By Jennifer Taylor
“Would you like to use your Macy’s card?” the sales clerk asked. She paused, one hand on the price tag of the new shirt.
“No, thank you,” said Laquita.
“You can take an extra 20 percent off!” the clerk prompted.
“Not today, but thanks,” Laquita answered again with a polite smile.
Suddenly Laquita’s two daughters joined the conversation. “Credit cards aren’t good,” piped up Jada, 8. “We don’t have them.”
Four-year-old Jamiah stood on tiptoes and gripped the edge of the counter. “We don’t like credit cards!” she added.
Laquita’s eyes shine as she tells the story. As a participant in the Christian Community Services Inc. (CCSI) “Mentoring Toward Independence” program, Laquita is developing new ways of thinking about money, parenting, and relationships—and her hard work is paying off for the next generation.
Something to Prove
Schrader Lane Church of Christ and Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, both in Nashville, created CCSI in 1997 to help the city’s underserved population by dismantling common misconceptions.
“We wanted to show that two Southern churches—one mostly white and one mostly black—could do something meaningful together,” says David Jones, senior minister at Schrader Lane. “Just as important, we wanted to prove that the poor and disenfranchised are not that way by choice, and God has gifted them to contribute to society.”
Jones believes this population constitutes an American subculture, many of whom follow a different “developmental line”; instead of learning behaviors that lead to success (like marriage before children or financial responsibility), this group experiences less family stability and preparedness for adult life.
The cyclical nature of such problems perpetuates the dysfunction—late utility payments, low academic achievement, or abusive relationships become the norm. Jones and Rubel Shelly, then senior minister at Woodmont, created CCSI to reverse the cycle by providing new experiences, significant resources, and personal support.
CCSI exists to help these families become self-sufficient. “We define this as freedom from all government assistance, including public housing,” says executive director Patrick Johnson.
Participants begin the process with a Basic Financial Training course. Successful BFT graduates can apply for the more intensive Mentoring Toward Independence program (see accompanying box for information on all CCSI’s programs). Jackie Corley, adult program director, oversees the first nine months of MTI classes focusing on Foundations (life skills, self-esteem, and relationships), Financial (Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University), and the Future (buying a home). Each MTI class member also meets regularly with Gerry Householder, CCSI’s director of financial counseling.
“I learned the value of money,” Laquita says. “Before I started CCSI I was afraid to check the mailbox and see the overdue bills. I’m not scared anymore!”
Laquita acts as an unofficial recruiter for the program; two of her coworkers have already applied for next year’s class.
“I copy the material so we can all study it,” she says. “No one ever taught us this stuff—why not share it?”
While parents like Laquita participate in the weekly classes, Schrader Lane and Woodmont volunteers provide tutoring for their kids. The children work on school assignments and are required to bring each report card for review. Tutoring sessions also include goal setting, career awareness, and even a kid-friendly version of financial education. Parents must demonstrate attendance at each parent-teacher conference during the school year, and Beverly James, CCSI’s children’s program director, attends the conferences with any parent who asks.
In May, MTI participants graduate and celebrate other recent “alumni” who have returned to college, started a business, or bought a house.
Investments from CCSI help finance the opportunities.
“We require each class member to save at least $30 a month in an Individual Development Account and we match each dollar at 200 percent with a maximum of $3,333,” Johnson says. “So if a person saves $1,667 in their IDA, they’ll graduate with $5,000 to use as a down payment on future goals.”
Most graduates opt for the house, either a traditional mortgage or a new home built by Habitat for Humanity. The two churches have worked together to build two Habitat houses; as of March 2009, 63 MTI families have purchased homes.
Others, like Ukela Alred, use the money for education. Ukela had completed one year of college before marriage and children put school on hold. After her divorce and subsequent move into government housing, Ukela began night classes and joined the MTI program. Today she is a homeowner and works as a paralegal at a private law firm.
“It’s all about personal responsibility,” she says. “CCSI helped me see the possibilities for my life and held my hand through every step.”
Laquita has chosen the house. “By 2011, I’ll be ready,” she says with a huge smile. “We’re getting a trampoline,” Jada adds.
The curriculum is excellent and the financial help is generous, but the personal support of CCSI mentors ensures the success of the program. CCSI matches every mentee with a mentoring family from Woodmont Hills or Schrader Lane. On Tuesday nights the two families share dinner (prepared and served at no cost by volunteers) and participate in the life skills classes, and during the week each mentor and mentee meet or talk at least one additional time.
“It’s nothing fancy,” say Darlene and Buster Wolfe, Woodmont Hills members and Laquita’s mentors. “But it’s powerful. Some people think these young women are uneducated or unmotivated, but they just need an opportunity to get back on their feet.”
Anthony and Anita Ethridge, members at Schrader Lane, also mentor a family. In addition to the weekly meetings, they visit each other’s homes, take long walks, or go bowling. “I enjoy the opportunity to serve as a positive role model for her three young kids,” Anthony says. “We’re building a friendship.”
While it’s empowering to provide practical help to others, mentors say the experience transforms their own lives, as well.
“The program acknowledges the mentees’ enculturation and their need to think about life differently,” says Dean Barham, current senior minister at Woodmont Hills and an enthusiastic advocate of the program. “But it’s just as hard to change the mind-set of the affluent.”
“All the stuff I thought I knew was wrong,” says Buster. “My preconceived notions about why people do things have been replaced with a deeper understanding.”
A visit to one of CCSI’s Tuesday night meetings shows the value of this gradual growth. Caucasian and African-American families talk around tables. Volunteers ladle plates of hot rice and poppyseed chicken and carry platters of fruit and cookies.
Mr. Jim welcomes Trey and listens attentively to his stories from school. After dinner the group sings “Happy Birthday” to one class member, morphing from the traditional tune to a soulful, rhythmic version.
But this program can’t serve everyone, and CCSI’s leaders dream of expansion in Nashville and beyond. Johnson spends more time fund-raising, an advisory board supplements the board of directors to provide resources for new projects, and Johnson even discusses the program with churches and agencies in other cities.
“We do something the government cannot do,” he says. “The government can provide money and mandates, but it can’t provide real relationships.”
“We have a huge opportunity,” adds Barham. “Just as the previous generation grappled with issues of race, the next generation will evaluate the church’s work with our poor and forgotten. I don’t want to miss the chance to make a positive difference.”
Jennifer Taylor, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, lives in Nashville, Tennessee. See her blog at www.ChristianStandard.com.
Christian Community Services Inc. offers the following services.
Basic Financial Training: A four-week “financial literacy” course including classroom instruction and one-on-one counseling. Topics include balancing a checkbook, budgeting basics, and the home-buying process.
Mentoring Toward Independence: A five-year, self-sufficiency program transitioning families from public subsidies. Components include:
• Family mentoring: Connects families with mentors who build relationships, model positive choices, and encourage mentees toward self-sufficiency.
• Adult Basic Life Skills: Trains families in parenting and home ownership and includes the 13-week Financial Peace University course. CCSI is one of the first programs nationwide to apply FPU concepts to a lower-income audience.
• Children’s PASS: Provides tutoring and coaching for mentees’ children; focuses on developing the kids’ Personal, Academic, Social, and Spiritual lives.
• Individual Development Account: Savings accounts established through CCSI to encourage families to save monthly toward down payment on a home, continuing education, or a business start-up. CCSI matches every dollar saved at 200 percent up to an account total of $5,000.
Financial Counseling: Offers individual counseling to improve credit, reduce debt, and buy a home.