When I was growing up, my mom often said everything I needed to know about life was in the Bible. She called the Bible a manual for living. Because I observed her faith and life up close and personally, I know she believed this statement and lived her life always looking for God’s answer in the Bible. But, when I grew up, got married, and had a child of my own—one of the first things I heard was that kids didn’t come with a handbook. While there was plenty of information on pregnancy, what to expect at each stage of child development, and a boatload of books on raising kids, there was still a sense of adventure and fear of the unknown amongst my mommy friends. We gathered together often to talk about the latest development and wondered what to do next—often googling a phrase just to see what would come up (after all, that was how I had handled every symptom I had had during pregnancy).
Then I got to thinking: what if the Bible has the answers? I took my mom’s advice and opened up the pages of the Bible in search of answers on being a successful mom, teaching my child about life, handling bullies, balancing this mommyhood thing, and so much more. I reread some of the stories of moms of the Bible—and I’m happy to report that my mom was absolutely right. We have lots to learn from the pages of scriptures and what they say about moms of the Bible.
If we open our eyes and hearts, we can hear the moms of the Bible teaching us invaluable lessons about raising our kids. Some things have changed—thank God—but for the most part, we—just like the women of antiquity in the Bible—all want the best for our children and take this special task of mommyhood seriously.
I hope you will journey with me as I retell the stories of some of my favorite—and successful—moms of the Bible and gather real, motherly advice on raising children. Whether you are expecting or nursing a baby or caring for a toddler, tween, or teenager, these women have something to share to encourage you on this journey. Or perhaps you’ve successfully raised or mentored children who are now adults; I bet you can still relate to these women and the challenges they faced and overcame.
Motherhood is not for the weak. It takes guts to raise children well and still keep ourselves intact. We need more than a firm hand and a special, authoritative look; we need wisdom and help. God has placed all we need inside of our manual—the Bible—and as we unpack the messages shared from the moms in the Bible, we will garner the support we need. Take a seat and soak in the stories of our foremothers so you can gain new strength for the motherhood journey.
God has called us to this special task—and has left us with special help and messages. Let’s acquire some motherly wisdom.
Mary, a Beacon of Wisdom
I don’t see Mary fighting to get Jesus into the best daycare program because that will lead to selective enrollment in the top kindergarten, which leads to the best college! (Huh?! Really, the method you use to teach our children their colors determines their future college admissions? And the price tag for those early childhood programs could very well pay for an Ivy League college education!) I don’t see Mary stressing over how many kids to invite to the party—or even the venue—and scheduling it four months in advance and preparing just the right take-home goodie bags. (What happened to the parties where cake and ice cream were enough and playing pin the tail on the donkey was a really big deal?!) I don’t see Mary working late at night to create yet another class project or filling out college applications for her children because she’s afraid they won’t make the deadline and they’ll never get into any other school and then their lives will take a spiral downward and…No, when I look at scripture, I see a totally different picture of motherhood in Mary. She doesn’t seem fazed by the clarion call of mommyhood. She isn’t cloaked in worry—the byproduct of attempting to maintain control over every iota of her children’s lives—like most moms I know. What I see when I see Mary is calmness and peace, a demeanor that eludes today’s soccer moms.
Studying Mother Mary teaches us how to raise children in a crazy and cruel world. She is a beacon of wisdom and demonstrates the attitude moms need in order to navigate through the overwhelmingness of mommyhood while crazily trying to have a life at the same time.
How do you do it, Mary? How can you be so calm while raising kids—while raising Jesus? Please share.
Piecing together Mary’s story throughout scripture may give us moms some clues.
Like us, Mary’s life changed immediately once she heard those words: “Congratulations, you’re pregnant!” The Message translation actually says it more accurately. It records that the angel Gabriel showed up, greeted Mary, and said: “God has a surprise for you” (Luke 1:29–33). Now, that’s a line for every mom to remember: God has a surprise for you! And yeah, while Mary’s surprise was a little more surprising than any mother’s I know—that producing-a-child-before-having-sex part—I believe that line is still true for every woman whose life is changed by nurturing and caring for a child—God has a surprise for you! But, almost instantly upon hearing the life-changing news from Gabriel —Mary declares herself a true servant of God (Luke 1:38). She had a few questions for Gabriel when he thrust that news upon her—and who could blame the woman?! I can hear her asking, How is this so? I’ve never been with a man. Oh, my what will Joseph say?
Whether God has chosen you to be the mother of the Savior or of a president, a teacher, or the next person who will grow up and show love and care to another (you know your child has all of that potential bottled up inside of her little body or teenaged heart), apparently learning that you’ve been called to the sacred task of motherhood puts you in a new mode. You are forever changed. You know you are called to serve and nurture and care for someone precious, even more precious than yourself.
What a daunting task. What a surprise God has for you!
Mothers Are True Servants
Mary shows us how to handle this amazingly awesome task. It’s almost as if she took in every word dear Gabriel had to say, processed it rather quickly, and came up with her wise conclusion. Mary hears the angel Gabriel, in all of his lofty language. She hears his words and knows he means more. I can hear her wondering, So, yeah, Gabriel, you say I’m going to have a child—even though I haven’t been with a man yet? This must be some child, some miracle. And what if, just what if, I were to believe you and think I would produce the Savior of the world this way…may I ask, why me? I’m not noble, I’m not the prettiest. I haven’t even been the best. I’m just a little country girl trying to get through this life. I have someone who wants to marry me, and I think we can settle down and have a good life. But, you say, it’s going to be a lot different than we’ve dreamed, huh?”
Within just a few moments, Mary continues to take in this life-changing news: Iknow Joseph’s a good man but come on…you think he’s going to believe I got pregnant miraculously. Yes, you say. Well, let me tell you one thing—I’m going to have to let you and the good Lord handle that one. If you say Joseph will go for it, great, but you’re going to have to make that one work out on your own. I already know there are some things in this life I just can’t deal with—so that one is on you and God, Angel Gabe.
Gabriel returns with: Don’t worry, Mary, this is just the beginning. Your motherhood journey is going to be one for the books. The Almighty God knows motherhood is no easy road, but God is going to surprise you, my dear. You are going to be amazed by the child God gives you. You’re going to be filled with wonder at everything he does—and blessed by what he ultimately does for the entire world. And, just for the record, I like your attitude. Remember to let God handle that really tough and perplexing stuff—you don’t need to understand everything if you’re willing to trust God.
And almost instantly after she gets those questions out Mary accepts the news of her pending parenthood and says, Okay, I’m up for this. I’m God’s servant. How do I get started?
Mary was a wise chick. Clearly, she understood—more than many of us—that one big part of motherhood is service. From changing diapers to wiping off spit-up and washing and washing and washing clothes, to carpooling and shuffling around town to baseball and tennis and swimming and ballet and piano and birthday parties (oh, the birthday parties), to cooking vegetables and cutting them in cute shapes in hopes that someone, anyone, will eat them and grow up to have strong bones and healthy teeth…yes, healthy, nonexpensive teeth! Mary accepted that mommyhood meant taking a back seat in your own home, going without so your children can have. Staying up late and rising early—all in the name of the children. She understood that servanthood was a huge part of this mommy thing. And she openly and gladly accepted it.
Whoa, mother of God! She should be considered a saint…no joking. Many moms, myself included, still struggle with the servant word. We love our kids, Lord knows we do, but do they have to need us all of the time? Do you really need to call my name one more time? Can I just use the bathroom in peace or talk to my girl pal for fifteen uninterrupted minutes? (I really do miss talking to her—ever since she was blessed with her first child nearly fourteen years ago!) Just one moment is all we crave, just one—without the threat of returning to find paint on the walls and the one precious figurine from Aunt Claire broken! Can I get one moment, please? Um, no, you’re a servant now! God has a surprise for you.
I think when we begin to see ourselves as Mary saw herself, as a servant of God, we can handle those duties with a little more grace and patience. We are, in essence, working for God, tending to the souls and care of the little ones and the older ones in our charge. This mommyhood thing is a sacred task, and we have been assigned to it. In all of its glory and in all of its messiness, we have been selected and chosen to be called mother.
Okay, I see myself as a servant now, a servant of God, called to nourish and guide and lead this one toward adulthood, independence, citizenship…Yes! Our task is no slight one; there is no greater calling. But how can I, like Mary, break out into the Magnificat (Mary’s praise song in Luke 1:46–55) because of what God has done, because God has chosen me to serve these particular children?
Still, Mary teaches. One of the first things she does—after she questions Gabriel and accepts life as a servant of God but even before she can sing her praise song—is to run to be in the company of another woman who is pregnant with possibility and whose prayer has been answered (Luke 1:39–40). Mary wants to rejoice with a woman who understands her condition.
Know Where You Can Find Support
When the young Mary first found out the news, she ran straight to her older cousin Elizabeth, who was also carrying a miracle baby. Scripture says Mary stayed three months in the company of this older cousin. Mary was hanging out with another promise-bearer; she was soaking up the awesomeness of God, bathing in the beauty of answered prayers and the sacred call to servanthood. She knew where to hang out; she didn’t run through the streets sharing her good news with everyone—not just yet. She ran to the side of someone she knew would understand her and support her and rejoice with her (and this person wasn’t her husband-to-be; sometimes our dear mates just don’t understand the magnitude of motherhood!) Oh, the joy of having supportive sisters and aunts and moms who can rejoice with us even when life seems strange and daunting and overwhelming. Do you know whom you can call or text or visit when you need this type of care? Keep that woman on speed dial and use her number as often as possible! She can somehow remind you about the awesomeness of this task. Yes, even though you’re buried in homework and tournament schedules, another mom—a sister in solidarity—can remind you of your ultimate task: to serve these kids. You can see the joy in her eyes—most days. You can be reminded of the calling because of the joy she has. You can see God’s promise when you look at her. Keep her close. Keep her near. Hang on to her for dear life. No one knows what you’re going through quite like another mommy.
Your Elizabeth could be the woman who knows you’re overwhelmed by the look in your eyes. Even while you have a smile on your face, she can sense that you can use a break. She’s the mom who drops by and says she’ll sit with the kids while you go do anything else, even just sit in your car and catch your breath. Or, she’s the aunt who just happens to come by to take the kids out for pizza so you can catch a nap or clean or cook or do whatever. Or that friend who sends the text at the right moment: “You’re a great mom.” Ah, yes, someone sees and knows. Thank God for sisters who understand. Thank God for women who journey with you. Keep them close.
I still remember the sweet words of a mother I sit near in church most Sundays; she actually sits with her twenty-something grown daughters—a reminder to me that our kids actually do grow up! As I fretted over my nearly five-month-old precious child, this veteran mom reached over to hold her and whispered: “Sometimes you need a break too.” Those little words made such a difference. She knew what I needed, and she knew what I needed to hear. She went on to reminisce and educate me about how she had encouraged her husband to help more when her children were little and how she had laid out clothes for him to get the girls dressed in (already colored-coordinated, she explained with a smile). Had she looked into my home and observed my struggle? Moms just have a way of knowing. Keep your mommy support group close.
Katara Washington Patton has written and edited Christian books for children, teens, and adults and created supplemental materials for books by T.D. Jakes, Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer. She served as general editor and writer of Aspire: The New Women of Color Study Bible. She is currently the engagement editor for Christian Century. Katara holds an M.Div. from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
The virtual choir of Grace Baptist Church performs ‘I Am Thine,’ which was included in the April 19, 2020, online service from the Mount Vernon, New York, church. Video screengrab
Top officials of seven black Christian denominations have joined civil rights leaders in calling for people to stay home until it is safe in states whose governors are lifting shelter-in-place orders.
“We regard this pandemic as a grave threat to the health and life of our people, and as a threat to the integrity and vitality of the communities we are privileged to serve,” they wrote in a statement released Friday (April 24). “For these reasons, we encourage all Black churches and businesses to remain closed during this critical period.”
The signatories include leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Church of God in Christ; National Baptist Convention of America, International, Inc.; National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Inc.; and Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc.
Some of those denominations have tallied or been the subject of reports of COVID-19 deaths among their clergy and members.
“The denominations and independent churches represented in this statement, which comprise a combined membership of more than 25 million people and more than 30,000 congregations, intend to remain closed and to continue to worship virtually, with the same dedication and love that we brought to the church,” they added.
The denominational officials and faith leaders, including the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of the Conference of National Black Churches and the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, joined presidents of the NAACP, the National Urban League and other groups as signatories.
They noted that an April 21 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 20% of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States were of African Americans. In comparison, blacks constitute 13% of the U.S. population.
“Across the country, we see the same disproportionate impact,” they said. “Our families need us. Our communities need us. We must continue to telework wherever possible, and to tele-worship for however long it is necessary to do so.”
The letter comes in the same week the conservative law firm Liberty Counsel has organized a “ReOpen Church Sunday” initiative, encouraging clergy to begin in-person worship again on the weekend of May 3. That Sunday falls in the same week as the annual observance of the National Day of Prayer.
According to The Hill, some governors have never issued stay-at-home orders, others’ mandates are expiring within days, and still, others stated no end date.
Likewise, states have varied widely in their decision to have or not have religious exemptions in their orders about staying at home.
The black church officials and civil rights advocates said they understand some people may believe they need to be involved in public life. The leaders urged those who do to follow precautions about physical distancing and wearing masks.
“We do not take it lightly to encourage members of our communities to defy the orders of state governors,” they added. “But we are compelled by our faith, by our obligation as servants of God, and by our commitment as civil rights leaders, to speak life into our communities. Our sacred duty is to support and advance the life and health of Black people, families, and communities in our country.”
One of the gravest mistakes of the tradition of faith that I walk and love is the valorization of the violence of the cross, mixed with a shallow celebration of the heroism of the spectacle. It makes many of us inordinately emphasize sacrifice as negation, asceticism as an idolatrous form of faith. This often leads us ironically to hunger to be recognized for our sacrifice. When we are not…it leads destructively to resentment, to vicious forms of passive-aggressiveness that masquerade as “help” but are really desperate measures to punish and control. Christians, I believe, are the worst when it comes to this.
The cross can be of great help here; but, it must be preached and taught properly. We need our greatest preachers and theologians to reflect on suffering and violence (overt and emotional forms) in ways that are life-giving and not “pornographic”—by this I mean ways that excite us deliciously but shallowly; stimulating us without building relationship; encouraging privatistic and consumerist spirituality: in a word, pornographic. Yes, pornographic violence because of what is hidden, the processes and instruments of the humiliation that serves us. We cover the most probable nakedness of Jesus on the cross—always! Why? It’s easier to celebrate a Disney-ized view of good and evil than to grapple with the self-critical reality that the cross actually represents.
Jesus is not a victim of history or theology. He is an agent of the reconciliation and the wholeness that deep change makes possible. Sacrifice is not an end. Rather, the giving of one’s self is a grace. If self-giving leads to emptiness and “crooked-twig” abusiveness it is not a grace: it is faith misguided, faith misused.
How does the cross teach us the limits of our own self-sacrificing? I am not entirely certain. I am still grappling with the centrality of violence in this spectacle…but I am certain that we do not need to be Jesus, but simply like him. I am sure that our crosses are specific to our fears and our callings; sure that our crosses are not an end in and of themselves. I am confident that healthy sacrifice does not require acknowledgement. Healthy sacrifice, instead, is intrinsically valuable for us as well as those we seek to serve. We each have a cross, a rightful one—not Golgotha’s, but our own. When we face our deepest fears we achieve a victory so deep that it inspires the grace we need to forgive, to endure, and to thrive without resentment or regret: wholeheartedly.
The light of the cross shines within us; the most truly heroic things we do are often small and insignificant to most people but work transformation in our lives and the lives of others. I am sure that pain is involved, but not destruction and that on the other side of real sacrifice is the negation of fear’s powers over us.
I am coming to the realization that some of us sacrifice too much. Some of us are asked to bear the costs for whole families, whole communities, and whole systems. This pressure misshapes us, often making us practitioners of abuse ourselves: self-abuse, unfairness, quiet, destructive, and often secret forms of resentment-driven despair—even rage—almost certainly rage in us or those we love the wrong way.
The cross of Jesus seeks to end the cycle of violence, the curse of fear and hatred. Sometimes our cross is facing and ending our victimhood. Our cross might be the pain and sadness we must face to end our own willingness to be used by others. Our cross could be facing own need to be thought of as good, right, helpful, noble, useful, or nice; to be thought of as the peacemaker, the good son, the good daughter, the good wife, the good friend. Our cross may entail putting an end to crosses themselves—in our life and in the lives of others we sentence to the isolation and pain of our pettiness. Jesus dies once and for all, for us the living, a living sacrifice.
It is hard to see this on “Good Friday,” but it is certainly there proleptically. In Jesus’s actions through the Passion we are somehow freed from the bondage of sacrifice systems that purport to free us but perniciously feed on us. The victory of the Cross is the victory of over fear; the victory over the sting of death; the victory that stalks every vengeance-driven tale or politics or religion; the victory over triumph shallowly understood. We are more than conquerors.
In this way the cross can free us from the need to win that often attends sacrifice for sacrifice sake and the ultimately corrosive resentment and passive aggression that attends such “victories.” Jesus frees us from this game with His cross: Once and for all.
Our faith is often in need of reformation, individually and collectively. The cross does this work forever. Every Easter we are asked to encounter these ironies and to encounter this challenge as a form of renewal. And we do not undertake this work alone, for the Holy Spirit—who comes at Pentecost—augments and undergirds our strength.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, global religious leaders have been advised or compelled to shut the doors of their places of worship. In many places, public worship has come to a halt for the first time since the 1918 influenza pandemic — although even then, some cities insisted that churches needed to stay open.
For Jews, Christians and Muslims, COVID-19 hit at an especially hard time. Ramadan, Passoverand Easter are coming soon. For members of these communities, these are among the holiest seasons of the year.
Virtual religion, however, is not new. It’s actually pre-internet, even pre-electricity. Medieval cloistered nuns and monks took pilgrimages by reading travellers’ accounts and pacing the distance to Bethlehem or Rome in their cells. The differently abled have long participated in their communities of worship through radio, television, audio recordings and the telephone.
2. Going online means new opportunities to be more accessible and open.
In their now-shuttered physical places of gathering, traditional faith groups struggled with being welcoming and inclusive. Many of the pioneers of online faith communities challenged religious exclusivity, providing a home for Christians who felt they did not belong elsewhere.
Online churches have attracted Christians with diverse theologies and sexualities, neuroatypical and disabled Christians and people who had rejected — or been rejected by — local churches. The COVID-19 crisis presents an unparalleled opportunity for all churches to be more accessible and open to groups historically excluded from their pews, while taking care to accommodate and consider people’s varied levels of digital literacy.
Especially in times of crisis we tend to prefer what feels familiar and authoritative. In the first weeks of the pandemic, it is no surprise that many religious groups chose to livestream bare-bones versions of their regular activities, featuring music, a speech and readings one could follow at home.
5. “Normal” will change.
Tim followed a small group of online churches for more than a decade. He learned that the most successful survive because they are willing to experiment. Each of those churches started with something familiar, then built the confidence to adapt to their new medium.
The term virtual sometimes implies “less-than” — but digital faith communities insist their online experiences are more than just a simulation of what happens in a local church. New ideas, new worship practices and the new theological interpretations supporting them take time to mature.
In almost every religious community, there are those who have spent decades exploring the possibilities of virtual religion but they will often not be found in denominational headquarters. Churches can find these experts, and learn from them.
Promise and peril
A memorable image from the first week of enforced distanced worship was of a Catholic priest in Italy who printed colour photographs of his congregation and taped them to chairs in the church sanctuary. He stood, arms stretched wide in prayer, before all these faces. Around the world, other churches rushed to copy that extraordinary gesture.
As inspiring as this act was, it was immediately turned into a Twitter meme that picked up on petty politics in church communities to joke that someone “complained another person’s photo was in their spot.” The priest and his heckler show both the promise, and the peril, of the digital transformations.
Will digital worship become a chance to radically rethink what it means to be both faithful and in community? Or in the rush to the web will it simply be the same-old institutional thinking wrapped in a new format? Only time will tell. As the first online Easter for so many of the faithful quickly approaches, Christians are about to find out.
COVID-19, no matter where you live, is taking over all aspects of our lives even if we don’t have the respiratory virus – it affects where and how we work, what we watch on TV, and even how we walk down the street. While some people are rapidly losing their health, others are losing their jobs in record numbers. How can people of faith keep positive among such sadness and be forward-thinking about what we can learn from this pandemic? We know from 1 Peter 5:10: “After your season of suffering, God in all His grace will restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” Keeping that in mind, Dr. Cindy Trimm, author of more than thirty books with her three bestselling books, Commanding Your Morning, TheRules of Engagement for Spiritual Warfare, and her latest release, Goodbye Yesterday, having sold over one million copies, offers six practical and engaging ways to empower the faith community so we can pro-actively manage the challenging days before us.
Equip parishioners and congregants to think of themselves as industry-specific problem solvers, not just members of a church. A lot of our parishioners are professional. Encourage people to think of themselves as industry-specific leaders and problem solvers, themselves. And then create inter-organizational, intra-organizational response teams. By helping people to be response ready, work with healthcare and frontline professionals and deploy, pray for, and support government social agencies and those that are on the front line. As a faith-based community, we do have a powerful voice socially, politically as well as spiritually. And we can speak with wisdom into the institutions and systems. We can empower our people to understand that they’re not just looking for solutions. We are the solution. And if there’s ever a time where we can respond with wisdom, compassion, and counsel, we the people of God can do it. In my dreams, I see a world filled with visionaries, innovators, and dreamers who push humanity forward.
Lobby government to create biosecurity and bio-safety measures, especially if you’re dealing with things like aquaponics, bio-engineering, and other kinds of technological activities. That means if we’re lobbying with the government, we should be able to create pressure groups to create regulatory statutes and laws so that the government can draft new public policies. We need to rethink health care and increase funding for public health. Currently, there is no vaccine or medication for the coronavirus, but if increased funding had been available beforehand to the public health sector, which addresses a range of matters including chronic disease prevention and bio-terror rhythm and emergency preparedness, headway could have already been made towards coronavirus vaccine development. Instead, scientists are scrambling to create a vaccine amid the pandemic. This scenario illustrates how chronic underfunding of public health has consequently caused health practitioners to function in a reactionary manner versus taking a proactive approach to disease prevention and medicine.
Reinvent yourself. We are moving into an era of AI, algorithms, robotics, and all kinds of technological advancement. A lot of people are running scared, but we can upgrade our skills because there are going to be new skills that are going to be needed. And here’s the caveat, we are going to lose a lot of jobs to technology, but for every one job that we lose, 2.5 jobs are going to be created. We have to think about going back to school. We have to be able to gain a new skill set. We should be brushing up on new technology and really anticipating the changes that will happen within our profession and continue to build capacity by using the internet for education and not just for entertainment.
Don’t Listen to Conspiracy Theories. There are so many conspiracy theories. And I also often say that critical thinking is one of the skills of the 21st century. Toffler, and I quote him, said, “The skill of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn.” You’ve got to be careful with this force of your information that you’re not knee-jerking. For instance, people are blaming the coronavirus on 5G. But if people are exposed to radiation, they’re not going to get a cold. They’re not going to get a virus. With the symptoms of radiation, people waste away and they lose their hair. They’re not going to get a viral infection from any radiation disease. Make sure that those you are listening to and those who are sending you these conspiracy theories are individuals who know what they’re talking about.
Take Care of Yourself. Find ways to distress in your home. You can exercise. If you don’t have exercise equipment, put on your happy music and dance. It’s also a great time to read – I’ve been telling everyone to read, read, read! Also, clean and declutter. We have nothing but time. Decontaminate the surfaces, disinfect—declutter your home, and your living spaces.
Pray. Faith and prayers are spiritual technology with long term social, spiritual, economic, political, and cultural implications. Prayer is not only a spiritual practice, but it’s also a practical principle, and so we need to pray for the frontline. Pray for healthy immune systems. Pray for caregivers and health professionals. I was looking at an article about a truck driver. We don’t usually think of truck drivers that are delivering food, but anyone that’s on the front line, pray for them. Pray for the government and government agencies. Pray for wisdom, pray for medical and scientific breakthroughs. Pray for healing miracles.
Johnnie Jones III was saddened back in the early ‘90s by how young baseball players with athletic ability in his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago were lost once they aged out of the local league.
“They were excellent athletes, but they couldn’t read. As soon as they got to the age where they were too old to play in the league, most of them wouldn’t even graduate from high school and the ones that did just kind of found jobs. College wasn’t even an option because of their grades,” said Jones.
When he saw that these students couldn’t see what was possible for their lives beyond high school it inspired him in 1992 to start the Make A Difference Youth Foundation. Jones, who has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems from Roosevelt University, believed that if kids could see other young people who looked like them on college campuses, they could see a future for themselves.
“I was not enjoying seeing kids that were being cheered for their athletic abilities and then all of a sudden sitting on park benches and maybe going to a gang or selling drugs or something because there was nothing else for them to do,” said Jones.
In “Chi-Town: Enabling Greatness,” which Jones self-published in December 2016 he tells the story of the Foundation which aimed to work with kids from elementary school through high school so that they would be prepared for college and have a good idea of what they wanted to study. As part of his foundation, he created an after-school group called Teens for a New Tomorrow (TFANT) to give teenage kids a place to go. In the early days, Jones met with 20 high school students on in the locker room at Gately Stadium, a small football stadium where many Chicago public schools played their games as most high schools didn’t have a stadium. That number grew to 50 and during football season they were forced to meet in the parking lot.
Jones meeting in the locker room at Gately Stadium.
Initially, they focused on developing the student’s leadership skills. The kids held official roles as they learned how to organize, plan, and facilitate the meetings. Eventually, Jones found an office. It had a big hole in the middle of the floor where you could actually see the basement below, but it was a place to meet. He has faced obstacles every step but says God always found a way to get him through the tough times.
The first big project he worked on with the kids was hosting a citywide mock election. Local tech company ANET Internet Services donated the website development for the project. It was a huge hit. More than 20,000 high school kids all across the city registered and voted for alderman and the mayor. After the election, the kids were granted an opportunity to visit City Hall and meet Mayor Richard M. Daley who was so impressed by the project that he awarded Jones’ foundation a $25,000 community block grant to continue his work — a gift that was renewed for ten years. With the money, Jones was able to fix up the hole in the office, put in a bathroom, do some necessary remodeling, hire college students as tutors, and pay for the general upkeep of the space.
After he made the fixes the owner sold the building sold. When the new owner came in, he raised the rent three times what Jones had been paying and told him that “kids don’t make money.” The foundation had to go. Around the same time, Jones received a letter from America’s Promise, Colin Powell’s foundation.
Jones was being considered for a large grant but they would need to see his location in two weeks to make sure it met certain physical and electrical standards. It was an unfortunate situation, but God had a plan. Not long after he knew he would be forced to move his foundation, Jones happened to be in a pizza place in a mall next door to his office when he saw a “For Rent” sign posted. He went in and talked to the owner about his foundation. She was a retired teacher who owned a daycare and welcomed renting to an educational group.
Jones was upfront about his financial situation.
“I said, this is the money I have that comes in from the city, and this is all I can afford. She said, ‘That’s fine.’ So just out of the blue from me getting some pizza, the place next door just happened to be up for rent. That’s how blessings come,” said Jones.
And the blessings continued. The office had been a former hair salon and had twenty sinks on the wall he had to remove. Jones had no idea how he would do it in time for the visit from Colin Powell’s foundation, but more blessings came.
One of the parents came by to check out the new facility, saw the sinks, and removed them that same night for free. He was a professional plumber, single dad, and grateful for how the organization helped his daughter.
Jones (right) and the former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones III (left).
“As a single dad, having a place to know my daughter was safe every day, that meant the world to me. So, getting an opportunity to do something back for you guys, not a problem at all,” Jones recalls that parent saying.
Then, a neighbor helped him do the needed drywall and painting, all with an agreement that he could pay in the future. Next, an electrician who Jones had helped get a computer when he was first starting out, offered to do all the wiring for free.
In two weeks, everything was done and in 2000 the Make A Difference Foundation was one of the ten organizations from around the nation, and the only organization from the Midwest selected to receive a new computer lab by means of Colin Powell’s “PowerUP” initiative. Hewlett Packard, AOL, Gateway and Cisco Systems were sponsors of PowerUP and provided each PowerUP site with computers, free AOL accounts for the kids in the program and Cisco networking equipment. The next year, they got a special award and an extra $35,000 for being the National PowerUp Site of the Year.
“He had a vision. He always thinks outside the box, and he would come up with things that no other organization would come up with that he felt the kids could do. And he was always challenging them, exposing them to experiences that they would not otherwise have had,” said Elaine Jones (no family relation), an active and dedicated volunteer whose daughter participated in the program.
By 2007, Jones’ group had expanded its mission to include community service projects and college campus visits. The students were required to do forty hours of community service, but they often logged more than 200. He had established relationships with college admissions recruiters, and some would even send a complimentary bus to pick up the kids in his program to visit their schools. The foundation had received many more grants and was able to support a summer camp for elementary schoolers and field trips. With two locations in Chicago and a staff, the bills mounted up to $25,000 a month with rent and electricity.
More than 5,000 students have gone through the Make a Difference Foundation programs since its inception back in 1992. Many of the students went on to attend colleges such as Princeton, Drake, and Duke, and credit his program for who they are today. Courtney Barnes is one of those students.
Courtney Barnes on a field trip when she was in high school.
“I think Teens for a New Tomorrow (TFANT) really influenced why I wanted to pursue a career in policy, specifically around racial equity and dismantling systemic racism and doing so by reaching out to our community, specifically our young people and working with them in ways that we can rewrite that narrative of this is what it looks like,” says Barnes, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government and a master’s in public administration. Barnes is currently Manager of Foundation Relations for Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a residential care facility for boys and girls who have housing instability.
“I want them to know that there is life beyond the hood. And there’s life beyond that narrative of whatever they’re writing for our young black boys and girls. TFANT was that for me. I want to be that person for those young people.”
But when the markets crashed in 2008 funding for the foundation was hit hard. With the economic downturn, all of the grants dried up. Jones tried to keep the offices open with his own funds, but it wasn’t enough because the organization had grown so big. Plus, Morgan Stanley, the company where Jones worked, had layoffs, and he was out of work. He had to close up both of his offices and donate the supplies and equipment to another nonprofit. It was heartbreaking.
“I got two letters from kids when we shut down, begging us not to shut down the organization down, I never got over those letters. One said, ‘This is the only safe place I have to go to.’ When you’re reading those things, you kind of look and go, ‘I wish there was something I could have done,’ but I wasn’t in that position,” said Jones. “I’ve never been so crushed in my life than I was the day I had to lock all those offices and turn in the keys and then just say, ‘that’s it.’ So my success in technology, a lot of it was driven on, ‘I’ve got to make enough money so I can do this again and not let it fail.'”
The organization was able to hang on for a few more years. Jones did some consulting work in North Carolina and South Carolina
Karime Bolivar on the right is now in med school. This was Karime and her little brother at a community service project in Arkansas while she was in high school.
before eventually taking an IT position in Arkansas at Walmart. But he still tried to remain involved with the kids. Elaine was now at the helm, able to keep the service projects end of the organization going for a while. They worked together, had a core group of students still involved, and schools would send over other students to take on college trips or do community service projects.
“We even rented SMU campus buildings for a weekend and flew Native American students from a reservation in Michigan to hold a student-led conference with students from Chicago and Dallas. That was the biggest time that God stepped in! Elaine was our lead chaperone and got left by the plane at O’Hare airport, trying to help a late student make the flight. The plane was headed to the runway for takeoff and a chaperone called me from the plane to let me know the plane left Elaine. A flight attendant overheard the call and told the pilot. The pilot turned the plane around! A United Airlines flight was turned around, and they picked up Elaine. God has been good!” said Jones.
In 2013, Elaine could no longer manage the organization and it stopped operating in Chicago. But that wasn’t the end for the Foundation. In 2014, Jones brought it back to life in Arkansas. This time, with a new strategy. Instead of depending on outside funding, he has chosen to finance it himself. Even as it limits how many people he can help, but he can keep the organization running without fear of being shuttered.
“It’s knowing that this is something that is not me — it’s God. We couldn’t fail because God had a way for it. We should never have been in People Magazine. We should never have met Colin Powell. We should never have gotten a grant from the mayor. Everything that was happening was steps that were placed for us to succeed. And when we had to shut down in Chicago, it still wasn’t the end of God’s plan because it started right back up in Arkansas. And the first two graduates we have from Arkansas, one’s in medical school, and the other one’s going to medical school next year,” said Jones.