Rural Congregations Lead Community Transformation in Henry County

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PARIS, Tenn. – Rural congregations are some of the few permanent stakeholders in their communities, and when they work together, they can create meaningful change. Just ask the 19 United Methodist Churches of Henry County. In February, the congregations of Henry County were awarded a $10,000 Community Transformation Grant from the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College for their summer literacy program, Project Bridge. The six-week meets four days a week and is having an enormous impact.

Rev. Leah Howe, a pastor in the Memphis Annual Conference, provided the spark for Project Bridge when, at a clergy meeting, she pointed out that students in her church couldn’t read. The rest of the churches in the county quickly joined in, submitting their proposal for the Community Transformation Grant.

Each morning at Project Bridge, students pair off with trained adult volunteers for one-on-one reading support. For the next 45-minutes, the students read and play literacy games with their adult volunteer. The volunteers work with students on phonics, vocabulary, and literacy comprehension.

The students, who were recommended for the program by the local school system, also form deep relationships with the adults. “It’s not uncommon for the adults to go and buy books for the kids, once they figure out what the student is interested in,” says Bonnie, a retired educator who organized the curriculum. “One kid said that he wants to be a missionary in China when he grows up, and the volunteer brought him a book about China.” While not the entire goal, these one-on-one relationships are important for students. Research routinely shows that mentoring relationships have a positive impact on childhood development.

Project Bridge also provides time for the students to build social skills and emotional intelligence. Each morning, a short gathering presents a key theme, such as cooperation or respect. In the afternoon, students move through stations that include an activity, an opportunity to journal, and a Bible story, all led by college interns.

The results are nothing short of transformational, both for the students, volunteers, and the churches. “The student I work with tells me that he’s not ready for the summer to end. I’m not either, to be honest,” said one volunteer.

Rev. Dennis Vance serves as the pastor of Trinity UMC, whose church is the host site for Project Bridge, and he’s proud that his church is able to offer the space. “Our church burned down four years ago, and we had to completely rebuild it. We’re a small-membership church, but we’re centrally located in the community. And, hosting this has been a gift for our church.”

Project Bridge’s application was chosen from among several applications by a review committee, who cited their clear missional objectives, a commitment to and knowledge of their community, and a network of partners.

“These churches really embody the potential of rural congregations,” said Rev. Allen Stanton, director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College. “When we offered the Community Transformation Grant, we wanted to see what rural churches could do if they had the resources. The churches in Henry County are an example as to what’s possible, and we’re proud to support them in this way.”

The Turner Center at Martin Methodist College is committed to cultivating thriving rural communities. Established through an endowed gift from Cal Turner, Jr., the Turner Center supports leaders in the church and community who serve rural Tennessee and beyond. Details for the next application cycle of Community Transformation Grant program will be announced in the fall of 2019.