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EDITOR'S NOTE: This concludes a series of commentaries about faith-based efforts to help remedy social problems in Chattanooga.
The "Spirit of Chattanooga" was a term coined in 1917 by local attorney/historian Henry Martin Wiltse in "High Lights of Chattanooga History." He used it to describe the city's resilience in meeting the ravages of the War Between the States, Reconstruction, and ceaseless floods. If he could write an addendum, he would no doubt include successful battles against pollution and economic crises of the 20th century.
Today, however, Chattanooga faces problems that cannot be resolved with money, legislation, or science, because they lie within the very heart and spirit of our citizens -- crime, family abandonment, gang violence, drugs, sexual abuse, poverty, and illiteracy. Our local government can provide temporary solutions, but the only real answer to this moral decay is changing hearts. Only faith in something bigger than ourselves can bring about such meaningful change, and over the last weeks, this column highlighted a few such faith-based programs and the people behind them. There are many more.
The program that introduced me to the faith-based efforts I've discussed is the Men of the City program that meets weekly at Chattanooga First Presbyterian Church. Rev. Tim Tinsley began the program after initiating a similar successful program at his previous church in Dallas, Texas. The attendees are not only from his church, but include businessmen, lawyers, pastors, and people from all walks of life and all religious faiths. They are men who want to do more than simply talk about the problems. Tim leads a time of devotion and prayer at the lunch meetings, then they plan for action, focusing on three areas: illiteracy, housing and crime.
Tim points out that a major factor used to plan the number of future prison beds a region requires is the failure rate on third grade reading proficiency tests. A strong correlation exists between those who cannot pass this test and a future of crime. Thus, the men started a campaign to assign an adult mentor (one hour a week) with every high-risk child identified by teachers in inner city schools. First Presbyterian, for instance, works with Orchard Knob Elementary School students. In another program, New Monumental Baptist works with Woodmore Elementary and Dalewood Middle School. The adults not only serve as reading facilitators for the children, they also serve as role models. While many women are involved, many of the children need male role models, as they are raised by single women and have no adult male presence in their lives.
A second area of emphasis is housing. There are established programs such as Habitat for Humanity, but faith-based organizations are also meeting the overwhelming need. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke began a program to offer properties repossessed by the city to such groups for minimal cost if they make the properties habitable for those who cannot afford decent housing. This serves the dual function of providing affordable housing and denying the use of such dilapidated buildings for criminals.
Finally, to address the crime issue, churches such as First Presbyterian are engaged in an active spiritual mentoring program with prisoners. Tim is particularly proud of this program as it is proven to reduce recidivism rates of returning prisoners. Through his church alone, 80 volunteer mentors meet with inmates weekly at Walker State Prison in North Georgia, but over 100 requests remain unfilled.
Lee Anderson, the revered former editor of this newspaper, once opined about the future of Chattanooga:
"The greatest challenge is to have the next generation as dedicated to the community as the last generation ... [they] need to carry on that tradition of personal involvement -- unselfish, constructive contribution to the community for what's good for everybody."
We are the spirit of Chattanooga. Are we going to step up like those before us? Your church is a good place to start. Another is the Men of the City program. God bless our community.
Roger Smith is a local author and frequent contributor to the Free Press editorial page.