Hurricane Katrina was ten years ago this month. Many are remembering the damage, the flooding, and the thousands of people fleeing the Gulf Coast. I remember riding the storm out as it passed through Clinton. It was still a Category 2 hurricane and many trees fell and our power was out for a week. I had just entered my sophomore year at Mississippi College. I had also just accepted a new job that replaced my student worker job in the Admissions Office in a big way. I accepted a job working at my church with our non-profit His Heart, Inc.
The call was an easy one to make. His Heart needed a college intern during the school year. I quickly said yes even though I had just signed on for another year in the admissions office. I had volunteered with His Heart for seven years already. All through junior high and high school I worked our Monday night Bible Club doing everything from snack delivery to music to bible study. I knew the kids well and I loved the people that ran His Heart. So what exactly is His Heart.
His Heart is the inner city ministry of Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson. Calvary is my home church, meaning I have been at that church since I was born. Calvary sits in the middle of West Jackson, an area of town not known for its fine living. Our neighborhood used to be inhabited by church members of Calvary, now most members drive in from the suburbs. Across the nation in the 60s the “white flight” closed down hundreds of inner city churches as white members moved to the suburbs. Our church experienced the same event, but unlike the churches that closed their doors and/or relocated, Calvary stayed. Maybe it was stubbornness, maybe it was a sense of pride. Either way we stayed. In the late 90s, Calvary decided as a church to begin to minister to the people of the neighborhood. This seems like something we should have always been doing, but alas we weren’t. We called upon Linda Smith, who is now our pastor, to be the leader of this inner city ministry initiative. Here we were, an all white church in an all black neighborhood and we were trying to do the impossible it seemed in Mississippi. But God had different plans.
When I joined the His Heart staff, there were only two main workers and me. We had a booming bible club every Monday at two sites. We had huge Halloween, Christmas, Easter, and end of year events. We partnered with community organizations like the Junior League of Jackson to reach our families better. I was entering into a much larger story than I had ever been a part of. So lets start with my first day of work: the day after Katrina hit.
My first day of official work with His Heart began with me arriving to the church and meeting the staff in the parking lot sitting in the back of a pickup with a huge box of Chick-fil-a sandwiches. Our entire neighborhood was out of power so we drove through passing out sandwiches to all our His Heart families. Linda was talking about how she just got ordained, because her friends, Tim and Michelle, wanted her to officiate their wedding and that the house the wedding was supposed to be in got swept away by Katrina. Linda would instead go on to officiate the wedding at a mountain home. As we drove through the neighborhood in front of Calvary we saw many of our families sitting outside escaping the heat of the inside of their homes. We gave out sandwiches and talked with families about trees falling and power lines out in the street. Then we came to one of our families with about 5 kids that were apart of our ministries. The mother began by telling us how sad they were about Katrina, because her and her fiancé’ were supposed to get married this past weekend and the storm had ruined the plans. Linda then told her story about getting ordained and the beach house being swept away. The mother then looked at Linda and said, “You can marry us!” Linda thought about it and turned to our then youth minister, Kent, and they said, “well do you have the marriage license?” She did. I distinctly remember two things, Linda turning to me and saying with a laugh, “I think we are about to have a wedding!” and the mother of the home looking at her kids and saying, “Kids get your shoes on!”
It was a beautiful time. The kids and I led everyone in Bible Club songs on the front walkway of their house. Linda officiated the vows and a message to the couple on their front steps. The I do’s. The kiss. It put so much in perspective. Katrina took so much from the world around this family, but a marriage doesn’t need that. We stood there on the walkway with no instruments, no wedding dress, no flowers, but there was still love. We got back in the truck and Linda looked back at me, “how was that for your first day of work?” From there it just got better.
Over the next year, I found out what it takes to run a small non-profit. We would meet with the board and discuss upcoming events. We would send letters to donors to raise funds. We would write grants and then spend hours upholding the documentation to ensure that we would get that funding the next year. My tasks became more and more diverse as the years went on. His Heart does have a “normal” schedule of events during a week. Monday nights are bible club, Wednesday nights are bible study for youth, and choir for children, and Sundays are church. His Heart holds a Harvest event (Trunk or Treat), a Thanksgiving event (100 families get turkeys), a Christmas event (each student gets a gift and stocking), and a Spring Carnival (inflatable games and end of school celebration). The summers are filled with camps from Vacation Bible School, to Arts Explosion Camp with the Junior League of Jackson, to Music Camp with Crossgates Baptist Church in Brandon, to Central Hills Baptist Retreat, to Camp Garaywa, to Lake Forest Ranch, and everything in-between. A full calendar year at His Heart is exhausting and yet so fulfilling.
One thing repeated through the beginning stages of His Heart was that we would never have enough people or enough money to make an impact in our neighborhood. One year into the ministry and we had a partnership with St. Luther’s Missionary Baptist Church located less than a mile from our church. St. Luther’s became my favorite location for Monday night Bible Clubs. We still work with them today. Also we have had volunteer and mission groups from all over the US come to Calvary to minister to our kids. Over the past ten years I can only say that the number of volunteers we have had numbers in the thousands. On top of that, there has never been a month where His Heart could not pay the basic needs of the non-profit. Although it has been close a few times, God has always provided. He continues to provide today.
His Heart like the passage in 1 Kings. Elijah is speaking to the Lord and he feels God leading him to go outside and stand on a high place, because the Lord is about to pass by him. All of a sudden big events happen. First a huge wind that shatters rocks, then an earthquake that shakes the earth, and finally a fire that tears through the land. Anyone asking for a sign of God would probably expect something like this to show God’s power. But none of these events was God passing by. Instead after all this a gentle whisper came to Elijah. The gentle whisper was God speaking. This is what the ministry of His Heart has become to me over the years. It is not about big and flashy. His Heart does not have a huge budget, it gets by. His Heart does not have updated, spacious facilities to operate in, it uses our church building that is desperately in need of repairs and renovations, where whole sections are condemned from black mold. His Heart does not have really anything that people think are required for inner city ministry. But it does have a loving and providing God. Through Him we have been able to create relationships with hopeless families and children. Also through those same families and children, God has shown himself to us.
Over the past ten years of working full time in the summer and part time during the school year, I have seen incredible changes. I have seen numerous students graduate and become the first in their families to attend college. I have seen youth and children become transformed by Christ working in their lives. I have seen my own life transformed by Christ working through those children. I thank God that I am a part of His plan for West Jackson. Ten years ago I officially joined a staff that I still work with today. I could recount hundreds of stories of my time at His Heart, but maybe that is for another set of posts. For now, if you want to see what His Heart is doing in Jackson, the website link is below. And if you want to see if for yourself, give me a call, I will be glad to introduce you to our neighborhood.