A new hope, inspired by an energetic new generation of leaders, is springing from Helena, Ark., a once-vibrant river town now in the middle of one of the poorest economic regions in the country.
Success stories in Helena were celebrated at two recent events: the Delta Grassroots Caucus at the Clinton Presidential Center and the spring Cooperative Baptist Fellowship assembly of Arkansas.
Catherine Bahn, the 23-year-old assistant director of CBF’s Together for Hope Project in Helena, has taken over the management of that ministry as Ben and Leonora Newell, who have mentored her as a summer worker and intern, are on sabbatical.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Bahn said.
But fulfilling. She says about her call: “Here I am, sitting in the Delta, watching kids I met a couple of years ago grow up, witnessing poverty, yet spiritual growth; observing educational inequity, yet change; mourning the loss of innocent lives, yet hope.”
About 30 percent of the people in Phillips County, where Helena is situated, live below the poverty level and 40 percent of those are younger than 18.
“In 2007, while I was working in Helena as a college student, a young girl came to me and asked, ‘What is college?’ Two years later I saw her again when I walked into a homeless shelter in Little Rock,” Bahn said. “I didn’t know what to say to her.”
The Newells have served in Helena for several years as CBF field personnel, setting the template for the Together for Hope project that involves ongoing ministry to 20 of the poorest counties in the United States. Ben Newell said that when they first arrived in Helena, the local people were skeptical because they had seen a lot of mission projects by various churches come and go in trying to apply a quick fix.
“Sustainability transformation is what Together for Hope is about,” Newell said. “We don’t want to just throw money at the situation but help unleash the gifts of the people that we are living among and serving together.”
“Poverty knows no single race, no single color,” said Bahn. “People viewed that we were going for the quick fix and handing out Band-Aids to them. But when you dig deeper into the community and see its strengths and weaknesses, you also see dreams and how to resource those dreams.”
In seven years, Together for Hope has invested at least $2 million and has used 3,000 volunteers from about 75 churches across the country, including Arkansas, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas. That has empowered 20 projects and ministries with more than 100 people – children, youth and adults – accepting the call of Christ.
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Among the projects are: swimming lessons for youth resulting from a pool renovation; a renovation of a community center; the building of a church in a downtown area long abandoned; a mobile library to nearby towns; a community garden; and a soon-to-be-opened “Eden Market,” where some local entrepreneurs and business people can sell everything from food to crafts.
But Together for Hope is not the only example of a spirit that is permeating the Delta. Helena is now becoming a center for young- and middle-aged adults with a sense of entrepreneurship and mission. It was one of the focal points at the Delta Grassroots Caucus that brought hundreds of workers and businessmen from several states to Little Rock.
There was Will Staley, one of the developers at Thrive. The nonprofit helps develop design and marketing plans for people who cannot afford to pay a private company to develop their dreams.
There was Chalk Mitchell, an attorney who returned to his hometown to provide low-cost legal services to low-income people. “It’s easy to take a position of ‘what can I do?’ But that’s a cop-out,” Mitchell said. “It’s easy to sit back and criticize others for what they could do. You have to step forward and make a difference.”
There was Ginny Blankenship, director of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school in which fifth-graders, who were in the 30th percentile in nationwide testing five years ago, are now in the 91st percentile in math and 84th in languages. She expects 100 students from the first class at KIPP to go to college this fall.
“Some of these students have come essentially from the middle of nowhere, and people have given up and abandoned long ago,” Blankenship said.
“I never expected myself in Helena-West Helena at age 23,” Bahn said in her testimony to the CBF assembly at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock. “But God has his way of making things make sense. And when you accept it, no matter how crazy or irrational it seems, a light bursts forth like the morning sun – and you’re exactly where you should be.”
CBF of Arkansas has raised more than $30,000 in the last few months to support Bahn’s ministry. The funds will also support Mollie Palmer in full-time ministry in Helena. Palmer, as a young intern, helped develop the Delta Jewels project for impoverished teen-agers.
At the end of the service celebrating Together for Hope at the CBF assembly, Ray Higgins, director of CBF of Arkansas, invited everyone who had served as an intern or leader in Helena and been part of a mission project, to assemble on stage for a picture. About 100 individuals came forth, more than half the audience.
“This is a picture of being missional,” Higgins said. “This is a picture of hearing God’s voice.”
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.