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FAMILY ATMOSPHERE: Top left: Young-Brown (left) and site director Betty Boone at the Chickasaw apartments; participants in the Women of Empowerment program (left, above) meet and share prayer requests.

All in the family

Special Issue | What started with care for foster children has branched into more than a dozen programs ministering to people in each phase of family life

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007

NEIGHBORHOOD CHRISTIAN CENTER

The sound of pounding rain mingles with the chatter of women's voices inside the apartment-turned-classroom at Chickasaw Place. With the Bible study just ended at an inner-city apartment complex, young women with young children talk with grandmotherly figures. Some refill glasses of peach iced tea, with fresh mint leaves dangling on the edges of their plastic cups. Others grab a banana or cookies and place them on purple, pink, and orange striped napkins.

The women gathered in this white, spacious room participate in Women of Empowerment (WOE) classes put on by the Neighborhood Christian Center, Inc. (NCC). Participant Phyllis Young-Brown talked of the diversity in the room: "I get to meet women in all walks of life. I'm finding that all of us have the same basic complaints and problems, but there's hope."

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NCC has been meeting the material and spiritual needs of Memphis' poor for over 30 years. Founders Monroe and JoeAnn Ballard began caring for the poor in 1968 by taking foster children into their own South Memphis home. From there, the family branched into other areas of ministry and in 1978 opened the NCC, which today has 15 programs based on the Ballards' original work. JoeAnn has been the executive director of NCC since its birth, and Monroe, a retired teacher, now serves as the center's director of operations.

Their foster care wasn't government-supported or initially even donor-supported. The Ballards merely saw a need and rose to meet it by taking in kids whose parents were unable to support them. The nonprofit center still receives no government funds because that would limit their Christian initiatives in ministry. With private and corporate support, the Ballards have personally been able to care for a total of 75 children-79 if you count their own four.

The NCC now has 60 staff members at various levels of involvement who work to maintain a family atmosphere in the office and on the street. Many of them actually are family: Three of the four Ballard children work at the ministry full-time, and the son who doesn't has his own business and remains active in the youth ministry. Many other staffers were once beneficiaries of the family's compassion. Those who aren't Ballards are treated as if they are. As Susan Currier, director of development and one of only three white employees at the center, walked down the hall, two different people referred to her as "my sister."

Today, NCC provides programs that minister to people in each phase of family life, from childhood to youth to pre-marriage to parenting-and all the programs are based on JoeAnn and Monroe's original ministry. "My job has been to ensure that the quality of relational ministry that I participated in as a child continues," Ephie Ballard Johnson, NCC's administrative director and the Ballards' eldest daughter, said. Johnson, preparing to take over the ministry into which she was born, has a title created for her 12 years ago, but she does administer: In one hour of her day, Johnson tied up conversations in the lobby with three staff members, went through email in her office, and answered questions from four other staffers, as her assistant fielded phone calls.

Despite her demanding schedule and multifaceted job, Johnson laughs often and talks with passion about her role in a ministry she's grown to love: "I didn't always want to do ministry but I grew into God's appointment for me. Now I know I was groomed for this work." The Ballards and Johnson developed WOE in the belief that the two-parent family is the biblical model but also in the recognition that single motherhood is standard in their community. The program follows the model of the Ballards' earlier instruction to young women in how to become Christian wives and mothers. The program's weekly Bible studies, GED classes, and life-skills training all depend on the development of close relationships between clients and staff members or volunteers.

WOE now serves women at four different low-income apartment complexes and at the main downtown center. As with all the organization's programs, work at the downtown site serves as a model for the efforts at apartment complexes. Program directors, all black women, live in the complexes, developing relationships with families on a daily basis while overseeing the programs. The goal is for women to get off welfare and begin improving the quality of their lives and their children's lives. "We want to teach them God's order even in their disorder," Johnson said.

NCC knows the way to help small kids is to help the moms, so the ministry's hope is that working with moms will allow for the healthy development of children within their own homes. The classes emphasize the importance of education and encourage women to support their children's schooling and to finish school themselves, if possible. Back at Chickasaw Place, Young-Brown corrals the five women she had driven to the study: Time to leave. The volunteers call the round-faced woman "a real missionary" because she usually brings about 12 others each week. Young-Brown talked about women she previously brought who weren't there that day: "Most of them have gotten jobs and can't come. Some have been reconciled in marriages or seen their husbands saved. They now have good jobs and are in good health."

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