When I was five or six years old, I attended a Vacation Bible School at a Baptist church somewhere on the south side of Jackson. I can’t remember the name of the church now, only that on the last afternoon every boy and girl, ages five to nine, were packed into a multi-purpose room (what Baptists might call a “fellowship hall”), and a man or woman told us that we needed to be saved. I don’t ever remember any name of the devil being used . . . no Satan, Lucifer, or Beelzebub. I believe they generally referred to “the evil in the world.” As a young boy, the only personification I had ever seen of “evil in the world” was Darth Vader . . . and, maybe, the Emperor. Regardless of the details, in my five-year-old mind, the evil was definitely part of the Empire. When we were asked to close our eyes and “ask Jesus into our hearts” if we wanted to be saved, I did not hesitate. When we were asked to raise our hands if we had extended the invitation, my hand shot up faster than Luke’s newly fashioned, green light saber. There was no way I was going to the dark side. When I got home that afternoon, I told my mom, and she asked me if I knew what I had done. I said, “Yeah. I just got saved from Darth Vader.” That was my earliest memory of what I came to know as evangelism.
Growing up in church, I eventually learned that evangelism was more than verbally telling people of the sacrifice and atonement of Jesus Christ. We used vernacular such as “lifestyle evangelism,” which basically meant that we were too afraid or embarrassed to cold call on a random soul in the line at McDonald’s. There was still pressure to do that, though . . . to show how strong our faith was by witnessing to people, whether we knew them or not. I remember at some point in college that I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I just wasn’t cut out for making the sale. I just couldn’t bring myself talk to random people about where they thought they would spend eternity. I just decided that I was a lifestyle evangelist. As I grew to be an adult, I was both conflicted and somewhat confused about the process and the way the world seemed to unfold in front of me while viewed in the context of instantaneous salvation. I realized how fortunate I was to have parents that could help me process the things I heard at a young age. I also realized how much that early dogma continued to affect me in my adult years.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a video about a program called ARISE Jackson. The message simply said, “Seen this? Thoughts?” I watched the video and saw a lot of things that I didn’t think could coexist together in a span of three minutes: the superintendent of our public school system, a pastor from a church, the president of Lane College, the president of Union University, the word “evangelism,” the word “Christ,” a cross steeple in front of floating clouds, and the mayor of our city. Each of the people on the video were endorsing a program called ARISE Jackson. The acronym ARISE stands for A Renewal in Student Education and Evangelism. At its core, the program has the goal to teach second grade students to read basic “sight words,” with the underlying purpose(s) being (depending on who is speaking in the video) volunteerism, evangelism, service, or unity. I had two very different, very conflicting thoughts about this video after it was over.
The first thought I had was: “Is this even legal?” I don’t have to rehash all of the issues that have been in the news about “under God” in the pledge, moments of silence in class, or religious songs being included in the middle school Christmas program. The separation of church and state has been a legal issue since Thomas Jefferson spoke the words over 200 years ago. I found it out very bold and somewhat confusing as to why our school system was so blatant with the words “evangelism” and “Christ.” I also wondered how these words would fit into the fabric of the program that was geared toward second grade students, which by the way, are around seven or eight years old . . . only a couple years older than I was when I had my first experience with “evangelism.”
The second thought I had was: “This is outstanding! How can I promote this program?” Besides being a “recovering Baptist,” I’m also an eighth grade Reading/Language Arts teacher. Every day, I see the struggle my students have with reading. I see the reinforcement that they are missing at home and the basic building blocks of reading that they missed as a young child. If that video had replaced “Christ” and “evangelism” with “Vader” and “dark side of the Force,” I would’ve still been excited to see students in our system getting one-on-one tutoring in reading . . . even if it might have been from a stormtrooper. I wanted to find out a little more about the program, so I contacted the director of ARISE Jackson: Linda Austin.
Besides being the director of ARISE Jackson, Mrs. Austin was also my ninth grade English teacher at Jackson Central-Merry in 1994. I was a little nervous when I called to discuss the program with her, fearing she may remember my inability to memorize ten lines from Romeo and Juliet and my complete and total lack of interest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Luckily, neither were mentioned during our conversation. What was mentioned, however, was the long path she took to bring ARISE Jackson to partner with our school system.
The ARISE program actually began in Memphis and, while partnering with second grade classes in schools, helped to raise TCAP (the state’s standardized test) scores and overall reading levels of second grade students. The ARISE program uses the model of TEAM READ, which is a volunteer program that focuses on one-on-one interaction between volunteers and second grade students. The focus is on teaching second grade students to learn two-thirds of the necessary sight words by using the FRY model. If second grade students can learn two-thirds of the common sight words, then those students would be at a third grade reading level and, therefore, right on track for continuing to progress reading at a steady rate.
Mrs. Austin brought the idea to Dr. Verna Ruffin, who is the superintendent of schools in Jackson. Initially, Dr. Ruffin was only interested in the TEAM READ aspect of ARISE Jackson. According to Mrs. Austin, Dr. Ruffin valued the volunteer aspect of the program and the reading aspect of the program, but did not want to partner with ARISE Jackson, but would be on board with TEAM READ. Mrs. Austin was determined to use the ARISE Jackson model, that included evangelism. After the initial refusal to use ARISE Jackson, a friend of Mrs. Austin contacted Jim Campbell (the chairman of the school board) and presented the program to him and a few weeks later Dr. Ruffin was on board with ARISE Jackson.
While talking to Mrs. Austin, I wanted to clarify the role of evangelism in the program. My main concern was that the reading material might include words like “salvation,” “evil,” “sacrifice,” or “eternity.” I remembered how my six-year-old mind attempted to process grand ideas like “salvation,” “evil,” or “eternity.” I knew the power those ideas had on a young mind. I was concerned about the exposure of such concepts to an eight-year-old who may or may not have an adult at home to help him process the ramifications of those ideals and beliefs. I weighed the trade-off between an eight-year-old reading on his grade level versus an eight-year-old trying to work through imposing, philosophical ideas. Mrs. Austin assured me that any type of evangelism was servant-oriented. There would be no verbal evangelizing while the volunteers worked with the students. The “E” in ARISE Jackson referred to “servant evangelism” or, as it used to be known, “lifestyle evangelism.” After talking to Mrs. Austin, I felt a little more at ease with the role of evangelism in the program.
While speaking with Mrs. Austin, my attention was brought to what servant evangelism in the context of ARISE Jackson actually is. Mrs. Austin explained that churches are partnered with schools in order to help the schools with whatever they can. If that means a church can provide manpower to help teachers set up rooms before the school year begins, then the church will help. If it means providing lunch during in-service for the school, then the partner church will provide. If it means helping the student reach their potential in reading comprehension, then the volunteers are available. This mindset, above all else, is what drives ARISE Jackson.
Mrs. Austin mentioned something that a student had told a volunteer after a one-on-one tutoring session. As the student and volunteer were walking back to class, the student said, “I like you.” The volunteer echoed the sentiment and told the student that they liked them as well. The student then said, “I like you because you listen to me.” Mrs. Austin went on to explain that one common characteristic of poverty is noise. Many of the children in our system rarely get the opportunity to have one on one time with an adult who will listen to them. These children need the opportunity to speak and be listened to as they form their opinions and learn to read.
As I ciphered through the transcription of my conversation with Mrs. Austin and re-watched the video several times, I was still left with the conflicting feeling I had at the beginning of this article. Is there a way we can serve our town without an ulterior motive like evangelism? Can we use the positive aspects of a program like this to strengthen the intellectual growth of our town? Will we ever see the fruits of our labor in our lifetime? As I was thinking through all of these possibilities and questions, one person on the video seemed to stand out to me, and that was Logan Hampton, president of Lane College. Towards the end of the commercial for ARISE Jackson, Dr. Hampton says, “When we start working together to accomplish our common goal, then we’re truly unified, we’re truly reconciled, and we get past so much of what divides us.”
There was a time when churches left certain areas of town to build bigger and better buildings away from the crime that was beginning to grow around their congregation. Maybe they left because they were scared or maybe they left because the racial dynamics were changing rapidly and they were uncomfortable. Regardless of the reasons, they ran away from issues they could help rather than staying and investing. Despite my initial concerns of evangelism in ARISE Jackson, the greater cause in this situation is reconciliation. Maybe this program can begin to bridge the gap between the chasms that seem to be growing wider in our town every day. Maybe this program can be the start of reinvestment and reconciliation between different people groups and races. Regardless of the acronym, I believe ARISE Jackson is a step in the right direction. It shows the willingness of investment in children for the betterment of our community as a whole. It addresses a social need in our town, while also lending itself to the giving of time to enhance and help young people to read. In the end, maybe the servant evangelism aspect can serve the greater good of our community. When we start to look outside of ourselves and become less concerned with how we, individually, relate to the universe and start looking at ways we can enhance our fellow citizens, then we can make a lasting impact on our community.
If you are interested in volunteering with ARISE Jackson or just want to know more about the program, email Linda Austin at email@example.com. In order to run at its maximum potential, the program needs one volunteer per second grade students. This could be a great way to help our students learn the basics of reading.
Enjoy this promotional video for the program:
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Header image by Kristi Woody.