LITERACY MISSION: With his tour across the nation, Acts of Love founder William E. Hall hopes to improve the lives of urban kids one book at a time. (Photo by Amanda Edwards)
How do you measure the impact of an act of kindness? Is it by the words that are spoken or perhaps by the response that you elicit? Or is it something subtler?
For William E. Hall, pastor and founder of Acts of Love, the measure of his organization’s effectiveness comes by counting the number of smiles he sees each time he hands out books to children.
Based on the mantra “Extending a Hand and a Heart to the Next Generation,” Acts of Love is a community-based, non-profit campaign founded with the goal of collecting and distributing 1 million books to marginalized and underprivileged youth. “Our ultimate hope is to improve the reading and comprehension skills of students across the nation,” said Hall.
Birthed four years ago on DePaul University’s Chicago campus, Acts of Love is an outgrowth of Hall’s civic outreach organization, Communigize. Along with several of his closest friends, Hall launched Communigize as a community program centered on educating, mentoring, and inspiring urban youngsters.
Hall was born and raised in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He grew up like any normal teenager, having fun and exploring the city and all that it had to offer. But he discovered early on how random acts of kindness can transform a person’s life.
“For me, it was always about how can we make lives better, for real and that’s no cliché,” he said. “As a kid, I saw so many examples of that right next door. My grandma and grandpa would wave or talk to strangers walking down the street and make their day.”
Hall added that his grandfather was especially interested in encouraging young people. “He just lived to see young people walk by, and encourage them by giving them pencils and raisins, and little cookies for afterschool treats.”
He carried those ordinary examples of kindness with him as he grew into adulthood. Now as a youth pastor, one can see how those principles have helped shape his ministry.
WORDS OF LIFE: At urban schools around the nation, Hall shares with young students about the importance of reading, learning, and making good choices in life. Here he meets with students at a Chicago grade school.
At DePaul, Hall always had those principles in mind as he pursued his studies as an economics major. While on campus, he was instrumental in starting several student organizations that shared that focus. Groups like Soul Food and Communigize were organizations designed to positively impact students’ hearts through the Word of God.
But Hall quickly realized that by only working with kids while in classroom settings, his outreach was limited. He remembered a specific field trip where he and his friends took several students to Navy Pier.
“As a youth pastor, we used to bring young people up and would allow them to run around on campus. We would just mentor them and expose them to places they probably wouldn’t see. When driving past [Chicago’s] Navy Pier, one of the kids in the car did not know what it was, and looked at the big Ferris wheel and was like, ‘What’s that?’ And that’s when I knew how important it is to really love young people and to really help them.”
Over the course of the next four years, he would yearn to do more. Hall realized that although he had touched the lives of numerous young people, God had placed a greater mission field in mind that would extend far beyond his reach with Communigize and the city of Chicago.
He completed his bachelor’s in 2007, and then went on to further his studies at McCormick Theological Seminary, where he received his master of divinity degree in 2011. It was during his years in school that he says God inspired him to take the message of love and inspiration across the country.
“I told my friends, let’s do this. Let’s organize and begin to look at ways we can strategically build something to help young people,” Hall said. And that’s how Acts of Love was born.
“[We are] living out what’s required of us as Christian people created by God, and that is to love others,” he said. “When we do a kind act, that’s really saying to someone I’m giving you the joy and happiness that comes from God, abounding love.”
This summer, Hall and his team of volunteers hope to inspire 700 or more adults to join the “Love Young People Tour” in going door to door, visiting some of the nation’s poorest communities in cities like Chicago, Gary, Detroit, Miami, and Washington D.C., and handing out 7,000 or more books to elementary, middle, and high school-aged students.
THE POWER OF BOOKS: Hall loves counting the smiles that come as he and his volunteers hand out books to young people. After getting their books, these young students in Columbus, Ohio, were eager to start reading.
Hall says he wants to make love tangible, and wants young people to “fall in love with knowledge” and the wisdom that can be discovered on the written page. He believes that when a difference is made in a young person’s life, the world can be changed. That’s why he and his staff of volunteers have partnered with Chicago aldermen Pat Dowell and Roderick Sawyer in hopes of counteracting literacy rates in the Windy City. And he hopes to duplicate this in other communities around the nation.
He added, “We never know how the seeds of knowledge that these kids find in books or just in the art of reading will impact them 10 or 15 years from now.”
In addition to the ambitious goal of collecting a million books, Hall also plans to join with other community partners to provide new books for urban libraries, build 50 reading rooms centered on growth and development, and supply 50 urban schools with a comprehensive extracurricular reading curriculum to aid them in improving student reading skills.
With more than 6,000 books already collected and nearly 500 people that have already pledged their support, Hall and his team are seeking additional supporters willing to make the commitment of sowing a seed of knowledge into the lives of the next generation.
“I want people to understand the power of love, and the need to love young people,” he said. “That’s what I was created for. We want a million people to make that commitment; to take that pledge, participate, and pass the word.”
If you would like to partner with the Acts of Love campaign or the Love Young People Tour 2012, please visit the www.millionactsoflove.org for more information.
Inner-city life is hard. The complexities of life in “da hood” should encourage those seeking to serve inner-city youth to approach individuals with humility and long-term relationships. For years, I have been bothered by drive-by “mercy ministry” approaches by those who pull up in vans from outside low-income neighborhoods to “do ministry” as if those complexities do not exist. Granted, intentions are good and many are thankful that real concern is evidenced, but drive-by ministries are under the delusion that spending a few hours with inner-city youth from difficult circumstances is actually helping them in the long-run. The truth is that “making a difference” in the life of youth from difficult circumstances takes years of personal care and discipleship, not just a few hours of games, Bible stories, and listening to testimonies every month. Many of the problems in “da hood” are systemic and generational because the chain of child trauma has not been intercepted and healed.
Child trauma is devastating and is one of the ways in which sin and evil destroy the lives of many people early in life, igniting a life of self-destruction and hurting others. Children who experience trauma become teens who present typical reactions like impaired cognitive function, impaired academic performance, feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, despair, apathy, irrational guilt, easy and frequent crying, increased feelings of insecurity, social isolation, sleep difficulties, and acting out or anti-social behaviors that may lead to juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, fatigue, hypertension, psychosomatic and somatic symptoms, and the like.
In Ten Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know About Trauma and Delinquency, from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Kristine Buffington, Carly Dierkhising, and Shawn Marsh offer a highly informative perspective that I argue is just as needed for those working with inner-city youth from difficult circumstances. The authors make the following points trauma exposed children:
(1) A traumatic experience is an event that threatens someone’s life, safety, or well-being. Trauma can include a direct encounter with a dangerous or threatening event, or it can involve witnessing the endangerment or suffering of another living being. A key condition that makes these events traumatic is that they can overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope, and elicit intense feelings such as fear, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. Traumatic events include: emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; neglect; physical assaults; witnessing family, school, or community violence; war; racism; bullying; acts of terrorism; fires; serious accidents; serious injuries; intrusive or painful medical procedures; loss of loved ones; abandonment; and separation.
(2) Child traumatic stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Rates of PTSD in juvenile justice-involved youth are estimated between 3 percent to 50 percent making it comparable to the PTSD rates (12 percent-20 percent) of soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq.
(3) Trauma impacts a child’s development and health throughout his or her life. Exposure to child abuse and neglect can restrict brain growth especially in the areas of the brain that control learning and self regulation. Exposure to domestic violence has also been linked to lower IQ scores for children. Youth who experience traumatic events may have mental and physical health challenges, problems developing and maintaining healthy relationships, difficulties learning, behavioral problems, and substance abuse issues.
(4) Complex trauma is associated with risk of delinquency. In fact, about 72 percent of youth that enter the juvenile justice system have diagnosable psychiatric and psychological disorders. Moreover, research shows that youth who experience some type of trauma of any kind are at elevated risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Even worse, about 50 percent of the male victims of child maltreatment later became juvenile delinquents.
(5) Traumatic exposure, delinquency, and school failure are related. Success in school requires confidence, the ability to focus and concentrate, the discipline to complete assignments, the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, and the skills to understand and negotiate social relationships. When youth live in unpredictable and dangerous environments they often, in order to survive, operate in a state of anxiety and paranoia often expressed through “abnormally increased arousal, responsiveness to stimuli, and scanning of the environment for threats,” according to the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers.
(6) Trauma assessments can reduce misdiagnosis, promote positive outcomes, and maximize resources. Often trauma exposed children are often misdiagnosed as hyperactive, having attention deficits, or general behavior disorders when, in fact, there are deeper issues present.
(7) There are mental health treatments that are effective in helping youth who are experiencing child traumatic stress. As much as I believe in biblical counseling, because of the physical damage done to the brain of trauma-exposed children, there needs to be more openness for some youth to get clinical help.
(8) There is a compelling need for effective family involvement. Youth who do not have helpful and consistent family support are at higher risk of violence and prolonged involvement in the court system.
(9) Youth are highly resilient. Resiliency is the capacity for human beings to thrive in the face of adversity like trauma. Research suggests that the degree to which one is resilient is influenced by a complex interaction of risk and protective factors that exist across various domains, such as individual, family, community and school. Research on resiliency suggests that youth are more likely to overcome adversities when they have caring adults in their lives.
(10) The juvenile justice system needs to be trauma-informed at all levels — and so should church youth workers serving kids from difficult circumstances.
What Buffington, Deirkhising, and Marsh present above is the beginning to changing how we think about urban ministry. Low-income children from broken families living in rough inner-city neighborhoods are at risk of exposure to multiple traumas in ways that middle-class youth are not. To not understand the pervasiveness of trauma is to not take “da hood” seriously as a potential trauma zone.
The inference should not be that all inner-city kids are trauma victims, but that trauma must be a variable in considering how to help those in need and assessing whether or not current programs are capable of dealing with root issues. I am guilty of making this mistake in the past. I could have been far more helpful and patient had I been a trauma-informed inner-city church worker.
In the final analysis, I would argue that only healthy local churches are capable of bringing the kind of holistic community required to address urban pain and dysfunction. Only a committed community of believers can provide the long-term care, compassion, and discipleship needed to increase resilience and heal trauma-exposed communities.
While drive-by mercy ministry is great for PowerPoint presentations and fundraising brochures, holistic liberation driven by the Greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:34-40) requires a long-term commitment to loving relationships.
What orphans need are families who love them. Period. To be adopted into a family and kept at arm’s length or seen as a charity project in what should be your own home sounds disastrous to me. And tragic. Once in a while, I learn of people who have an almost missionary zeal about adoption but truly don’t seem enthusiastic about loving and parenting a child. It seems they have forgotten that the adoption process is just the prologue. When you become a parent by birth or adoption, you begin a very long journey.
UrbanFaith news & religion editor Christine Scheller, herself the white parent of a biracial child, recently spoke to Grant about the challenges of cross-cultural adoption, and why it should never be viewed as a “ministry” project. Listen to excerpts below.
Why adoption isn’t a missionary venture.
The bad economics of international adoption.
The “stares” and becoming aware of racism.
In addition to her book, Jennifer recommends the following resources for those interested in adoption or alternative ways to help needy children and invest in struggling communities around the world.
ADOPTION SERVICES Adoption-Link “provides quality services for all in the adoption triad: birth parents, children and adoptive families. We specialize in domestic and international adoption and humanitarian services for African, African-American, multiracial, HIV+ and other special needs children.”
Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption “exists to be an agent of change in the lives of children in North America waiting to be adopted out of foster care and in the attitudes of adults who, either unknowingly or helplessly, allow children to linger in government systems without the birthright of every child—a safe, loving and permanent family.”
Evan B. Donaldson Foundation provides “leadership that improves adoption laws, policies and practices – through sound research, education and advocacy – in order to better the lives of everyone touched by adoption.”
Show Hope Foundation is “a non-profit organization that mobilizes individuals and communities to meet the most pressing needs of orphans in distress by providing homes for waiting children through adoption aid grants and life-saving medical care for orphans with special needs.”
HUMANITARIAN RELIEF AND DEVELOPMENT Action Internationalis “a global mission agency committed to sending multi-national missionaries who treasure Jesus Christ and minister His Gospel in word and deed, primarily to the poor. Missionaries serve street children in Latin American countries by rescuing abandoned children, working to reunite children with relatives. They also work to develop a foster care network rooted in local churches and to support needy families.”
Chikumbuso “serves hundreds of people impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic by providing refuge for abused children, job training for widows and single mothers, and education for hundreds of orphaned children.”
Saddleback Church Orphan Care Connection provides “meaningful ways for every person to engage in caring for orphans through local churches at home and around the world. If you’re exploring adoption or foster care internationally or domestically, we’re ready to serve you.”
World Vision is “a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.”
It was only logical for my student to conclude that society didn’t expect much from him and his classmates. As a result, they didn’t expect much from themselves.
“Ms. Baker, why are you teaching here?” one student, whom I’ll call Solomon, inquired during one of our after-school tutoring sessions. “You went to college,” he continued unabashedly. “Um…couldn’t you find a job anywhere else?”
I remember these words from one of my don’t-beat-around-the bush, inquisitive fifth grade students like it was yesterday. And to be honest, my presence at Caldwell Elementary School wasn’t the chosen career path for most of my peers.
I graduated from a highly ranked university with a degree in English. I considered law school or a Ph.D. program in English before ultimately choosing to join the national teaching corps, Teach For America. I’d committed to teach for two years in a low-performing public school in an economically depressed neighborhood that was notorious for crime, high school drop-outs, and the birthplace of gangster rap — Compton, California.
I struggled with the words to respond to Solomon’s very pointed question. “Well,” I mused, “I heard a rumor that the smartest kids in the world were at this school, so I wanted to be here with the geniuses,” I stated, hoping to further reinforce the high academic expectations I had for my students — despite how far behind many of them were.
Solomon looked at me for a moment and then he burst out laughing. He was not convinced of my words in the slightest. “Aw c’mon Ms. Baker, nobody thinks we’re smart! If they did, they wouldn’t give us this broken-down school and these ratty old books. You don’t even have enough paper and pencils for us!”
As a first-year teacher, I was shocked that a 10-year-old was fully aware of the implicit disparity in our country’s two-tiered public education system. He wondered why someone like me — an African American who had graduated from college and “made it” — would ever choose to teach in his low-income public school. He implied that I had a myriad of more lucrative, and more worthy, options. Solomon scoffed at the idea that other people thought he and his classmates were intelligent. And he completely understood that his school lacked the basic resources and facilities.
Most disturbingly, Solomon connected society’s low expectations for him as the reason why his school didn’t have the necessary supplies. After all, he seemed to suggest, why would our nation bother wasting resources on students who weren’t smart enough to succeed in the first place?
Having spent the last 15 years working on the movement to eliminate educational inequity, I now realize that my insightful fifth-grader’s assumptions weren’t surprising. What other conclusion could he come to in a country where 9-year-olds in poor communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in wealthier communities? What else should he think about a nation where only half of the 14 million students from low-income communities ever graduate from high school and only one in ten ever graduate from college?
It was quite logical for Solomon to conclude that society didn’t expect much from him and his classmates in Compton. As a result, he didn’t expect much from himself either. As his teacher, it was my job to shift those expectations so Solomon and all my other students could reach their full potential.
We worked incredibly hard that year and it was thrilling to see Solomon, and the majority of my fifth-graders, excel at high levels that others might have thought impossible. Because of the tremendous growth I saw in my students, I am forever convinced that the problem of academic disparity is completely solvable.
The academic achievement gap, in a well-resourced country like ours, is a tragic moral injustice that should move people of faith to action. As Christians, let’s take stock of how we’re working to eliminate this problem. Are we encouraging our most talented college graduates and young professionals to teach in schools like Solomon’s? Are we mobilizing our church communities to volunteer, tutor, and provide much-needed supplies to under-resourced schools? Are we mobilizing on behalf of students like Solomon to demand that lawmakers create policies that will improve the quality of their education?
The Bible is pretty clear about our responsibility. God says that all children were created in his image, so we should believe every child has unlimited potential. God says that children are incredibly precious to him. And God tells us to eliminate injustice.
It’s time for Christians to take a stand on behalf of the “least of these” in our nation’s low-income public schools. Solomon and his classmates are waiting for us.