Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter
Calvin East Presbyterian Church was searching for a way to reconnect with the community it serves.
Located on the east side of Detroit, the racially mixed urban congregation knew that given all the struggles faced by those in their neighborhood, there had to be some need to address. The congregation found that education was at the root of many of the problems city residents encountered in life.
“Children’s literacy in the city is only in the upper 40th percentile for the county, and the local high school had a graduation rate of under 30 percent,” said the Rev. Mark Tippin, pastor of Calvin East.
These statistics paint a picture of children who were falling desperately behind at a very young age. With many of the church’s 110 members having a background in education, outreach seemed like a natural fit. Calvin East started a tutoring program open to elementary school children in the community.
“I know the response they got to the program was huge,” said the Rev. Al Timm, executive presbyter for Presbytery of Detroit. “I believe they had some 250 parents express interest.”
The first year, 11 members of Calvin East signed up as tutors. Because the program turned out to be such a success, the church was able to network with other churches in the area that expressed interest in helping out. In the program’s second year, the church was able to get tutors not only from among its own members, but from two other Presbyterian churches and one non-denominational church.
This fall will mark the third year of the program, and Calvin East anticipates having about 12 tutors. Each tutor handles one or two students at a time, and the program serves about 20 students a week. Children have the same tutor each time they come. The students come from the five elementary schools within the same zip code as Calvin East.
“The need is actually much greater than we can handle,” Tippin said. “Last year we still had about 40 kids on the waiting list.”
Tippin said some parents are bringing their kids not only for the academic help but because the program also gives them a constructive after-school activity. Others are coming simply because they know they are not where they should be in school.
“What’s really great is seeing some kids get excited about education and learning for the first time,” Tippin said. “Our tutors focus on reading only, although I know a few may go a little further and help with math too.”
The program follows the public school calendar and runs from October until May. The program opted to start in October because that’s generally the point when children and parents realize they might be falling behind and need some extra attention. It also gives the volunteers extra time to prepare, Tippin said.
Last year, the program was expanded to offer not only tutoring, but a free community dinner following each session. The dinner is open to the kids, parents, members and anyone else in the community.
“We try to provide a balanced meal,” Tippin said. “For some of these kids, it might be the best meal they get all day, and for others it may be the only one they get.”
The meals are followed by Bible studies provided by the church for children, youth or adults.
The program has been successful and rewarding not only in its original intent of helping the children of the community, but in other unintended ways that surprised Tippin and the members of Calvin East.
“Partnerships were necessary for this to happen. There’s no way we could have done this financially on our own,” Tippin said. “We were surprised and pleased at the response of other churches who wanted to step in and help with this project.”
The community dinners are funded entirely by a Presbyterian church in nearby Grosse Point. Members of Calvin East organize and run the dinners, but all of the funding comes from Grosse Point. Other churches have given backpacks for the children, contributed to the dinners along with Grosse Point, provided books and given Christmas gifts. The youth of First Presbyterian Church in nearby Plymouth organized a book collection so that Calvin East can now provide a library for the children it serves.
That enthusiasm and willingness to help is part of a mission oriented mindset that has grown and thrived in the Presbytery of Detroit.
“We challenged our churches to get out there and serve their communities and they’ve responded with enthusiasm,” Timm said. “They’ve embraced the idea of a mission-oriented focus and addressing needs within their communities and reconnecting with their neighbors.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.