Transforming Lives in Nashville
Religion & Liberty Online

Transforming Lives in Nashville

NASHVILLE – The event was billed as an “appreciation” for the volunteers at the Christian Women’s Job Corps of Middle Tennessee and the theme for the evening was set by St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Gal. 6:9).

By the time the program wrapped up, everyone in attendance was reminded of the plain truth that making real change in a life is hard work. It’s not a job for quitters. And it often involves many, many helping hands.

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The Oct. 19 program to honor CWJC volunteers at the Forest Hills Baptist Church also included the presentation of the 2006 Samaritan Award by Acton’s Karen Woods. CWJC, which was awarded a $10,000 cash prize, was recognized along with nine other honorees in the annual competition that searched for the nation’s best private charities. Check out the Samaritan Guide online scorecard on CWJC.

The CWJC in Nashville, now in its tenth year, is aimed at improving the job skills of the working poor and moving them up the economic ladder. These women may be recovering from addiction, ex-offenders, or just in need of deeper employment skills or more education. The women are assigned a volunteer mentor who commits to working at least a year with them, usually for 2-4 hours per week in the evening. The program participants and mentors work out a set of goals, and take employment and “life skills” classes that might involve subjects such as computer training or preparation for a GED. Mentors, who approach the job as mission work, are required to be at least 25 years old and in possession of an “active” faith.

Rebekah Sumrall, executive director of the Nashville-based CWJC, said the work of the organization begins with “a relationship where you understand their goals and what their dreams are.” By bringing the program participants into new relationships with mentors and other volunteers, the CWJC addresses one of the most pressing needs of the women it serves. Often, the women in the CWJC program are mired in poverty because, through their own mistakes, or because of the brokenness around them, they have little in the way of healthy relationships with family, friends and community to call on. The CWJC approach shows that true caring for others is personal, and often involves immediate and direct “hands on” help. That can be complicated and messy and involve much more of a commitment than simply offering a few soothing words or mailing a check.

“We create the potential for transformation of body, mind, heart and spirit for the working poor and the Christian volunteer,” Sumrall said. “And we think we’re the best at that.”

Mentor Mary Ann McPherson (left) with Geraldine Planter.

At the CWJC event in Nashville, Geraldine Planter was invited to tell her story. She recounted a troubled childhood in New Jersey (she had her first child at 13) and a downward spiral that ultimately brought her under the spell of drugs and alchohol and life on the streets. She left her family behind in New Jersey and came to Nashville, a 10th grade dropout who was desperate to escape her condition.

“The first thing they gave me was a Bible,” Planter said. “I’d held Bibles, but I’d never read one. Not even the first page.”

The CWJC program, she said, put her on track to earn a GED and upgrade her job prospects. More importantly, the volunteers and staff, by the example they set, “allowed” Planter to believe and trust in God. The relationships that she found were key to putting her life back together. “I was in a hopeless state of mind,” Planter said. “May God bless everyone who’s here.”

One of the main goals of the CWJC program is to move participants to self-sufficiency and much is made of their own responsibility to get there. (St. Paul also tells the Galatians that “each one shall bear his own load.”) While the program does not guarantee a job, administrators work to build networks with local employers and identify good job opportunities.

Sumrall has a clear-eyed view of just how far the CWJC can take the women. The program is about job skills and relationship building, not about building a heaven on earth. “I think all people in poverty can find healing,” she said. “They may not be able to find a cure for everything.”

The CWJC is an agency of the Women’s Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The WMU also sponsors a similar program for men. CWJC will use its $10,000 Samaritan Award prize to help start two more satellite offices in the Nashville area.

Of course, the CWJC program is deeply integrated with faith, including a mandatory Bible study and frequent prayer. Prayer is so important to the women in the Nashville CWJC program that it literally stops the show. When a prayer request is made, everyone drops what they’re doing and prays at that moment.

No one is required to convert to Christianity, but participants are required to take part in Bible study. “We need to serve them whether they make a commitment or not,” Sumrall said.

From her point of view, having a faith-based approach is a “huge” factor in CWJC’s success. “Sometimes the economic poverty is not the most painful,” Sumrall said. “Sometimes it’s the spiritual poverty.”

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.