By Emily Holladay
National Baptist Memorial Church rests in the heart of Columbia Heights, one of Washington’s most diverse neighborhoods. Located less than two miles from Howard University, the nearly 150-year-old historically black university known for its important role in civil rights struggles, the area has been named among the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States.
After riots in the 1960s led to many of the neighborhood’s homes and businesses being shut down and left dormant for decades, the city announced efforts to revitalize the area in the late 1990s, and launched numerous building projects, including a Metro station that opened in 1999.
Despite an influx of wealthy tenants and businesses, Columbia Heights remains one of the most economically and ethnically diverse areas in the city. The 2010 census found that the area had a population that was 48 percent African-American, 32 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic and 4.5 percent Asian.
Although the addition of new businesses and real estate over the past decade has provided major benefits to the local economy, such development has tended to neglect low-income members of the community who cannot afford to keep up with the neighborhood’s growth.
Led by senior pastor and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship moderator Kasey Jones, National Baptist Memorial Church has sought to be an active force in its community, working to meet the needs of the diverse Columbia Heights area, especially those who find themselves displaced or neglected by the changes taking place around them.
The congregation recognized that many of the children in their community did not have a safe, uplifting place to go when school let out for the summer. Many of these children were on free or reduced lunch at school, and in addition to being left alone during the day while their parents worked, they often went without nutritious meals.
National Baptist knew its limitations as a small church, but wanted to offer a welcoming environment for the children of Columbia Heights to learn, play and grow during the summer. And, in partnership with the CBF and many CBF partner churches, the congregation turned its dream into a reality, starting a summer camp in 2009.
For six summers, the church has hosted the Explorer Camp for children between the ages of 5-12. This six-week camp runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, provides the children with three meals a day and encourages them to grow through team building, missions and Bible study activities. The mission of the camp is to “show Christ’s love and teachings to children and youth by providing a safe, stable, encouraging and fun environment.”
Each summer, the church has employed a team of interns from Student.Go, the CBF’s mission immersion program for undergraduate and graduate students, to lead the program, planning activities for the children and coordinating the volunteer groups that come each week from CBF partner churches. This opportunity allows the interns a chance to develop their leadership skills, while the partnership with Student.Go enables National Baptist to keep this ministry running during a time when most church members are at work.
Not only does the congregation value relationships with the children that come to camp, but it also places a strong emphasis on developing the skills and gifts of the interns serving with them. Through this effort, National Baptist has developed long-term relationships with the young leaders who walk among them each summer, and this past summer, the church asked a former Student.Go intern, Lauren Hovis, to direct the Explorer Camp.
“After serving as a Student.Go intern at National Baptist, I found myself back in D.C. almost every summer,” Hovis said. “Working at National Baptist as a Student.Go intern showed me what it means to be a missional church.”
Model for impact
This summer, the church hosted three Student.Go interns and volunteers from three churches — Mars Hill Baptist Church in Mars Hill, N.C., First Baptist Church in Sylva, N.C., and First Baptist Church of Norman, Okla. The assistance from these churches allowed National Baptist staff and members to focus on the details and minutia of making camp happen, and also gave the visitors a chance to see how a small church can make a huge impact on its community.
“What excited us most was the opportunity to be a part of a church that listened and watched for unique ways to be involved in the life of the community and then jumped at the opportunity when it presented itself,” said Kirk Hatcher, pastor of First Baptist Church of Norman. “National Baptist is reaching out to an area that needs a place for kids to safely go, and to learn to care for one another.”
This summer, the camp hosted 41 children, and for the first time, separated the preteens to allow them to take part in additional service activities and field trips. Many of these older children have been a part of the Explorer Camp since its beginning, and have become a part of the National Baptist community.
In the coming years, National Baptist hopes to take part in D.C.’s Summer Youth Employment Program to give summer jobs to students who have aged out of the program. SYEP is an initiative of the Department of Employment Services that aims to provide youth ages 14-21 in Washington with “enriching and constructive summer work experiences” in both the private and public sector.
“It has been a joy watching the children of our camp turn into young ladies and young men,” said pastor Jones. “Equally exciting is knowing that those children, now adolescents, want to continue to come to Explorer Camp and be camp leaders.”
This article originally appeared in fellowship!, the magazine of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.