Ten years ago, 22-year-old Tamara Pridgen would have never imagined she would be back in her old middle school as a long-term substitute teacher and behavioral interventionist, working with students in the same classrooms where she herself once sat.
Pridgen — who lives in Wilmington, Del., with her grandmother, Edythe — spends each day assisting the school’s librarian, teaching sixth graders, working with students to prepare them for state proficiency exams and mentoring students with behavioral problems in the in-school suspension room.
When Pridgen talks about where she is now, what she is doing, and how she got there, she speaks with genuine excitement about her faith and her vocation. She gratefully acknowledges that because she was awarded a Student Opportunity Scholarship from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), she was able to graduate from Wilmington University in New Castle, DE, with a degree in behavioral science in 2009.
The Student Opportunity Scholarship serves PC(USA) college students in select majors — education, health service/science, religious studies, sacred music, social service/science — by providing financial aid for the third and fourth years of an undergraduate program.
“It came at the right time,” said Pridgen of her scholarship, “because at one point I was asking ‘Where is the rest of this money going to come from?’” Before her junior year, Pridgen’s mother and stepfather were laid off from their jobs and moved in with Tamara’s grandmother.
“It was at a time when I was only working part-time so I couldn’t put in too much help, and I was a full-time student so there was only so much work that I could do to keep up with my studies,” she said. “The scholarship was very helpful.”
The following year she again applied for and received the scholarship, and was able to complete her program.
A lifelong member of Community Presbyterian Church in New Castle, where her grandmother is an elder and her mother is a deacon, Pridgen says that the church has always been an integral part of her life. “At the point where I wasn’t made to go to church any more, I just loved going to church because as a church family we were involved in outside things,” she said.
In fact, it was her love of the church’s mission in the world that ultimately led Pridgen briefly into the mission field. In 2007, the husband of Pridgen’s pastor approached her with an opportunity to go to Belize with nearby White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church.
“I just said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll go,’” she said. With those simple words, responding to God’s call to her, Pridgen became the first person in her church ever to go on an international mission trip.
Thus began the unfolding of a missional spirit that not only affected those whom she went to serve abroad but also her own life and the life of two congregations.
Pridgen’s African American church has since begun a relationship with White Clay Creek, a multicultural congregation. “I got to know the people within my denomination and that gave me a chance to broaden my horizons,” said Pridgen. “Not only that, but now the two churches have discovered a bond with its foundation in mission.”
In Belize, Pridgen said her eyes were opened and she fell in love with mission. “While we were there, we started talking about how amazing it would be if we got a chance to go to Africa, so our group leaders started looking into it,” she said.
The next year Pridgen and seven other college students found themselves in Ghana working with Rafiki-Foundation.
“After that I just knew this was my calling, to help people,” she said, “and it helps me now within the field I’m working because it’s an urban school and has kids from so many different backgrounds and I can help them go through what they have to go through because I’ve been in so many different settings.”
Pridgen’s life in the church led her to experience the joy of participating in Christ’s mission, revealing God’s call to help those in her community and enlivening her whole congregation. “Now the youth are just ready to go on a trip every summer and we just want to get involved,” Pridgen said.
“Even though we are young we are willing to let others know about our faith in God,” she said. “I can be as real as anyone on the streets, but I’m going to lead you to the church.”
Pridgen’s vision is to open up a group home for older kids who are unlikely to be adopted. She has seen — through her experiences in the school system — how bouncing from foster home to foster home negatively affects every aspect of a child’s life.
“Having a group home will provide the stability that children need to succeed,” said Pridgen. “God has put that on my heart and I’m trying to slowly work toward it.”
Right now, Pridgen is working toward being certified as a full time teacher, and, after three years of teaching, will try to move up to administration.
“I want to thank the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) for helping me throughout the way. Our denomination is a missionary denomination. That’s what we are based on and it’s helped me to establish myself as a person of faith. I live for helping people,” she said.
*Leadership in a Connectional Church is a mid-winter intensive course offering seminary students the opportunity to learn about the mission work of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly Mission Council.
“One in the Spirit is a monthly e-letter from GAMC Executive Director Linda Valentine to middle governing body staff and other church leaders.