I was 17 years old. We had just come out of gym class, and while heading for the cafeteria for lunch, I saw people crying. In the cafeteria, many more were crying. I had no clue what had happened because the announcement hadn’t reached the gym class. President Kennedy had been shot and killed. I cried.
“If a free society cannot help the
many who are poor, it cannot save
the few who are rich.”
John F. Kennedy inaugural address,
January 20, 1961
My 17 year old heart felt that evil had triumphed, and that was hard to take. We all loved the President and his beautiful family. He had given us so much hope–I felt like he was so modern and cool and that he was really a good person and that things would get so much better for black people with him as President. Who would do such a thing? I don’t guess I’ll ever be convinced that such a perfect shot to a moving target from so far away was not the act of an expertly trained professional hired for political purposes, whether it was Lee Harvey Oswald or someone else.
Hope really felt dashed for me the day President Kennedy was killed. And even more when Dr. King was killed less than 5 years later. But one thing about hope is that something will always bring it back — and another thing is that you can find hope in lots of different places. So I want to share with you a new hope that I’ve recently found.
City Gate is a non-profit charitable organization serving children and families in the Washington DC area. I was looking around to find out who’s working with children here, and City Gate grabbed my attention for two reasons–the broad reach of its programs and the steadfast faith of the founder and Executive Director, Rev. Dr. Lynn Bergfalk, Pastor of Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church in DC.
City Gate was formed in 2000 to extend and expand the kind of programs being run at Calvary Baptist Church, where Dr. Bergfalk was then pastor, into the larger community. From 2003 – 2006 their central location was in the DC Baptist Convention Johenning Community Center in Southeast. When they had to move, what seemed to be a big defeat turned out to be a great blessing. City Gate found a new home in a local housing development, and through the success and the connections made there, City Gate expanded the after school programs to several housing developments and schools in Southeast and in other parts of the City and nearby Prince George’s County. City Gate operates right where the people live, and the people have received them well.
Last week Dr. Bergfalk was gracious enough to take me and a new volunteer to visit one of the school sites and some of the after school sites. The after school activities include homework time, STEM clubs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), recreational activities and also dinner for many of the children. Most important is the attention these children receive from caring professionals who help to provide life skills, a safe haven and long-term positive and caring relationships with children who need it. A major focus of the after school programming is to improve the children’s performance in school.
This is intended to directly address the fact that if children are not reading by the 3rd grade, the “accumulated baggage of low performance,” as Dr. Bergfalk calls it, builds up from year to year, and they are likely to end up failing, and also likely to end up in the prison system. See my earlier post for a more detailed discussion about this.
And City Gate is successful. I’ll have more to say about some of their success stories next week. While this front line work is absolutely necessary in the war against imprisoning our children, help must come from other sources as well. Non-profits like City Gate need sure sources of funding to keep operating. Schools in impoverished neighborhoods need more funding for computers, specialists, social workers, and others to deal with the “accumulated baggage” these kids carry. We need national, state and local policies that help and support our children, rather than punishing them for what is essentially not their fault.
And that’s why we need people who really care for victims of poverty in places of leadership. When people like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama reach the White House, hope for the poor rebounds. And when politics and political maneuverings dash our hope, we must be involved to keep hope alive. I still have hope that the Democrats in Congress can figure out how to provide the support that our President needs to move forward with programs that bring some sense of caring for the least in our country. And I’ll continue to urge people of faith to speak prophetically to power about caring for the poor, then to get involved and help those who are doing the caring.