Hoops turn fears into friendship

4/1/2009

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

What started with the simple act of opening a gymnasium door has turned into a ministry that has reconnected Broadmeadow United Methodist Church with its Jackson community.

“The (neighborhood) population changed from older families to younger families in lower-income housing and lots of kids,” said Liz Brister, a member at Broadmeadow. “The youth in the neighborhood figured out (we had a) gym, and they came and asked if they could play. We started opening the gym to them.”
That was about 10 years ago. “About five years ago decided we weren’t doing enough and needed to help them academically,” Brister said.

The result was Books and Basketball, a leadership program that assists teenage boys with their school work, but also does much more.

“We started a tutoring program, but it has grown into a comprehensive leadership program,” said Brister. “We help them understand what leadership means and how to solve problems in the community. But we’re still very tied to basketball; we’ll always have that link. Now we require them to go to tutoring and do community service to play.”

On Wednesdays neighborhood teens come to the church, eat dinner, spend time being tutored and play basketball. They have formed two teams that compete against other United Methodist churches in the area. Both Broadmeadow teams won the league championships this year.

As the program has grown and expanded to include trips to Washington, D.C, New York City and a post-Hurricane Katrina mission trip to New Orleans, Broadmeadow has also grown.

“They are an essential part of who we are,” said the Rev. Rob Hill, Broadmeadow’s pastor. “Those who were once basketball boys are now in our youth group. Those guys aren’t just part of what we do outside the church; they’re participating in the life of church. They are part of the confirmation class, signing in the adult choir and a majority of our UMYF group.

“They are an example of how to reach more people, more younger people and more diverse people.”

Getting to that point has taken time, said Brister, who plays a key role in the program. She said when the boys first began coming to the church, she was reluctant to invite them to attend services. She said not only was she unsure if the boys were ready, but she also wondered about the church members.

“It’s taken time on both sides for people to become comfortable. We had to find out what it means to invite people to your church,” she said. “Now, we’re grooming some young Methodists.”

Brister said Broadmeadow has benefitted spiritually. “It has helped us find our mission, what is our purpose, why are we here,” she said. “It is yielding tremendous growth in people from all walks of life, not just basketball. The program helped us evaluate who we are. There are other things that have assisted our growth, but there is no doubt this issue around race and community and the struggle and resolutions that have come from it have given new life to our church.”

Brister said the program has sought to show the young men the opportunities available to them with a good education. When they went to New York, they visited the offices of former President Bill Clinton. In Washington they visited Sen. Thad Cochran. “We’ve put these kids in contact with major leaders in business and government,” she said.

“We’ve just provided the kind of access that they weren’t getting at home because their parents are struggling to make ends meet by working a couple of jobs.”

Brister said some 36 teens are in the program this year. “For the first time, we see an appreciation for the program from the youth,” she said. “We see an interest in school like we’ve never seen before. We see where they think it’s cool to do well in school.”

Now, in addition to basketball, the program offers theatrical training through New Stage Theater. The program is funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson.

Tutors for the program come from the community and Millsaps College. About 15 tutors are part of the Advanced Teaching Writing class in the Millsaps Writing Center. The class requires a service component, and last fall a group chose to help with Books and Basketball.

Sophomore Ashley Miller said she enjoys the program and “looks forward to it every week.” Miller works mostly with the high school juniors and seniors, all of whom attend Murrah High.

Miller attributes the happiness and motivation of the students to want to do homework as the major success of the program.

The program not only benefits the church and the high school students, it has had an effect on the Millsaps tutors as well. Millsaps junior Michael Mohr recalls an experience that made him feel proud of the tutors’ work.

A group of students he was tutoring was reading Romeo and Juliet and discussing literary terminology, principally the utilization of puns. “When the group returned the next week, they said that they were the only ones in class that had known what puns were.”

Miller is reminded of an event with her group as well. “(The students gave) everyone in my group a nickname. Mine is ‘Wonderwoman,’” she laughs.

Brister pointed out that 99 percent of the students who become involved in the program graduate from high school and then either attend a junior or senior college or joined the military. “They come because they do want something better for their lives. They may have problems, but this is their way of reaching out for help,” said Brister.

Meanwhile, Broadmeadow has gotten to know its neighborhood.

“Many of our parishioners live in the same neighborhood as these kids. The church has become an extended family for these kids, and that’s what churches should be; that safe place for people in the community,” she said. “These kids are our neighbors. It has transformed our community. It truly has. We’ve gotten to know the people we used to fear.”

David Williams of the “Purple & White,” the student newspaper at Millsaps College, contributed to this story.