fate of the community," observes the Rev. Alicia D. Byrd, the director of theological education and leadership-development programs for the Congress of National Black Churches in Washington. "The pastor continues the tradition of an African elder or chief. There is a tremendous power vested there."

From Baltimore to Chicago, pastors are using this power to recruit volunteers from their congregations. The potential support is impressive. Byrd's organization represents more than 19 million members and 65,000 congregations.

"We are at a crossroads. We are facing the worst crisis since slavery, and unless we mobilize, we could lose the opportunity to save our children in America," says the Rev. Henry M. Williamson Jr., the pastor of Carter Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on Chicago's South Side.

Attuned to the pulse of their neighborhoods, pastors are collaborating with principals, superintendents, and teachers to design solutions to the myriad problems overwhelming many inner-city schools.

"We were a bunch of Baptist preachers who got together and were tired of seeing our kids not being educated," says the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. of Cincinnati. "When kids were suspended or expelled from school, they roamed the streets, terrorized businesses, and became a nuisance in the community." Two years ago, the city's Baptist Ministers' Conference had a brainstorm: Open up the churches to these youngsters, tutor them to keep up with their classmates, and teach them conflict-resolution skills.

Clergy as well as educators view this trend as a natural alliance whose time has come.

"Schools and churches are some of the most powerful institutions in a community. It's like IBM and GM forming a partnership. They're going to come up with solutions," says Williamson, who in 1991 founded the One Church/One School program, a national effort to formally link public schools with churches.

In many neighborhoods, educators are welcoming the churches and their volunteers with open arms.

"I don't think we can survive as an educational institution without all of the community's support," says William Reese Jr., the principal of Theodore Roosevelt High School in Gary, Ind. "Churches are leaders in that area. The pastors and parishioners have been very receptive about working with us at the high school level, and that's rare."

This relationship is a fairly recent phenomenon. For generations, concerns over violating the constitutional separation of church and state kept the two institutions at a wary distance. Economic pressures and a sense of desperation, however, have forced them to collaborate in pursuing their common goal of nurturing healthy children.

"Sometimes, the dividing lines are somewhat artificial--schools can't be in the business of promoting religion, but they can be a place where people can work out their faith," says Byrd of the national black-church congress.

Educators are quick to point out that their new partners are not in the schools to proselytize.

"This is not religious teaching. It's a very secular initiative," Superintendent James Hawkins of the Gary school district says of the One Church/One School program. "I don't know of one individual who has been opposed to it, even parents."

Melvin Tuggle's business card bears the following verse from St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians: "For we walk by faith and not by sight."

Were it not for faith, the Garden would still be a hill covered with junk cars. When he took over the congregation in 1986, the church was located in a rented garage several blocks from the current site. On the fifth Sunday in August, Tuggle preached his first sermon to six adults and six children. "I came blinded, and I'm glad I did," he admits today.

Initially, Tuggle nurtured the church by asking neighborhood parents to send their children to Sunday school. He enticed them with the promise of free baby-sitting.

As the Garden and its pastor grew in stature, Tuggle decided to try to buy the garage he had so painstakingly transformed into a church.

His parishioners held bake sales and tithed to raise the necessary funds. But the landlord refused to sell. Impressed by the church's outreach work, however, he offered them a free piece of land nearby.

"I wanted to leap with joy," Tuggle remembers. "I ran up there in the dark, pitch black with the dogs barking and began praying to God that it would work out."

In the light of day, however, he saw that the narrow lot was covered with old cars and surrounded by crack houses.

Faith, he says, saw him and his wife through the next few years of challenges. On the fifth Sunday in August 1992, the new Garden of Prayer Church opened its doors to Montebello Waverly's multiracial community. Since that day, neighbors, both black and white, have come to see the church as a godsend.

The church operates a food pantry, distributes warm clothes in the winter, and sponsors health activities. All of its services are available to neighbors, whether they are church members or not.

It also supports the nearby Stadium School, the city's only charter school. Worried about rising dropout rates in the middle and high schools, neighborhood parents lobbied the school board several years ago to create the new grade 4-8 school.

"The Garden let our students use their facilities for a project they were doing to buy school uniforms," says Alexine Campbell, the school's parent liaison. "Rev. Tuggle was the first minister to let us hold a bake sale. He has indicated that anytime we need anything, to come to him."

Above all, however, neighbors view the church as a haven for neighborhood children. "When I was young, we had rec centers and other places to go," recalls Jocelyn Bynum, a longtime resident. "The Garden gives the kids someplace to go without getting hurt. It's a lifesaver. They can go there to socialize and do homework without hanging out on the corner."

As government and private sector support for inner cities shrinks, pastors like Tuggle are realizing that bake sales and chicken dinners are not going to fund the scope of services they must now provide.

"I don't think churches will ever meet the total need that's there," says Byrd of the black-church congress.

Given the Republicans' election-year mantra to transfer federal responsibility for welfare to the states, black churches are acutely aware that the demands placed on them and other nonprofit organizations may soon increase dramatically.

In preparation for the worst, churches have started to look beyond their immediate communities for additional financial support. Slowly, they are becoming more sophisticated about fund raising, says Audrey B. Daniel of the Council on Foundations. While Roman Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues have long known how to tap the world of philanthropy, African-American churches are just learning about this avenue, she says.

Since 1991, the council's Philanthropy and the Black Church project has brought about 3,000 pastors and 500 grantmakers together in regional conferences.

"We're still finding pastors who are amazed to learn that you don't have to squeeze blood from a turnip," says Daniel, who directs the project.

Funders have long recognized that African-American churches would make excellent intermediaries but have been unsure how to connect with them.

"Black churches are in neighborhoods that we would like to help, but the proposals just aren't there," says Ann Richards, a writer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich.

The council's program seeks to change that dynamic and foster a professional network between the two groups.

Although the council cannot yet measure the impact of its program, the tide is turning, says Robert M. Franklin, a program officer for the the New York City-based Ford Foundation's Rights and Social Justice program. "I do have the sense that the wall of separation between church and philanthropy is receding," Franklin says. "Religious organizations have a long track record in the area of social services and would benefit with input from secular experts."

Some of that secular expertise will come from initiatives like one being planned at the Harvard divinity school. With a grant from the New York City-based Henry Luce Foundation, the faculty are planning a summer 1998 institute for 1998 to teach several hundred members of the black clergy how to better acquire the resources they need for their work in urban areas.

In Baltimore, Melvin Tuggle has already begun to tap the foundation world for the support he needs. Over the past four years, he has worked closely with Johns Hopkins University to implement a $2 million grant from the Battle Creek, Mich-based W. K. Kellogg Foundation to foster community-based health projects. He recently met with representatives from Baltimore's Hoffberger Foundation and the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who are considering his church as potential location for a "Sight and Soul" health promotion project.

Despite his ease in the philanthropy arena, Tuggle says his church is still poor. "I have a problem with churches that have money in the bank. We're broke every Monday after we pay our bills, and that's the way I like it."

On a philosophical note, he pauses to dwell on the dual role of churches. "What if the girl up the street doesn't have any shoes or the woman next door has no food, and what if God came back. What would I say to him?"

He would have a lot to say.

Undoubtedly, he would describe the programs his church has created to help its children grow up strong and healthy.

Soon after the reading center closes at the end of May, summer camp begins. Last year, 100 students attended, with the church footing the bill for those who couldn't afford it.

There are also the boys-and-girls clubs, the drama club, the mother/ daughter mentoring program, the college-scholarship program, and the annual fishing trip for the boys, and this year, the girls as well.

During a Sunday service earlier this spring, Melvin Tuggle offered paid summer jobs to any teenager who wanted to work for the church.

"Where will we get the money from? God will give it to us somehow."

As always, faith is his internal compass.

At noon, classes at the reading center end. After a short closing prayer, the students grab their backpacks and hustle outside. Their teachers linger inside to chat with each other and the Tuggles about the day's lessons. Across the street, the church bursts with the sound of infectious gospel music. The men's choir is practicing for tomorrow's Sunday service.

"The neighbors were afraid that a black church would be noisy, and we are," grins Brenda as her 5-year-old daughter, Tierra, hops nearby. "But now, people know us and like us."

The choir is another effort to heal the community. It brings together men of all ages, with the older ones acting as role models and sounding boards for the younger ones.

As the pastor's wife walks around the parking lot, chatting with the friends she now calls her family, she points to the church's back wall. "It was built to come down," she says. "Someday, we're going to have to expand."

That expansion will include building an after-school youth center with athletic facilities and a larger library. But like today's reading center, that's just a transitional stage in the Garden's final design.

"Rev. Tuggle's ultimate dream is to have a K-12 school," Brenda Tuggle confides.

School Links

In Gary, Ind., each of the city's 42 public schools is partnered with at least one church. Since 1992, pastors have teamed up with principals to identify ways in which their churches could help out the schools. Then, they have found the necessary resources and staffing from within their congregations.

This web of relationships falls under the rubric of the One Church/One School program, a national initiative launched in 1991 by the Rev. Henry M. Williamson Sr., the pastor of Chicago's Carter Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

Many urban churches, he believes, are in the position to assist overburdened public schools.

"We have more parents on Sunday than most PTAs have all year round," Williamson says. "We have the volunteers and the resources. We can say to our congregations that our mission is down the street at the school."

The relationship is purely secular, explains John W. Finn, an assistant to the schools superintendent who coordinates Gary's program. Above all, he says, the churches provide men and women who can be in the schools on a regular basis for students.

At the city's Theodore Roosevelt High School, "Stop the Violence" was the theme for the spring's One Church/One School program. A cadre of lawyers and judges taught the 11th-grade class a six-week course on the law. The semester concluded with a mock trial of one student who had allegedly injured another student, and the 240 students formed the jury.

The course served as a dry run for the school's new court. Twenty-five students will be trained next year to make disciplinary decisions about their fellow students' behavior.

At the same time, 25 ministers worked in small groups with students and teachers to discuss and participate in role-playing exercises designed to highlight such character issues as honesty, humility, and cooperation.

One Church/One School partnerships have taken hold in other cities, including Dallas, Chicago, and Cleveland, but Gary is the only district to have adopted the program systemwide.

"I don't understand why every school district in the nation would not want to have a program like this," says Gary Superintendent James Hawkins. "If one were to ask can you tangibly measure the academic gains the kids make, no one could answer that. But in terms of changes in attitude, behavior, and relationships, it has made a huge difference."

A few years ago, the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. and some fellow Baptist pastors got fed up with paying taxes to educate the children in their Cincinnati neighborhoods.

Given the numbers of students, especially black males, who were being suspended and expelled by the city's schools, they reasoned the state was not doing its job.

"If a child has been put out on the streets by a school, then where is the education?" Lynch asks. "The school gets money for something it's not doing."

The pastors, all members of the city's Baptist Ministers' Conference, petitioned the state, arguing that the situation was illegal. They asked for their money back. Not surprisingly, the answer was no.

Like pastors in other urban communities who have been confronted by weaknesses in the local education system, they devised their own solution.

"We said, 'OK, we'll open up our churches and take in all of those you put out,'" Lynch recalls. "'We'll teach them peer-mediation and work on their homework, so that when theirtime is up, they'll be fit specimens to learn in your schools.'"

In 1992, they established six Alternative Learning Centers and staffed them with church volunteers. Over time, they have acquired computers, software, and other resources.

School administrators tell suspended and expelled students about the centers. Enrollment is voluntary, but parents must be involved in the decision.

On any given school day, up to 60 students, ranging from 1st to 12th graders, fill the centers. Last year, the centers served more than 400 children.

Pleased by the centers' success in luring students off the streets, local businesses have donated money to the program.

City officials are also "in the groove," Lynch says. Next fall, the ministers' conference plans to open Project Succeed Academy, a school specifically for suspended and expelled students, in a building they hope the city will provide.

"It's stupid to penalize a child forever," Lynch says. "Why would I want to hoard knowledge and be so devilish? It's a gift, and I should want to pass it on to someone else."

Jeff Carr started working as a summer intern at the Bresee Foundation in the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles 10 years ago. He was given a 10-speed bicycle and a basketball and told to start a community youth program.

Today, as the foundation's executive director, the ordained Church of the Nazarene minister coordinates a network of technology and literacy after-school programs that reach more than 1,000 youngsters a year.

The nonprofit charitable foundation was established by the city's 100-year old First Church of the Nazarene. Many churches in the neighborhood double as learning centers where "young people in the margins," as Carr describes them, receive reading assistance and incentives to stay in school.

One source of motivation is a state-of-the-art computer lab that has 18 stations with direct access to the Internet. Another is a graphic-design business that hires young people.

"We're trying to increase the capacity of kids to learn technology because there is such a lack of it in the schools," Carr says. "We're trying to even up the odds."

This pinch-hitting is necessary, he says, because California schools are severely underfunded. He fears that helping these children may get a lot tougher during this election year, as politicians promise lower taxes and leaner government.

"We can't handle all of the people we're trying to handle now, even with the government programs in place," Carr says. "If there are more cuts, we're not going to be able to respond. Churches have a role to play, but so does the government."

Vol. 15, Issue 37

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories