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James Allen Walker for WORLD

Self-healing hood

2010 Hope Awards | Advance Memphis is in an all-out fight against ghetto nihilism

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

MEMPHIS-To understand Advance Memphis, you first have to understand its neighborhood-Cleaborn and Foote on the edge of downtown. The residents of Cleaborn/Foote live in decaying bungalows, ramshackle apartments, and squat redbrick housing projects. They live with the daily threat of violence: Telephone poles decorated with teddy bears dot the neighborhood, memorials to murder victims. Drug dealing and prostitution are the neighborhood's traditional enterprises. Its 38126 ZIP Code is one of the poorest in the country. Every societal ill can be found here.

Most of Memphis tries to ignore Cleaborn/Foote. Reporters don't write stories about murders here. A freeway whisks traffic by. The housing projects were due to be demolished and replaced five years ago. For most residents of Memphis' white and wealthy suburbs, Cleaborn/Foote might as well not exist.

That's exactly why Advance Memphis has its offices in Cleaborn/Foote. The ministry has a plan, audacious in its simplicity, to help this neighborhood heal itself by helping its unemployed residents find work. "God has ordained and called us to work," Steve Nash, Advance Memphis executive director, says. "This is the key to seeing a life change. When you have a high-profile drug dealer working and holding a job for the first time in his life, that is a positive witness for change."

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By helping residents find work and manage their money, Advance believes it addresses a whole host of needs. "If you have direct deposit and a savings account, you can avoid predatory lending," Nash says. "That has the potential to affect crime because if you have your cash in a bank, it's not on your body. This is introducing a new paradigm for children and adults: Seeing mom and dad going to work is modeling out different behaviors for the community."

Lahara Rose just got out of prison: "I don't know how to do nothing," he said. Rose is one of the 20 neighborhood residents in Advance Memphis' Jobs For Life program, a six-week curriculum in soft job skills and financial literacy. Every morning, students learn about weekly budgets and business etiquette. Every afternoon, they take GED classes or receive one-on-one tutoring from volunteers.

Rose is paying attention as class starts, the lights go out, and the projector comes on, spreading Joel Osteen's toothy smile across the whiteboard. In the YouTube clip, Pastor Osteen is standing in front of his multitudinous congregation and spreading his arms while music swells behind him, giving his benediction-cum-sermon. "You have not seen your greatest victories yet!" Osteen grins to the camera: "Every day is a new beginning! God has greater things ahead of you! Everyone deserves a victorious life! Praise precedes the victory!" The music stops and Osteen's face freezes, then fades. The lights come back on.

Brandon Russell, who normally teaches financial literacy, is leading the class today, and he seeks not to praise Osteen but to bury him. He gently leads the class in discussion, praising students' contributions and never forcing his viewpoints. He puts two columns on the whiteboard, "Agree" and "Disagree," and the class puts each of Osteen's statements in a column. "Praise precedes the victory," goes into the disagree column: "It reduces God to a vending machine. Put in your quarter of praise and get out your Coke of blessing." Russell tells his class, "I've seen bad people do really well, and I know you have too. At the end of the day our job is to be faithful."

There's a reason why a class ostensibly on job skills and finances is watching Joel Osteen videos, and Russell is happy to explain: "We have to be on the same place with identity and values before we get to behavior and decisions, or it all breaks down. The value of financial education isn't just learning to manage money, it's about critical thinking and decision making. Bad theology affects the way we live. It leads to disillusionment toward God."

By teaching about stewardship and how everyone is created in God's image, Advance fights the prevalent worldview of the inner city, what Russell calls ghetto-nihilism: "It says, 'I'm gonna get what I can today, because it just doesn't matter.' You hear people who have just turned 21 saying, 'I never thought I'd make it.'"

As Rose found out, that worldview leads to destruction: "I'm a family-oriented person. Everything I do is for my family. I'm trying to help them and support them. I want to have a job and not go back to jail. I had a job but I wanted to live that street life and they don't mix. That landed me in prison, and I've had my days of that. I'm sorry it took me so long to change." He wants to be able to take care of his mother and 97-year-old grandmother.

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