‘Jesus would want us to do it all’
Bellevue church’s outreach to at-risk youth transforms hearts, lives, schools, church, community
October 30, 2013
Picking up a basketball changed Brent Christie’s life.
Twelve years ago, the former hospitality industry executive walked away from his dream job at an iconic hotel company with no idea as to what he would do next.
“I was going to start another business when I was introduced during worship to the witness of a student at Eastside Academy, a last-chance, alternative high school for at-risk youth housed at our church,” said Christie, a member of First Presbyterian Church, Bellevue, Wash., known as BelPres. “I sat in the pew and thought, ‘That’s something I can do. I can fix those kids.’”
Christie — who at the time considered himself to be a “more intellectual Christian, who wasn’t experiencing the risen Christ” — said that on that particular Sunday, rather than “sitting at church, consuming ministry, and then typically going home,” he instead went into a room after the service to learn about becoming a mentor at the school.
Impressed by “the truth and transparency” of Eastside Academy’s two representatives, Christie volunteered to lead a group of students on an upcoming water skiing trip. When the appointed date arrived, it was a typical, rainy Seattle day.
“Since they couldn’t go water skiing, Brent just picked up a basketball and they started to play,” said Scott Dudley, pastor and head of staff at BelPres. “By the end of that time, he just decided to form this basketball team, and that’s where Jesus really started to shape him. It brought him into contact with kids he might have formally judged, and allowed him to find out their stories. He began to really love these kids, and these kids loved him.”
The fledgling basketball team became an opportunity for the Eastside Academy students — many of whom had lost the chance to play sports when they were expelled from their previous high schools — to again have pride in something.
“The first game, the parents showed up to cheer for their kids,” Dudley recalled. “These were parents who hadn’t much cheered for their kids for anything, ever.”
As the team’s coach, Christie said that as he watched “broken lives coming to life around a basketball court,” he also found himself changed. “God took over my life from that point,” he said. “When I said I was going to fix these kids, God used them to fix me.”
Dudley calls Christie one of his “Exhibit As.”
“Brent went to church but he wasn’t much captured by it, until he saw these kids transformed and their lives begin to change through the power of Jesus’ love,” Dudley said. “That began to change him, and he got hooked. He wanted more and more and more.”
Dudley said that Christie’s growing hunger for an authentic experience of Jesus was a dynamic that was simultaneously at work in other parts of the church, including the Women’s Prayer Fellowship, which also began to nurture relationships with the students at Eastside Academy, initially by hosting a monthly breakfast.
“They became the moms and the grandmoms that some of these kids never had,” Dudley said. “More and more what I felt God and this church wanted to do was to turn outward to the community.”
The congregation’s growing missional orientation came into clear focus on the occasion of the church’s 50th anniversary in 2005, its Jubilee.
“For our Jubilee, we didn’t want to throw a big old party for ourselves,” said Dudley, “What we wanted to have was a year of giving back, setting free, canceling debt, and doing that for the community.”
Jubilee Service Day, which began in August 2005 with some 900 church volunteers cleaning, power-washing, setting up classrooms, and doing minor repairs at Stevenson Elementary School, continues today as an annual event with over 1,500 volunteers from more than 30 churches serving all of the elementary schools in Bellevue.
“On the Sunday after our annual service day, we all close the doors of our respective congregations and worship together as one church,” Dudley said.
Yet as outward as the congregation’s focus had become, the church came to the realization that it could not neglect its own physical plant, especially an aging building on its campus in dire need of renovation.
“One day I was arguing with our children’s ministry director, who said to me, ‘This building is going to fail on your watch,’” recalled Dudley. “When I asked her, ‘Are you telling me Jesus wants us to take care of our building and not the people of our community,’ she leaned forward and said, ‘I’m telling you, Jesus would want us to do it all.’ And I thought to myself, now there’s a vision.”
So in 2005, BelPres launched a $14 million capital campaign organized around three circles: helping the youth of the church, helping the youth of the community, and helping the youth of the world. Counter to the predictions of the most experienced fundraising consultants, the campaign was oversubscribed.
“We needed $14 million, we raised $16 million,” said Dudley.
The centerpiece of the campaign’s middle circle — helping the kids in the community — led to the founding in 2006 of Jubilee REACH, a non-profit organization serving Bellevue’s at-risk children and families. Jubilee REACH evolved out of taking the time to “love, listen, and learn” from school principals, counselors, and local government officials to hear the “deeper needs” of children and families in the Bellevue schools and community.
Not surprisingly, Brent Christie was called as Jubilee REACH’s executive director.
“The original plan was for the building to house Eastside Academy, but as we kept following Jesus, the Jubilee REACH concept emerged,” Dudley said. “If anyone would have told us that we could partner with the school district to meet the needs of the community, I don’t think that any one of us could have imagined that.”
Christie said that after six years of “building relationships and earning trust” serving the needs of the Bellevue School District, the fruit was apparent. At the invitation of the school district, the ministry’s most successful Club Jubilee program was expanded to all seven of Bellevue’s middle schools in 2011, reaching a population of 4,128 students, engaging kids in activities rooted in building relationships.
Jubilee REACH “Site Coaches” serve as shepherds in the schools building community, facilitating sports teams, improving students’ test scores, and transforming lives and the culture within schools.
“We are called to be salt and light in our community’s schools,” Christie said. “Every child simply wants to be known, loved and affirmed. Every child wants to belong.”
The fact that the organization is faith based is not largely an issue.
“If there’s ever any complaint about why a Christian organization is in the schools, the schools themselves overcome any resistance by sharing their data and success stories,” said Christie.
Anissa Bereano, principal of Highland Middle School, recently thanked Jubilee REACH in an email for achieving such “staggering results” in improving the students’ test scores.
“Data doesn’t tell the whole story but it certainly is one way of measuring our progress,” wrote Bereano. “In 2011, Highland students had a 63.4% pass rate in reading. In 2012, the pass rate increased to 79.9%. In 2011, Highland students who qualified for free or reduced lunch had a 46% pass rate in reading. In 2012, the pass rate increased to 70.6%. In 2011, Highland Hispanic students had a 43.6% pass rate in reading. In 2012, the pass rate increased to 67.8%. Science scores increased 14.1% and math 5.8%.”
Bereano also cited higher staff morale and the Highland community’s overall transformation.
“The really amazing figures about the reading improvements in the schools and the reduction in gang activity all appear to be very closely associated with the arrival of the program,” said Steve Aeschbacher, a ruling elder at BelPres who also serves on the board of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the ministry and mission agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“Although BelPres has continued to support Jubilee REACH with people, funds and a significant presence on the board, it is now very much an independent group with broad community support,” he said.
Since its founding, Jubilee REACH has expanded to serve physical, educational, social, and emotional needs for children, adults, and families across 39 programs on topics from community gardening to ESL to bible study.
The organization also provides both before-school and after-school care to help those parents whose work schedules left them no choice but to drop their children off at the locked doors of their schools. In addition to a safe, warm, fun place where students receive help with homework, hugs, and attention, Jubilee REACH also provides a nutritious breakfast at its morning program.
“The smiling faces of parents and children as they arrive — and the smell of bacon — have become hallmarks of our community,” said Shawntel Hatch, director of operations for Jubilee REACH. “As our staff and volunteers connect with the kids and connect them to our program, it sets the pace and the mood of who we are.”
Hundreds of volunteers — like Karen Taylor, who is affiliated with BelPres through its Women at the Well small group ministry — have also been transformed by Jubilee REACH.
Taylor, a retired special education teacher with 20 years of experience, said that as she watched her beloved community and neighborhood begin to change, she found that her “heart was hardening against the world.”
“This is not the way to live,” Taylor said. “I asked myself, ‘How can I learn about other cultures? How can I find the joy in humanity again?’”
Taylor had been hearing about Jubilee REACH for several years from her friends at BelPres, who were instrumental in the non-profit’s formation. When her friends told Taylor that she would see the face of God there, she became a volunteer ESL teacher.
“I found the truth I was seeking when I first walked through the doors of Jubilee REACH,” Taylor said. “I really felt the presence of God. My students have brought — and will continue to bring — to my life a variety of world cultures for me to appreciate and to understand. Every one of my students is precious to me, and their acts of kindness in the classroom towards each other, as well as towards me, have given me a renewed sense of hope for the future of humanity.”
There was a phrase in the church’s capital campaign that led to the founding of Jubilee REACH that Dudley said sums up all of those who have been transformed through their service to the organization: “God doesn’t use us to get projects done. God uses projects to get us done.”
“In so many ways, Jubilee REACH got me ‘done’ and it got my family ‘done,’” said Dudley. “It was one of the tools that God used to shape me, to shape Brent, and shape a lot of people.”
Dudley said that the growth in Bellevue has only just begun. He would like to begin to help people in their small groups and in their friendships “discern individually what their passion is and then go for it.”
“A big part of what drives me in terms of the church’s outward focus is that first of all it’s a non-negotiable in scripture, and second, we Presbyterians really need it,” said Dudley. “I love the fact that we value the life of the mind and that’s important, but it’s also important to do. Orthopraxy and orthodoxy go together.”
“Part of what Jesus is saying is if you want to find me, serve.”
Emily Enders Odom is a communications associate for the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, serving in the Office of the Executive Director.