Smith: Finding the spirit of Chattanooga

Smith: Finding the spirit of Chattanooga

May 30th, 2014 by By Roger Smith in Opinion Columns

Editor's note: This is the first part of an occasional series on people making a difference in Chattanooga.

In his book, "Old Money New South: The Spirit of Chattanooga," Dean Arnold chronicles the fascinating story of how Chattanoogans dealt with problems to become one of the most desirable communities in America.

It wasn't easy. In 1969, in response to seemingly insurmountable pollution problems and the formidable industrial powers behind that pollution, a group of concerned citizens met with the local Chamber of Commerce and formed the Air Pollution Control Board. They refused to be bribed or bullied, yet they maintained a positive relationship with the textile and steel industries that employed more than 80,000 citizens. They found a way to make it work, and they cleaned up our city.

During economic downturns of the 1970s, the city faced another huge crisis as thousands of jobs disappeared. Again, prominent citizens rose to the occasion and formed Chattanooga Venture in 1977 which spawned many other programs that resulted in urban renewal of downtown, the Tennessee Aquarium, the Creative Discovery Museum, a river trail system and Enterprise South industrial park.

We enjoy the fruits of those efforts; however, now, we face a different crisis than pollution and economic stagnation. We face overwhelming social problems that threaten our security and progress. These are maladies for which our government can only apply Band-aids. The cure requires changing men's souls.

For years we have thrown money at social problems that refuse to go away: family abandonment, illiteracy, poor education, poverty, high unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence and murder. Liberal or conservative, we can point political fingers endlessly but it will not solve problems.

Fortunately, not everyone is pointing fingers. Many are taking action, and they look vastly different than previous Chattanooga movers and shakers. They are not all white, Christian, male and rich, but they are nevertheless as committed and they serve just as important roles in the life and future of our city.

I've met four of them recently, and their stories and the valuable service they are performing in our community are inspiring. In their own way they follow the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi who said one should "spread the gospel always, and when necessary use words."

There are many deserving people that I could have written about in this series of commentaries, but due to time constraints I settled for four: Tim Tinsley, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga and leader of the "Men of the City" program; Herbert "Book" McCray, CEO of Independent Youth Services Foundation; Jamal Morris, youth minister at New Monumental Baptist Church; and Lurone "Coach" Jennings, director of the Chattanooga Department of Youth and Family Development.

These four men and others are reaching the "soul" of our city -- mentoring youth, helping people find decent housing and mentoring prisoners. They are doing it by establishing one-on-one relationships that allow those they help to focus on something bigger than themselves to give them real hope. It is an idea with which our city leaders are well in tune. For instance, Coach Jennings noted in his meeting with me that Mayor Andy Berke says, "Government cannot legislate the heart of man."

These men are not oblivious to the concept of separation of church and state in addressing problems that often require them to overlap with local, state and federal government programs. In fact, long before the separation principle was applied in our government, a teacher taught it to his new followers. When asked if he should pay respect to the Roman emperor or to God, the wise man thought carefully then replied, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." The wise man, of course, was Jesus, and the four men who I'll be discussing in the upcoming commentaries know him very well. They have the spirit we need.

Roger Smith of Soddy-Daisy is a frequent contributor to the Free Press page.