Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of four commentaries about faith-based efforts to help correct social problems in Chattanooga.
Lurone "Coach" Jennings casts a large shadow across our community, heightened by his years as a teacher, football and track coach, and principal at Howard High School; pastor at Bethlehem United Methodist Church; and, now a Department of Youth and Family Development administrator on Mayor Andy Berke's staff.
He is a wise man and considers his words carefully before answering my questions. His replies reflect confidence that we can overcome many problems such as crime, illiteracy and poverty with a renewed spiritual presence coupled with other government and civic programs.
Jennings has no problem being both a faithful government servant and an unapologetic Christian. In fact, he thinks the two roles go hand-in-hand. He points out, for instance, that Mayor Berke recognizes that government alone cannot solve our city's social ills, and has called upon the city's faith-based organizations for assistance by hosting interfaith prayer breakfasts and asking the city spiritual leaders to pray for him and our city government.
Like his boss, Jennings believes faith-based organizations can change our city's future.
"Are we going to wait until we get to heaven?" he asks. "What are we going to do now to change an individual, a family, a city?"
He knows people of faith can teach Chattanoogans that they do not have to be shackled by the bonds of welfare and entitlement programs that were never intended to be long-term solutions for temporary needs. The Bible teaches, for instance, that there is honor in one's chosen work.
He told me about other faith-based programs at work like the one headed by the Nation of Islam that encourages young men in South Chattanooga to be entrepreneurs and responsible citizens in their community. Additionally, Jennings says churches in Chattanooga can be critical resources to focus on the importance of education among their congregations.
He proudly told me about the highly acclaimed Lexia reading program to help both youth and adults learn to read. Tapping the table for emphasis, he says, "That is the first step to helping people get on track to being more responsible to their family and community -- they must learn to read."
Jennings' staff administers the Lexia program at 17 centers throughout the city, many in community church facilities. Using an analogy from his coaching days, he points the way forward. He told his players, "Know your assignments. Work for the common goal of victory. Create an environment so everyone can be successful."
How can Chattanoogans do this?
First, Jennings says, pray for our city, and he rattles off 2 Chronicles 7:14 (I paraphrase) in which God's people are told to pray for themselves and God responds in turn that he will hear their prayer, forgive them and "heal the land."
Second, Jennings says citizens should get involved as mentors, as reading facilitators or with any of a myriad of programs. A good place to start is www.chattanooga.gov, and click on the Department of Youth and Family Services page.
In wrapping up, I had to ask what it was like to coach the great "Minister of Defense," Reggie White, when he played at Howard High School. Jennings smiled wistfully as he said, "When you are in the presence of greatness, you sense it."
I sensed also, that I was in the presence of a great man who is helping lead our city in the right direction to overcome the huge social problems we confront. As President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961, "Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing here on Earth God's work must truly be our own."
In this spirit, Jennings leads us onto the field in our little corner of this great land.
Roger Smith is a local author and frequent contributer to the Free Press editorial page.