Twenty-year-old Ira Nealy is from an economically distressed, high-crime community in the Arkansas Delta.
Plenty of men his age in his hometown of Helena, Ark., don’t have bright futures.
But such statistics don’t define Ira Nealy — thanks, he says, to a long-standing relationship between a Baptist congregation in Virginia and a Cooperative Baptist program in Helena. They have, Nealy adds, given his life meaning and positive direction.
And this summer, that Virginia congregation — First Baptist Church in Richmond — went above and beyond to bring him, and two other young adults from his hometown, in close contact with ministries and loving Christians who are helping to shape their emerging callings.
“I want to be a youth minister in my hometown,” he now says.
What got a young African-American from the Arkansas Delta thinking about a life in ministry began with Together for Hope Arkansas. Part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Rural Poverty Initiative, the program is an ambitious effort focused on literacy and youth development programming in economically challenged and high-crime Delta communities.
Together for Hope offers programs ranging from preschool reading and leadership training for teens to teaching community college students to help with literacy initiatives.
Volunteers from First Baptist first arrived in Helena in 2006 to participate in Together for Hope’s summer swim camp for children ages 6 to 12. The mission trip was led by Ann Carter, who oversees the congregation’s ministry to sixth and seventh graders.
She had brought her daughter, Claire, then 6 years old, and another mother-daughter duo that year — despite rumors that the town was unsafe due to crime.
“They said your children can make a difference for the kids in this racially divided community,” Carter recalls. “They said your kids can break down barriers.”
And that’s what they saw from the beginning as the white children from Richmond swam, played and ate with African-American children who had never seen such behavior from Caucasians, she said.
“Those kids were watching those girls and asked, ‘Why are you eating lunch with me?’” Carter says. “That hooked my heart.”
arter and members of her family kept going back every year and, as they did so, took larger groups of families and singles from First Baptist with them. Around 200 members of the church have made the trip at one time or another in the past decade, she says.
“It has become a family mission trip.”
And that turned out to be a good thing for hundreds of young campers as well as youth enlisted to work as counselors.
Each summer they saw firsthand how a race-transcending Christian witness can be lived, not just preached.
Nealy was among them. His sister had attended the swim camp and he had gone to the associated Bible study. Molly Palmer, director of Together for Hope Arkansas, made arrangements for him eventually to volunteer at the swim camp.
“I met different people — and I met Ann Carter,” says Nealy.
Before the swim camp and before First Baptist’s arrival, “we didn’t see all the different races and backgrounds coming together and working together in love in the community,” he says.
During a camp lunch break in 2014 and again at a leadership retreat earlier this year, Carter challenged the youth to dream big about ministry, Nealy recalls.
Carter says there weren’t a lot of responses to the question initially. So the conversations continued over several months.
“I said let’s think about it all summer.”
What began to crystallize was an idea to send young people from Helena on mission and learning trips — but to where?
And that’s when the lightbulb lit up.
“What if we brought them here?” Carter said at the time. “What would that look like?”
It was eventually decided that three young adults, all volunteers from programs in Helena, would be brought to Richmond to serve as paid summer interns at First Baptist.
A great idea, Carter thought, but how to pay for it?
In December a possible answer arose: the church’s endowment fund. Carter approached Pastor Jim Somerville, who agreed to make a pitch to the endowment board the next day.
Carter submitted a request for $10,000 and a list of details, including small salaries for three interns, transportation and other anticipated expenses.
Then she just let it go.
“I said, ‘Alright, God, I would love for this to happen but I can’t control it.’”
he purpose of the First Baptist endowment is to support goals and ministries that the church cannot afford, said Carl Johnson, president of the endowment board.
Johnson said it didn’t take board members long to decide on Carter’s request, which they saw as a proposed extension of the relationships that already existed between Helena and Richmond.
“This was a very easy choice,” he said. “All of the members of the endowment were familiar with the long-term relationships [in Helena] and a number had gone on that trip themselves.”
The very next day the endowment said yes.
“I just started crying,” Carter says.
It turned out to be money well spent as Nealy, Aaliyah Johnson and Keyonta Lee arrived in June for two-month internships that would expose them to just about every area of ministry at First Baptist.
And Carl Johnson was right about the extension of relationships, as each of the three were well known to Carter and others from First Baptist, Carter says.
Nealy had been Carter’s “right arm” at camp two summers before, while Aaliyah Johnson had been a Student.go intern last summer. Lee had been a group leader in swim camp in Helena.
They were quickly put to work in Richmond. They served in the church’s community missions program which feeds the homeless. They led vacation Bible school programs and traveled to Greensboro, N.C., for a Passport camp.
They also worked in a housing project in Richmond, helped in healthy life and sports camps, served in the church’s child development center and plugged into the music ministry.
Nealy says the internship, which ended in early August, gave him a new perspective on what it means to serve others in a variety of contexts. It also helped him focus his life goals.
“I feel like my life will be in ministry,” he says. “I can allow these kids to know you can still be a young person and be on fire for Christ.”
he folks at Together for Hope Arkansas are eager to get Nealy, Johnson and Lee back from Richmond, said Palmer, the director. The three young adults now have a deeper understanding of their own gifts, which they can apply in Helena, she believes. And they will be able to serve local children from a place of “broadening advice and experience.”
Plus the time away helps.
“It just completely transforms you to see your own community with fresh eyes,” Palmer says. “And it’s my understanding it’s been really huge for the church, as well.”
It most definitely has been, Carter says.
The presence of the interns has raised the profile of the annual mission trip to Arkansas, and Carter says she’s been getting more inquiries about participation next summer.
And then there was the quality of service the young adults provided the church’s ministries.
“It was supposed to be us helping them,” Carter says. But it was the other way around as “everyone has gotten to know them and their unconditional love and their willingness to do whatever.”
Pastor Somerville told Carter the two-month experiment has been “life giving” and expressed interest in trying it again next year.
“It really has helped energize our congregation,” she says.
— Baptist News Global’s reporting on innovative congregational ministries is part of the Pacesetter Initiative, funded in part by the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. This article was first published in the September/October 2015 issue of Herald, BNG’s magazine sent five times a yearto donors to the Annual Fund. Bulk copies are also mailed to BNG’s Church Champion congregations.