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James Allen Walker for WORLD

Macon disciples

Hope Award | Campus Clubs teaches poor children about the value of work, and their own value in Christ: 'Just because you're in the 'hood doesn't mean the 'hood is in you'

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

MACON, Ga.-For some three dozen middle-school students packed into a tiny chapel attached to First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in downtown Macon, Ga., summer mornings at day camp don't begin with chipper songs or lighthearted games. Instead, as warm sunlight streams through the light-blue panes of stained-glass windows, Tony Lowden begins the chapel service for inner-city kids on a much darker note: childhood pregnancy.

Lowden is executive director of Campus Clubs, a Christian ministry for low-income and at-risk students in Macon. On this Monday morning, Lowden's deep voice fills the chapel as he tells the attentive students about a 12-year-old girl who delivered a baby at a local hospital earlier that week. "She's a baby having a what?" asks Lowden. "A baby," the group of 11- to 15-year-olds replies. "And she's not what?" he continues. "Married," the kids quickly answer.

Then comes Lowden's warning for kids toying with premarital sex: "You're messing around with fire."
Getting burned is common in Macon's inner-city neighborhoods: Drugs, gangs, violence, poverty, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and even AIDS abound. These kids know it. When Lowden asks the group what the world labels them, they don't hesitate: "At-risk," comes the unison reply.

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Lowden can relate. "Almost everybody in my family is dead or in jail because of gangs or drugs," he tells them. But Lowden-who escaped the ghettos of northern Philadelphia to become a lobbyist and a consultant for the Republican caucus in California-towers as a symbol for what these kids could become. "We serve a God who can make you a somebody when everybody else says that you're a nobody," he tells the group. "Just because you're in the 'hood doesn't mean the 'hood is in you."

This isn't just motivational talk, and Campus Clubs isn't just a place to "meet and eat and go back to the hood," says Lowden. Instead, the ministry aims to pair spiritual discipleship with educational and job opportunities that these students might not otherwise enjoy. The goal: train inner-city students to apply Christianity to their whole lives, with the hopes of transforming whole communities.

In a mid-morning job-skills class, staff member Shirlynn Kelly talks about how to apply biblical principles to the workplace. When she asks the group of 40-plus students why God says we should work, answers come quickly: "To provide for ourselves, our families, and others in need." Kelly stays practical when encouraging excellence at work: Be diligent, keep a good attitude, be pro-active in seeking more responsibility.

The class is part of the ministry's popular Jobs Club program that has more than 40 students on a waiting list. Those in the program attend the jobs class and then practice what they learn while working for nonprofit organizations during the week. The ministry pays a small stipend of $11 a day for each morning of work, but students only keep half: Staffers put the other half in individual savings accounts. Students can collect the money-with interest-if they finish high school.

The next morning eight students file into the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank. In a back room they form an assembly line and fill paper grocery sacks with items like crackers, grapefruit juice, popcorn, powdered milk, and cans of green beans.

This is Shakera Weaver's second summer in the program, and the 14-year-old talks about what she's learned: "It teaches us not to just get paid, but to enjoy our work."

Across the table, Diante Desazier moves slower than everyone else, but works just as hard: The 13-year-old with cerebral palsy awkwardly lifts cans into the brown bags and occasionally asks for help through slurred speech. Lowden calls Desazier an example for other students: "Every time we tell him he can't do something, he proves us wrong."

It's the kind of dynamic Lowden hopes to replicate across Macon, a city of 95,000 situated some 85 miles south of Atlanta. Many middle-and upper-class families fled for the suburbs of north Macon some 20 years ago as neighborhoods declined into poverty and crime.

In 1994 an FPC youth pastor and a handful of volunteers began Campus Clubs as an afterschool program for inner-city kids. Eventually, the church formed a separate nonprofit entity for the ministry. Today, FPC members still serve on the board but aren't the majority. (The church still allows Campus Clubs to use church and office space for free.)

Two years ago, the ministry hired Lowden, one of four full-time staff members serving hundreds of kids each week. Tom Anderson, chairman of the Campus Clubs board and an assistant pastor at FPC, said the ministry wanted to increase its effectiveness in surrounding neighborhoods: "We were seeing kids come to Christ, but they were going right back to the same situations."

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