Photo courtesy of Emerald Youth Foundation
Emerald Avenue UMC and the nonprofit it created more than 20 years ago -- Emerald Youth Foundation -- are bringing new life to children and youth in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Knoxville, Tenn.
June 5, 2012 | In 1986, when the Rev. Bob Bean became the new pastor at Emerald Avenue United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., he found an aging congregation with low morale, no youth and no youth program. Once solidly middle-class, the surrounding neighborhood near downtown Knoxville had fallen on hard times as residents fled to the suburbs.
“My first Sunday, there were 70 gray-haired people in their 60s, 70s and 80s and a couple of kids,” Bean said. “The atmosphere and attitude was, ‘We’re probably going to die.’”
But here’s the thing about facing death: it can free you up for all kinds of possibilities. Maybe even resurrection.
Rather than focusing on their own needs, church members decided to stay in the neighborhood and reach out to the community. Though Emerald Avenue had few children of its own, the church decided to start a youth ministry to serve children in the area.
From a tentative start as a part-time summer outreach effort, the youth program grew and thrived, bringing new life to the church. Within a few years, the church established a nonprofit organization, Emerald Youth Foundation, to take the program to a broader section of inner-city Knoxville.
Today, Emerald Avenue UMC is a lively 440-member multiracial congregation with a host of ministries. And a half-block away, Emerald Youth Foundation -- a separate nonprofit with a $2.8 million annual budget -- provides outreach each year to more than 1,200 youth in some of Knoxville’s poorest neighborhoods through a network of 21 churches and faith-based organizations.
Questions to consider:
- What does your church assume youth ministry looks like? How might it envision youth ministry beyond the “fellowship group” that meets in the basement?
- Emerald Avenue UMC connected youth ministry and community mission in vital ways. How can your church integrate these often-separate areas?
- What is the “core Christ-calling” of your church or organization? How well do people know and understand it?
- What “kickball,” or small step, could you set in motion to bring about a new sense of mission and connection?
- What does it mean to have a “whole-person response” to the needs of young people? How would that shape youth ministry where you serve?
To the Rev. Jim Bailes, who succeeded Bean as pastor in 2010, Emerald Avenue UMC is “The Church for Whosoever Will Come for Whatsoever Will Happen Next.”
“This church 20 years ago gave its heart to this community’s children, youth and young adults,” Bailes said. “Emerald Avenue has felt this as their core Christ-calling in this time and place.”
Over the years, the church has repeatedly stepped out in faith, opening itself to whoever showed up and whatever happened.
The first step
The first and perhaps biggest step was back in 1988, when the Emerald Avenue church council agreed to hire Steve Diggs, a recent Maryville College graduate, as a part-time intern to lead the summer youth program.
“They accepted with reservations, because they didn’t know where the money was coming from,” Bean said.
From the outset, Diggs -- a Methodist pastor’s son with a B.A. in business management -- and the congregation had their work cut out for them. They had little experience working with urban youth, but the community had great needs. The area was marked by high unemployment, poverty, failing schools and shattered families.
Diggs, who would later become the foundation’s executive director, began his ministry with a kickball.
“At first, we’d roll a kickball out, and we’d have a seventh-inning devotional,” Diggs said.
As more neighborhood kids began showing up, Diggs and church members expanded their activities, taking the children on outings to the swimming pool, ballpark, theme parks and the mountains -- places that many had never been before.
Diggs quickly saw that the children needed more than outings and activities. Though the kids wanted to be in the youth group and yearned for community, many were struggling with overwhelming problems at school and at home. One teen, for example, was living with her boyfriend and already had a baby. Clearly, this was not going to be a typical United Methodist youth group.
“It did not take long to realize that the needs of the children required a whole-person response,” Diggs said. “They needed Christ, they needed restored family life, academic remediation, fun things to do and much more.”
Though a few church members left, most stayed, supporting the new ministry and developing the steely commitment they would need to see it through. They cooked meals. They helped with youth activities. They worked with small groups and provided transportation. And they dealt with aggravation.
“When you bring outsiders in who don’t look like we do and act like we do, it’s going to cause tension,” Bean said.
One night a young man, who later started a gang in the neighborhood, spat on Bean. Occasionally, Knoxville police came to the church looking for some of the youth group kids, wanting to question them about the latest incident in the neighborhood.
“Sometimes I thought it wasn’t possible to bring the churched and the unchurched together,” Diggs said.
Throughout it all, Bean and a few others stepped up and took calming leadership roles.
“He told us over and over that this was what God had called the church to do and be,” Diggs said. “And that allowed me to stay focused on the outreach and build the ministry.”
Despite the obstacles, Diggs and church members began forming relationships with the children and their families. Before long, church members’ lingering reservations were eased, if not overcome, by the many “firsts” they saw neighborhood kids experiencing -- their first real connection with a church, first youth group, first beach trip, first hotel stay and first student Bible.
“I saw hope come alive, and I could not walk way,” Diggs said.
At the end of that first summer, the church upped its commitment, hiring Diggs part time, and before year’s end, upgraded the position to a full-time job. Soon, Diggs and his wife, Sabrina, bought a house in the neighborhood, where they and their children still live and where the children attend school.