When the Rev. Jonas Hayes came from a large church in Palo Alto, Calif., to be the solo pastor for a small church in the Mississippi River Delta, he realized he needed to spend time getting to know his new community.
So he focused on discernment as he dealt with his culture shock.
“A lot of people in Mississippi are fearful of people coming in from the outside, telling them how they should do things, so I spent the first year or year and a half trying to sense what the needs were in the community,” Hayes said.
He began to realize that most of what he calls the “stigma of the delta” come from the issues of education and crime — specifically, juvenile crime.
“Usually, when you see statistics about issues of health or public education, Mississippi is near the bottom — and the delta is at the bottom when it comes to the whole state,” Hayes said. The grade point averages of youth are among the lowest in the country; nearly 65 percent of crime is juvenile-related.
“So, as I began to observe, I saw the need for a program to increase academic success and to reduce criminal involvement,” Hayes said. “Not only would that help the youth, but maybe it would help the county perceive itself in a less self-deprecating way, to feel a sense of hope instead of helplessness.”
After discussing his ideas with the youth court judge, Hayes saw the need for the faith community to engage with the court to address the problems.
Such a partnership led to Delta 180, an after-school program run out of First Presbyterian Church of Greenville. The weekday program seeks to teach life skills through activities with youth. Based on 180 Degrees, a program in Oregon, Delta 180 provides structure and curriculum as well as facilitator training.
“We’ve had artists come and do arts and crafts with them, we had an auto body shop and a gym that teaches fitness and boxing,” Hayes said. “And after our first year we saw that the youth increased their school attendance by 50 percent. That seemed like a big deal.
“I think what they are seeing is that people in the community care about them, enough that they are volunteering their time to be there three hours a day for four days a week — these are business leaders and medical professionals — who are doing it because they want to.”
Hayes also sees the practicality of the life skills as being a draw for the youth as well.
“It helps them in their exploration of what they want to do, since our facilitators speak about their own vocation — for the youth, that can be empowering,” he said. “When you cover a variety of subjects that address the needs of the whole child, the whole person, that also helps change a pattern of behavior in a child that is destructive.”
It’s a story that has begun to gain more attention around Greenville’s Washington County and throughout Mississippi.
But the program isn’t a quick fix, Hayes said, adding that a wide-ranging and long-term investment in change is essential.
“You have to pay attention to a lot of details to change a course — it doesn’t happen fifty degrees at a time, but one by one,” he said.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.