By Kelly Norrell, Special Contributor…
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—In 1986, when the Rev. Bob Bean became the new pastor at Emerald Avenue United Methodist Church, he found an aging congregation with low morale, no youth and no youth program. Once solidly middle-class, the surrounding neighborhood near downtown Knoxville had fallen on hard times as residents fled to the suburbs.
“My first Sunday, there were 70 gray-haired people in their 60s, 70s and 80s and a couple of kids,” Mr. Bean said. “The atmosphere and attitude was, ‘We’re probably going to die.’”
But here’s the thing about facing death: It can free you up for all kinds of possibilities. Maybe even resurrection.
Rather than focusing on their own needs, church members decided to stay in the neighborhood and reach out to the community. Though Emerald Avenue had few children of its own, the church decided to start a youth ministry to serve children in the area.
From a tentative start as a part-time summer outreach effort, the youth program grew and thrived, bringing new life to the church. Within a few years, the church established a nonprofit organization, Emerald Youth Foundation, to take the program to a broader section of inner-city Knoxville.
Today, Emerald Avenue UMC is a lively 440-member multiracial congregation with a host of ministries. And a half-block away, Emerald Youth Foundation—a separate nonprofit with a $2.8 million annual budget—provides outreach each year to more than 1,200 youth in some of Knoxville’s poorest neighborhoods through a network of 21 churches and faith-based organizations.
To the Rev. Jim Bailes, who succeeded Mr. Bean as pastor in 2010, Emerald Avenue UMC is “The Church for Whosoever Will Come for Whatsoever Will Happen Next.”
“This church 20 years ago gave its heart to this community’s children, youth and young adults,” Dr. Bailes said. “Emerald Avenue has felt this as their core Christ-calling in this time and place.”
Over the years, the church has repeatedly stepped out in faith, opening itself to whoever showed up and whatever happened.
The first and perhaps biggest step was back in 1988, when the Emerald Avenue church council agreed to hire Steve Diggs, a recent Maryville College graduate, as a part-time intern to lead the summer youth program.
“They accepted with reservations, because they didn’t know where the money was coming from,” Mr. Bean said.
From the outset, Mr. Diggs—a Methodist pastor’s son with a B.A. in business management—and the congregation had their work cut out for them. They had little experience working with urban youth, but the community had great needs. The area was marked by high unemployment, poverty, failing schools and shattered families.
Mr. Diggs, who would later become the foundation’s executive director, began his ministry with a kickball.
“At first, we’d roll a kickball out, and we’d have a seventh-inning devotional,” he said.
As more neighborhood kids began showing up, Mr. Diggs and church members expanded their activities, taking the children on outings to the swimming pool, ballpark, theme parks and the mountains—places that many had never been before.
Mr. Diggs quickly saw that the children needed more than outings and activities. Though the kids wanted to be in the youth group and yearned for community, many were struggling with overwhelming problems at school and at home. One teen, for example, was living with her boyfriend and already had a baby. Clearly, this was not going to be a typical United Methodist youth group.
“It did not take long to realize that the needs of the children required a whole-person response,” Mr. Diggs said. “They needed Christ, they needed restored family life, academic remediation, fun things to do and much more.”
Though a few church members left, most stayed, supporting the new ministry and developing the steely commitment they would need to see it through. They cooked meals. They helped with youth activities. They worked with small groups and provided transportation. And they dealt with aggravation.
“When you bring outsiders in who don’t look like we do and act like we do, it’s going to cause tension,” Mr. Bean said.
One night a young man, who later started a gang in the neighborhood, spat on Mr. Bean. Occasionally, Knoxville police came to the church looking for some of the youth group kids, wanting to question them about the latest incident in the neighborhood.
“Sometimes I thought it wasn’t possible to bring the churched and the unchurched together,” Mr. Diggs said.
Throughout it all, Mr. Bean and a few others stepped up and took calming leadership roles.
“He told us over and over that this was what God had called the church to do and be,” Mr. Diggs said. “And that allowed me to stay focused on the outreach and build the ministry.”
Despite the obstacles, Mr. Diggs and church members began forming relationships with the children and their families. Before long, church members’ lingering reservations were eased, if not overcome, by the many “firsts” they saw neighborhood kids experiencing—their first real connection with a church, first youth group, first beach trip, first hotel stay and first student Bible.
“I saw hope come alive, and I could not walk way,” Mr. Diggs said.
At the end of that first summer, the church upped its commitment, hiring Mr. Diggs part time, and before year’s end, upgraded the position to a full-time job. Soon, Mr. Diggs and his wife, Sabrina, bought a house in the neighborhood, where they and their children still live and where the children attend school.
Later that year, Mr. Diggs and Mr. Bean attended a conference of the Christian Community Development Association in Minneapolis. While there, they visited a similar neighborhood ministry program at Park Avenue United Methodist Church that had been spun off into a nonprofit organization.
They had already learned the hard way that neighborhood visitation and many other traditional church outreach tools would not work in a neighborhood where people don’t readily invite strangers in.
Sharpening the focus
From Park Avenue UMC, they learned that they needed to set up deliberate, intentional ministries to draw people and form them into disciples. Based on that advice, they crafted a sharp, four-part focus for their youth program that has been in place ever since: faith development, through Bible studies and Wednesday night worship with free meals; academic reinforcement, provided by after-school tutoring and computer labs; relationship building, via small-group activities and after-school and summer youth programs; and health improvement, through a sports league and counseling.
By 1991, Emerald Avenue was ready to take its youth program beyond the neighborhood. Inspired by Park Avenue UMC, the church created a separate nonprofit, Emerald Youth Foundation, to evangelize and make leaders of children and youth throughout inner-city Knoxville.
As director of the foundation, Mr. Diggs became a systematic networker, building relationships with corporations and foundations throughout the city. One of the first and most important relationships he formed was with St. Mary’s Hospital, a large medical center that has provided the foundation with volunteers, marketing and fundraising support.
In time, the hospital—now part of Tennova Healthcare—even provided Emerald Youth with a building. When a retailer next door to the church put its building up for sale for $625,000, St. Mary’s bought and refurbished it, added a gym and then leased it to Emerald Youth Foundation for $1 a year.
Soon, the foundation began extending its ministry to reach more children. Around 1995, Emerald Youth asked two other churches, Virginia Avenue United Methodist and Magnolia Avenue United Methodist, to become sites for foundation programs, and a few years later added 18 more churches and organizations from a variety of denominations as Emerald Youth program sites.
Even today, Emerald Youth works primarily through that network of churches, because local churches are the most efficient way to minister to children, said Shara Shoup, the foundation’s senior program director. The foundation provides the churches with staff, curriculum, equipment, training for staff and volunteers, and money for field trips and other expenses.
Though Emerald Avenue UMC and Emerald Avenue Youth Foundation are distinct entities with separate leadership, they remain inextricably linked. They share a covenant agreement and intertwined programs, such as the Wednesday night worship and dinner. Many foundation leaders and staff are active members at the church, and the church serves as a flagship urban youth ministry location that the foundation tries to replicate at its other sites.
“Our ministry began out of the church,” Mr. Diggs said. “From the beginning, we have recognized and believed that the church was the best place to disciple and relate with kids long term.”
The local church is positioned like no other institution to form lasting intergenerational relationships, support families, and provide opportunities for youth to serve and lead and shape their identity in Christ, Mr. Diggs said. Emerald Youth Foundation may be a separate nonprofit, but ultimately it is a manifestation of the church in the world.
To see the impact a local church and a nonprofit like Emerald Youth can have working together in a troubled neighborhood, consider the example of New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. Outside, bullet holes pock the church’s stucco facade. Inside, Emerald Youth children work after school at 12 state-of-the-art computers, honing academic skills that have helped them win awards at nearby Lonsdale Elementary.
That kind of presence and vision has made it easy for churches to want to join the network. Church leaders trust Mr. Diggs and the foundation. The Rev. Johnnie Skinner, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a mostly African-American congregation that has been in the network for about seven years, said he became an Emerald Youth supporter after Mr. Diggs sought his opinion about it.
“Steve is genuine,” Mr. Skinner said. “He’s not a white savior or paternalistic. He’s not someone who wants to ‘save all you black people.’”
Mr. Skinner said the foundation “brings to churches what young people need to see”—positive role models, two-parent homes and stable families.
“The spiritual component was the most important to me, plus the academic and recreation,” Mr. Skinner said.
The foundation delivers its services primarily through three programs: JustLead—the network of churches and organizations—which provides tutoring, meals and snacks, Bible studies, small groups, worship and mentoring throughout a 20-square-mile area called the JustLead Zone; Emerald Sports, which offers a year-round program of leagues, teams and clinics in basketball, swimming, volleyball and other sports; and Emerald Fellows, which conducts ongoing mentoring and support to a small group of high school seniors until they get their first job.
Brandi Ashburn, 23, is one of many whose lives have been changed by Emerald Youth. Raised by a single mom who worked stocking shelves in a warehouse, Brandi cared for herself and her little brother after school until they both entered the program when she was in sixth grade.
After that, an Emerald Youth van began picking up Brandi and her brother after school and taking them to Emerald Avenue UMC, where they received a snack, tutoring and mentoring. Later, they joined the church.
“I didn’t have a lot of support at home,” said Ms. Ashburn, a University of Tennessee graduate who now works as a legal assistant with a Knoxville law firm. “The Emerald Youth Foundation gave me the experience of being cared for by a lot of adults.”
The foundation is growing increasingly adept at following the progress of program participants. Since 2004, they have used an extensive database to craft a demographic profile of each child and track his or her participation across the various Emerald Youth programs. Throughout the year, they input staff reports, parental forms, surveys, in-house academic test results and other information.
With the help of a consultant, they will soon start collecting a much broader range of data that will allow them to begin tracking not just participation but actual results on everything from employment status to dental visits. Beginning this fall, the county school system will flag Emerald Youth children’s files so their progress can be compared to that of the general population.
“We are very big on measurements,” said Doug Kennedy, chair of the foundation’s board of trustees.
The ability to show results is vitally important, Mr. Kennedy said, both in its own right and in its power to help generate donor support. The board has an aggressive and successful development program, hosting an annual fundraising breakfast, legacy dinner and golf tournament, and is always looking for ways to reach new donors. Overall, 37 percent of the foundation’s budget comes from individuals, 18 percent from businesses, 16 percent from government and 14 percent from foundations.
Dr. Bailes, who serves on the board with Mr. Bean, is acutely aware of the treasure with which he has been entrusted. He is pleased with all that the church and the foundation have become.
“John Wesley would say, ‘Go not where you’re needed; go where you’re needed most,’” he said. “This community and these families ‘need’ us, and we need them even more. In short, Emerald Avenue is fulfilling much of what Christ had in mind for the church.”
Ms. Norrell is a freelance writer and editor in Knoxville, Tenn. This article was first published on Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership website (www.faithandleadership.com).