Editor's Note: This is the third of four commentaries about good things that are happening in Chattanooga through faith-based programs.
Today, I consider two community leaders who believe hope can replace despair and that people can make a difference.
Jamal Morris was a talented basketball player at Cleveland High School. His team won the state championship his senior year while he watched from the stands. He says his bad attitude got him kicked off the team. In retrospect, he says, it was a good thing since it made him take a hard look at his life and where he was headed. He accepted Christ a year later and has been active in faith-based community and church programs ever since.
He serves as youth minister at New Monumental Baptist Church in Brainerd but Jamal doesn't just work behind the church walls. Through the InterVarsity program, Jamal, students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and others in his church are able to establish relationships with elementary and middle school students. They eat lunch with them, attend their sporting events, play pickup basketball with them, or get them involved in the Lexia reading program to help kids that have fallen behind in school. They break down the tough façade that kids build around themselves when they are without the love and guidance they need. Once they establish a relationship, they begin the mentoring process by sharing their faith and helping the children make meaningful changes in their lives.
Jamal says school administrators welcome Intervarsity mentors because they recognize the need for their kids to associate with adults who can provide positive role models, support and encouragement.
Jamal also reaches out through his role as youth minister. For example, in late October, his church will host a huge block festival called Our Block, Our City, welcoming those who seek help, safety and hope for the future. Jamal says people must be willing to step out of their comfort zones to make a difference, and he does just that. He is an enthusiastic speaker and often makes presentations to churches and other organizations throughout Chattanooga on the needs and opportunities to serve as mentors, reading facilitators or simply financial supporters. If you wish to work with Jamal, InterVarsity or New Monumental Baptist Church, go to www.newmonumental.org.
Like Jamal, Herbert "Book" McCray is a tireless worker with the youth in Chattanooga. He led his high school team in Louisville, Ky., to a state basketball championship, and he was a member of the national champion UTC Mocs in 1977. While here, he fell in love, got married and has been a big part of our community for 41 years. He was an elementary school teacher, and in 2003 he formed Independent Youth Service Foundation (IYSF). His organization pairs mentors with high-risk students to try to help young men, some of whom may have already been suspended or expelled from school, to believe in themselves and become responsible citizens. IYSF does this through after-school and summer activities ranging from basketball leagues and skills clinics to service in community food programs to the Lexia reading program. They have a remarkable success rate. To learn more or to get involved, go to www.iysfinc.org.
Book points out, "For all the bad things you read about in our community, there is an equal amount of good." He told me about one of many kids his organization has mentored through the "Boys to Men" program of IYSF. The young man is a high school junior, plays in the band at Brainerd High School, maintains a 3.7 GPA, and dreams of going to Alabama A&M to become a teacher. Book concludes by sharing a favorite verse, Psalm 133:1: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!" It is certainly pleasant to meet men like Jamal and Book. They need more of us to step out of our comfort zone to join them. Together, we can make a difference.
Roger Smith is a frequent contributor to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.