Volunteers seek to create spiritual capital among despairing city youth

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From left, Saria Loyd, 11, her sister Aaliyah, 13, and Sydney Sharp, 7, play cards with a college professor tutor, Ron Lowe, at East Chattanooga Community Center on Dodson Avenue.

By David Tulis

Every Valley Leadership Academy is an effort that arose from conversations between two regulars at the Dead Theologians Society, a local group that studies the writings of godly forebears from Augustine to Francis Schaeffer. Johnny Garth and Ron Lowe both claim roots in Washington Hills, a part of Chattanooga between Missionary Ridge and Amnicola Highway. Messrs. Garth and Lowe meet with parents, provide tutoring, lead Bible studies, teach courses in finances and conflict resolution to young people whose lives are marred by broken homes, poverty, crime and low educational expectations.

Ron Lowe, in a game room at city-run East Chattanooga Community Center, gives us the big picture about why Christianity cares for the downtrodden. Mr. Lowe’s work at the center has influenced dozens of children, and the work at a second center has touched a hundred souls. Several local churches are involved in this work of building up others.

Mr. Lowe is from a family of seven children that once resided in East Chattanooga. He has “vivid memories” of the center until his family moved away when he was 4. A bachelor, 47, he is an adjunct history instructor at UTC.

[This interview first was published in December 2012. — DJT]

David Tulis  Ron, tell us about your work here and what’s happening.

Ron Lowe  I am part of a team of volunteers from the community who come in. And we offer tutoring once a week after school at this center and another one as well at Washington Hills. We also come in and do Bible studies one night a week at each center. We try to offer some food, and just meet the kids where they are.

We all know in watching media reports — especially in the past couple of years — that in the last couple years there have been a lot of issues in the inner city with kids, temptations and unhealthy activities that they’re getting into. We want to offer an alternative to that. We want just to respond to the love for Christ by bringing the good news to these kids who often times lack hope, just to encourage them and provide a positive alternative.

Q  Are there false hopes that these children are receiving by various means, and what do these false hopes do in their lives, and how do these false hopes — if they exist — direct them differently than what you propose?

Ron Lowe  Well there is false hope, and also lack of hope and discouragement of hope at all. So, I would say basically it is our human condition that we need hope, and the good news of Christ brings it. Yes, a lot of false enticements and false offers of hope are out there —

Q  Such as?

Ron Lowe — All kinds of worldly temptations face our youth, in terms of materialism and individualism. They are enticed with messages that pursuing material rewards or fame offers the best prospect for finding fulfillment in life. They are told that you can achieve anything you set your mind to just as long as you have hope in yourself. This is the kind of very individualistic, autonomous self-focus these kids are being encouraged to embrace. When those dreams prove elusive, other voices say that there is no good reason at all for hope, especially in terms of educational opportunities and career prospects that might lead to economic advancement.

We feel that there is a lot of untapped potential, underdeveloped human capital, if you will, among these kids. Many of these kids are very bright. Our city is impoverished from our inability to reach out to these kids and give them opportunities to contribute to renewal in our communities.

Q  Does every young person have capital value? Explain that.

Ron Lowe  Capital, rightly understood, is being assets, resources, yes. Every human created in the image of God is given all kinds of gifts that reflect God’s glory and that bring good things to humanity.

As you get to know these kids from week to week, you see all sorts of gifts and capabilities on display: their impressive creativity, critical reasoning skills, visionary ideas and insightful solutions. The development of those skills is largely being overlooked by adults in our community.

Q  Skills and talents that appear, and maybe could only appear, in people in their particular difficult circumstance, possibly?

Ron Lowe  Possibly. It may look different, but I see a lot of commonality between these kids and kids in the suburbs that I’ve been around in earlier parts of my career.

Q  With every mouth, there are two hands?

Ron Lowe  Yes, these kids are not consumers exclusively. These kids have people skills. They have leadership skills — which is why we’re modeling this as a leadership academy.

That leadership will be manifest one way or another, for good or for bad.

Recent studies of the local gang issue show that a lot of kids get caught up in it are actually very intelligent, and have a lot of leadership capabilities. Because of a lack of opportunities given to them in the community they have misdirected those skills. So we want to show them more productive ways to use those skills – ways that will empower them to help other people and to expand their own horizons. A lot of these kids show amazing sympathy toward people in need – those who have needs greater than their own. They need more avenues for contributing to the wellbeing of those in great need.

Christianity’s revolutionary idea: Care for underdog

Q  What are some of the ideas in Christianity that they receive that help these gifts come out and the interest turn toward sympathy and service as opposed to maybe something that would benefit a gang?

Ron Lowe  Well, like I mentioned, being created in the image of God is a key teaching in Christianity that comes to bear on this, and we try to emphasize that as we go through the scriptures with them.

From the history of Christianity, I keep reminding them that it’s a revolutionary value that Christianity introduced to the world: the idea of taking care of people from whom you have nothing to gain. The Lord receives glory when this idea is implemented.

This was revolutionary in the ancient Roman world, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia when Christianity came to those continents. The Roman emperors commented that these people, these strange [Christians], are not only taking care of their own people, but they’re also taking care of our people (the pagans) who are persecuting them and hating them. Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies.’ Rome had trouble swallowing that. Tribalist Europe had trouble swallowing that. It’s still radical and revolutionary, but it brings hope and light and life to people, and that’s why people have embraced it. God’s glory gets obscured when Christians fail to live up to that heritage.

When we ignore the needs of people it brings the gospel into disrepute, and our cultural influence declines.

Just how ‘privatized’ is your Christian life?

Dedrick Ruffin, 9, plays pool as tutor Ron Lowe watches in a room at East Chattanooga Community Center where Mr. Lowe and other Christians encourage young people with tutoring, games and peacemaking.

Q  Are you trying to explain with this why Christianity appears to be so weak, so irrelevant today? What is it in Christianity that you are teaching these young people that would bring about a revival of Christianity as a life system?

Ron Lowe I think we’ve bought into the Enlightenment myth that religion can and should be privatized: the idea that it is a merely individual matter that should be dealt with only privately, individually and that it doesn’t have any public implications for the community.

We know from the covenant tradition that religion is something that comes through and influences whole communities, not just us as individuals. It’s not just one or the other. It’s both. It’s individual and as a community. It seems that western Christians have followed modernity’s isolating and fragmenting influences. Suburbanization is one major indication of this influence. Middle-class Christians have withdrawn from our cities and our cities have suffered from that. We’re wasting a lot of resources: building new buildings, expanding church facilities and youth buildings, when community centers like this could be bringing people in the our neighborhoods and communities together.

They are here not just to serve recreational needs. I am excited about our city’s vision to offer cultural and educational, as well as recreational, opportunities at these community centers. All these areas are important parts of our lives as humans, and Christians need to reinvest our time, our attention, and our presence, by moving back to the city. Chattanooga has embraced this mission of “the new urbanism,” and I think it is a very healthy development.

Christianity’s claims on New Urbanism

Q  Talk about new urbanism, what it means, and why Christians should understand it and care about it.

Ron Lowe  It is a movement that started in the 1960s. It was largely based on ideas from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It wasn’t a Christian movement at all, but a lot of the themes bear significant correspondence with the biblical mandate toward community and getting to know your neighbors and avoiding the sort of fragmentation that suburbanization has created. New urbanists pointed out the dehumanizing effects of our monolithic, mall-oriented culture where the individuality of humans and their potential is either taken for granted or forgotten. We need to build neighborhoods where we interact with our neighbors, where there are sidewalks.

A great book applying this to Christianity was Eric Jacobson’s Sidewalks in the Kingdom ‡. He discusses the importance for churches of communities having amenities such as sidewalks where people can interact with their neighbors as they walk to work, to school, or to church. In most suburban neighborhoods, people drive home and into their garages, never even having to acknowledge their neighbors.

That’s just one type of institutional, cultural phenomenon which has devastated communities like this one. A lot of businesses in this community have closed because we’re spending all our money at these big box chain stores at the mall.

We’re very excited about the work of the Glass House Collective over on Glass Street. A local foundation is investing resources trying to bring small, locally-owned businesses back to this once-thriving commercial district. But it will also be support institutions, such as community centers, that will revitalize and reconnect our community and bring us back together.

Calling for fresh interactions with culture at large

Q When your average Christian hears about new urbanism and some of the things you’re talking about, I think the temptation here is to think that this is something from the liberal Christian church, maybe, and not a conservative part of Christianity. Is that a mistake? Is there a theological error that’s crept into God’s people where they reject out of hand the things you’re talking about without thinking about them? What’s possibly the spiritual mistake in that?

Ron Lowe  Instead of thoughtfully considering the social, public, and institutional implications of the Christian message, too many Christians have simply become reactionary. For the past century or so, conservative Christians, I think, have overreacted or wrongly reacted against the social gospel, the idea of reducing Christianity to its social or material implications. We’ve either withdrawn, creating our own subcultures that are disconnected from the culture at large. Or we’ve focused on evangelism in a way that is removed from its public and corporate implications, where it’s just a private decision to begin following Christ.

We’ve pitted three essential components of the Christian life – evangelism, theology, ethics – against one another. We stake out reactionary responses against groups who emphasize one part or another. A God-centered life is one that wants to know God, wants to know God on his own terms, wants to know revelation, but that also wants to give back and invest in the lives of other people, meeting their physical needs but also sharing the good news of Christ and allowing the love you’ve experienced from Christ to flow into the lives of others and showing them that sinners are redeemable and that Jesus transforms lives. It’s not just one or the other of those [components]. We’ve pitted them against one another unbiblically.

A card snaps into the air as, from left, Bryaunna Loyd, 19, her sisters Breshown, 17, and Saria play a game at a city-run neighborhood center in Chattanooga.

Holy Spirit oversees 3 parts of Great Commission

The Great Commission addresses all three. The truth about God is that Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth. His sovereignty and majesty are supreme. Therefore, He says, go make disciples, and teach them to obey all that I commanded you. And lo, I am with you always — back to theology. God promises to be with us. We need to be faithful witnesses to all three of those elements.

Johnny Garth, founder of Every Valley Leadership Academy in Chattanooga, attends to business as a young friend looks on.

Q  How does the Holy Spirit work?

Ron Lowe  The Holy Spirit is God who uses God’s revelation, His word, to awaken us and regenerate us and bring us back to life, and gives us eyes to see and ears to hear and lives to obey. He’s the one who draws us to Christ, and He transforms us. He gives us the character of Christ. He produces the fruit of the Spirit. As the world sees that, He draws people to Christ.

Q This is not a work of force, as in man-made religion, is it?

Ron Lowe  Not at all. We can’t do it. We’re not smart enough, we’re not good enough. We are sinners. God’s ways of bringing this ministry to life have been so counterintuitive and against the way we conceived it and planned it. God is doing it His way so that He gets the glory. We can’t scheme and plan this [work] on a flow chart. We have dreams and goals; God gives people visions, then God can shift those visions and align them with his true purposes. ****

Free markets, Christianity break down ‘tribalism’

Q  What do people who care about free markets and local economy— how should they view what you are doing? How does the idea of the free market fit into your overall scheme?

Ron Lowe  I am a fan of the free market. Economics is one of my sub-fields of interest. I think free markets are efficient. I think the more things are done on the local level, they work more efficiently, whether in the private sphere or in government. I was a political science major as an undergrad and think about political philosophy and topics a lot. The kingdom of God drives us, but I think it’s somewhat of an American distinctive for local communities to take ownership of dealing with local problems in local ways that don’t totally disconnect us from our long national history and the history of the church of Jesus Christ worldwide. I think it avoids tribalism. One of the things that thwart the gospel is tribalism.

Q What do you mean by that?

Ron Lowe  It’s isolating ourselves and wrongly dividing ourselves by standards other than god’s. It characterizes most human societies apart from the gospel, and many other religions. The idea that a grouping of humans is superior to another grouping of humans based on their ethnicity, their family name, their status, this was the way Europe operated before Christianity came. It was the extended family — the clan. That was it. If you weren’t in the clan, you are the enemy, you are the devil, we were going to fight you, we’re going to carry on centuries-long blood feuds over stupid things. Christianity challenged that. Europe never totally overcame that. I tell people that Christianity made a major difference in Europe, but it was never thoroughly Christianized. That tribalism was always waiting in the wings. The Roman addiction to power and limiting family to the nuclear family or to the nuclear family or to the extended family.

The biblical concept of the covenant and family goes way beyond that.

It includes that. It affirms that. But any time we limit it to that, we’ve gone way beyond the definition of the Bible. And the family of God is a multinational, multi-ethnic. And in the 20th century we’ve fragmented that. We’ve battened down the hatches to our immediate family.

David Tulis  Ron, thank you for the interview. Thank you so much.

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If you would like to support this Christian labor, send a check to:
Every Valley Leadership Academy
P.O. Box 4557
Chattanooga, TN 37405
Feel free to contact Mr. Lowe at (423) 760-1943 or Mr. Garth at (423) 704-7848.

‡ Eric Jacobsen the author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos Press, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress For the New Urbanism and a participant in the Colloquim on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College. He is a full-time student at Fuller Theological Seminary where he is pursuing a doctorate in theology and culture.

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