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Edifying CHAT

East Region Winner: Richmond neighborhood group helps poor students thrive

Edifying CHAT

A CHAT volunteer tutors a child. (Handout)

Handout

Skip Long with Maurice at his graduation ceremony.

Handout

Ruth Wong, second from left, leads a discussion on urban education.

Handout

Jeff Bass

RICHMOND, Va.—The guards at the juvenile detention facility in Richmond, Va., were surprised to see so many people in the jail. Forty arrived with a big sheet cake and walked down a hall past the cell blocks to a small room. There they held a high-school graduation ceremony for Maurice, 18, who processed in wearing his Sunday clothes, along with another incarcerated student who had made it to graduation. Maurice had finished high school, but he was at the beginning of his incarceration.

Maurice went to jail just before Thanksgiving last year. He and his friend had held up a restaurant; his friend pulled out a gun, and Maurice told his friends and relatives that he should have left the scene. But being part of an armed holdup, under Virginia law, is the same as being the one with the gun. Maurice’s sentence: five years in prison.

Before the holdup, Maurice was a student at Church Hill Academy, a Christian high school that is part of Church Hill Activities & Tutoring (CHAT), a Richmond tutoring organization. The organization works with pre-K to high-school students in the largely black Church Hill neighborhood and beyond: If one goes to jail, the Church Hill staff will follow him there.

Maurice finished his degree this year, in jail, and received a Church Hill diploma. At the graduation ceremony someone brought a keyboard and the gathering sang praise songs. Skip Long, the principal of Church Hill Academy, gave a short homily, and one of Maurice’s fellow graduates spoke. Maurice himself spoke about the work God had done in his life through prison. People grabbed each other’s hands and two staff members prayed over him.

“We want kids to know two things,” Long said later. “There’s somebody thinking the best of you, and there’s somebody praying for you.”

CHAT grew out of the hospitality of Percy and Angie Strickland, who are part of East End Fellowship, the neighborhood church closely tied to CHAT. The Stricklands began having neighborhood children over after school. Now, 13 years after the organization started, the group has close relationships with about 160 children in the high-unemployment neighborhood. Most CHAT staffers live in the neighborhood and go to East End Fellowship. The city has repeatedly “de-prioritized” Church Hill, said Stephen Weir, CHAT’s executive director, leading to a neighborhood that is often isolated from the relationships that can lead to education and economic development.

CHAT, unlike many after-school tutoring programs, operates with businesslike efficiency—Weir, first a longtime volunteer with the program, came from a job at Capital One. The staff has a number of longtime members, a healthy sign, and the organization builds on the foundation of several local churches in the area: Other churches provide space for CHAT’s preschool, high school, and summer camp.

Many CHAT mentors are black high-school and college students who grew up in the neighborhood and went through CHAT themselves. Neighborhood children want to be involved because their peers and the cool older teenagers are. CHAT has waiting lists for every program.

Shakim Avery, 16, who has a summer job at King’s Dominion, a Richmond amusement park, says, “Anytime I have a day off I’m always at CHAT.” CHAT this summer employs 24 of its teenagers and graduates, with six working at the neighborhood hospital, Bon Secours.

One of the “street leaders,” as CHAT calls the older mentors, is Maoleoeke Watts, who grew up in the neighborhood, graduated from Church Hill Academy, and is now a sophomore studying computer science at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond. Watts is the oldest of three boys whom his mom raised on her own. One day Watts was playing with his friends in the street, and the kids said they were leaving to go to CHAT. He wanted to go too. Many CHAT students end up in the program through their peers rather than an adult telling them to go.

On the sweltering day I visited, Watts wore a Pink Floyd sleeveless tee and played foursquare with the younger CHAT kids. He said he decided to mentor the boys because he wants them to know “what it means to be a gentleman.” What does it mean? I asked. Watts answered with 1 Timothy 6:11: “Kindness, gentleness, humility, love.”

The tutoring takes place in homes all over the neighborhood, where students meet even during the summer: This afternoon students met in six homes: CHAT’s goal is to give children a safe, warm place to do work, in homes with wooden bookshelves and front porches, and to teach them to be equally open and generous with their homes someday.

One tutoring group met at the home of Murray Withrow, the director of the after-school programs, officially on a three-month sabbatical but still hosting. His toddler son happily stumbled around the kitchen table where fourth- and fifth-graders sat reading aloud Freckle Juice by Judy Blume.

In fall and spring the children test into their literacy levels; CHAT focuses on those who are behind in literacy and makes sure they make an additional grade-level jump by the end of the year. Each targeted student has an individualized, staff-created lesson plan. During the school year about 20 students along with 20 tutors and staff members meet for two hours at the Withrows’ home.

Outside is a garden where children learn to grow plants and make salsa that they sell at the local farmers market, along with homemade ice cream. Across the street, Bethlehem Baptist Church hosts CHAT’s preschool. That day the church was hosting the kindergarten through second-grade tutoring students. A teenage street leader who had been in the CHAT program since he was little was helping a boy who was struggling to read.

Another, older group was meeting at the home of the Stricklands, the founders of the ministry. Some of the teenagers were reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a meaty history book. Some were discussing their summer “majors,” where they focus on a project for six weeks. Kelis Smith, 14, was studying psychology for her “major” and working on a personality test project. A few blocks away, another group of teenagers was meeting at Principal Long’s home. The staff all have keys to each other’s homes.

The high school grew out of the tutoring program eight years ago. One of the longtime tutoring students dropped out of high school, and the CHAT tutors decided they would try to homeschool the student to graduation. That summer 10 students approached CHAT saying they wanted the same thing, so the organization started a formal high school which is now beginning the accreditation process. CHAT hasn’t started an elementary or middle school because other like-minded organizations already have those schools in the neighborhood.

The high school meets in the Sunday school classrooms of Carlisle Avenue Baptist Church, a largely white and elderly church. Upstairs is a wall with photos of the graduates since the school started in 2007, all of them African-American. Long, who is black, recalled how the white congregants had in May announced in church, “Our kids are graduating.” He loved the plural language: Our.

“Christ is at work,” he said.

Money box 

2014 revenue: $1,358,414

2014 expenses: $1,465,724

Net assets at the end of 2014: $956,261

Director’s salary: $50,000

Staff: 43 year-round employees, 16 summer interns. About 800 volunteers over the course of the year for all CHAT programs (includes service groups) 

2015 budget: $1,698,559

Website: www.chatrichmond.org

Charts for churches

BOSTON—The graph is striking. One line shows the population of Boston dropping precipitously starting around 1950. Another line representing the number of churches in the city surges up against the decline. Boston researchers call it “the quiet revival,” an exponential growth of churches—chiefly immigrant churches in low-income neighborhoods—over the past 50 years. 

“The immigrant churches here have revitalized the Christian faith,” said Jeff Bass, executive director of Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC) in Boston.

EGC started as a church in 1938 with the goal of serving the working poor in Boston’s South End, but it became over the years a support and research organization for churches throughout Boston. Bass has diagrams taped up all over his official walls: EGC’s nerdy, MIT-degreed staffers love to draw diagrams on white boards, simplifying the city’s problems into what they call “living systems” based off the work of MIT scientist Jay Forrester.

“Has Jeff showed you the Venn diagram?” asked Brian Gearin, the head of Starlight Ministries, the homeless ministry arm of EGC. It wasn’t the last time I heard that question over the course of my visit.

Staffers contend that diagramming, say, violence in a community, lets pastors and planners know where different church services are most likely to bring lasting change. EGC then researches neighborhood assets and needs, trains churches on launching social services in their particular neighborhoods, and connects resources around the city.

The diagrams go from whiteboards to neighborhoods in different ways.

In 1995 EGC’s research team found in all the city’s churches only one full-time youth worker. Boston churches set a goal to have 20 youth workers in the city in the next decade, which they did with EGC’s fundraising help.

“The church in Boston is probably better documented than any church in the world,” said Bass, who repeatedly asked that EGC not receive credit for different projects where it served a support role, because the organization does not want to take attention from the local churches.

Boston is a refugee resettlement area, and EGC staffers reflect the diversity of the local churches: They speak Arabic, Cambodian, Cantonese, English, French, Hebrew, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Marathi, Spanish, Tagalog, and Tamil. EGC also helps with church planting and training indigenous church leaders. Its staff teach at Gordon-Conwell’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston, which EGC helped found in the 1970s. 

EGC supported a Cambodian pastor who survived the Khmer Rouge and fled to Boston and started a ministry to Cambodian churches. A similar “minister-at-large” to Haitian churches in the area helped coordinate Haitian churches’ response to the earthquake in 2010.

The aftermath of a school shooting in Boston this spring also showed EGC’s influence. A youth pastor (unaffiliated with EGC) working at one high school but allegedly running drug deals on the side allegedly shot in the head a student working for him. The student survived, but after that incident EGC staff thought public schools would cut off partnerships with churches. Instead, the school asked its partner churches to bring in leaders for counseling after the incident.

EGC’s long history in Boston has also given it credibility with churches. One example: In the 1960s the city slated several blocks of EGC’s South End neighborhood, then a slum, for demolition to clear the way for a new interstate. Doug and Judy Hall, EGC’s leaders who recently retired after 50 years, helped establish with other neighborhood groups an “Emergency Tenants Council” that fought the highway project for 14 years.

The council offered the city an alternative plan: A community development group would redevelop the neighborhood with low-income housing. The city accepted. That housing project, Villa Victoria, still stands, and (unlike public housing projects of the era) the homes look like real homes. Now Villa Victoria’s affordable housing sits in one of Boston’s wealthier neighborhoods.

“We’ve been planting and watering,” said Bass. “God gives the growth.” He wants pastors in Boston neighborhoods to ask not, “How do I reach this neighborhood?” but instead, “What would it take to reach this neighborhood for Christ?”

Money box 

2014 revenue: $1,299,676

2014 expenses: $1,457,795

Net assets at the end of 2014: $751,016

Director’s salary: $70,000

Staff: 40 employees, 125 volunteers 

2015 budget: $1,581,354

Website: egc.org

Listen to Christina Darnell’s report on Church Hill Activities & Tutoring on The World and Everything in It.

Read profiles of other finalists and runners-up for the Hope Award for Effective Compassion.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.