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Not In My Back Yard

Tommy lives a few doors down from The Backyard house, so he was one of the first to show up for the big celebration on an October Saturday morning.

The first thing he did was put his brand new Backyard T-shirt over his favorite black one. "Backyard Ministries... changing neighborhoods from the inside out" proudly brandished the T-shirt. Then Tommy helped wipe off tables and set up chairs. Before long, all sizes and shapes of people poured into The Backyard from every direction.

Something really different was about to take place in a neighborhood that sees very little excitement that doesn't involve a squad car. College students set up a sound system that could (and possibly did) wake up people in the next county. The combination of warm wide smiles, shiny new guitars, and a little cranked-up volume attracted the attention The Backyard staff had hoped for. When the pickup, pulling a huge outdoor cooker, parked in the vacant lot next door, Tommy knew this would be something his buddy Chuckie would enjoy. Chuckie had never been to The Backyard, but Tommy was sure he would like

Tommy found some of The Backyard tutors to drive him to his friend's house. After more than a few "Uh...uh...I think you turn here," they arrived at a small apartment with a very large bulldog tied up out front. Neither Tommy nor the tutors were willing to negotiate with the canine security guard, so Tommy went around to the side of the apartment and called to his friend through the window.

As best he could, Tommy explained what was happening at The Backyard and asked his buddy to come along. Chuckie wanted to go, but his mother was at the laundermat.

"I can't leave without telling her," Chuckie said.

The tutors put Tommy and his shirtless friend in the van and went to find her. When they found her, Tommy begged for her to let his friend come along.

She seemed thrilled, "But he ain't got a shirt to wear. I'm washing 'em now," she said.

Tommy had the solution; he had just gotten an extra one that morning. As a matter of fact, he had both of them on. Chuckie could wear one of his. That left only one more hurdle between the friends and a really great Saturday morning. "Chuckie can't stay long," his mom said, "he'll have to be back by 2:30...we've got a ride to the jail to visit his dad."

On this bright October Saturday morning, a big crowd of Lee University tutors, children from The Backyard, a few local parents, and a variety of city and county officials gathered at The Backyard house. They celebrated the accomplishments of children involved in Heart 2 Heart Ministries' Backyard Ministries. It was a big deal open house.

School officials, the juvenile judge, county commissioners, the media, and at least two local police officers showed up. Mothers spoke to the guests and tutors about their "babies" with simple eloquence and powerful conviction. They talked of love and sacrifice and the dreams they have for their children. In turn, the neighborhood got to hear from the judge and the principal who recognized and applauded the children's hard work and dedication.

There's a lot to celebrate here in one of Cleveland's impoverished neighborhoods. Each Wednesday, students from Lee University meet with children from the neighborhood for tutoring, relationship-building, snacks, and fun. The Backyard is an educational cooperative between Lee University and Heart 2 Heart Ministries.

In the past four years of The Backyard tutoring ministry, more than 65 children made the honor roll at least once during the school year. One hard-nosed seventh-grader boasts of going from five Fs last semester down to one. These children received encouragement, tutoring, prayer, fun, and love from their new college friends. And the college students benefited too. The Lee students made new friends and also learned what it means to put their faith into action.

The Backyard Ministries were birthed in William Lamb's heart at Group Publishing's 1993 Youth Ministry University (now the National Youth and Children's Ministry Convention).

"Bruce Wall was speaking about the skating rink church he pastors in Boston," William remembers. "As I returned to my room that night, I quickly found myself overwhelmed and broken in my spirit for the kids that ride bus #9."

While in Bible college, William had dreamed of pastoring a megachurch for God, but he clearly remembers when God told him that he would not pastor a mega-church. Rather, God wanted William to pastor a bus. Not only does William bus kids to church, but he continues to drive a regular schoolbus route in Bradley county.

"I had been busing the children on bus #9 to church for some time, but I felt very strongly that we could do more than just show them a different world. We could help change their world from the inside out. Thus, The Backyard was born."

William believed that a life-changing ministry had to be indigenous to the community to truly enable children to embrace the claims of Christ and see their lives transformed.

"The actual onsite beginnings of The Backyard started in 1995 under a couple of pine trees in the rain," William says. "Without a building to call home, we met for several weeks under those two trees."

William left a lucrative landscaping business to obey God in creating this ministry. He is now the president of Heart 2 Heart Ministries, of which Backyard Ministries is a part. William partnered with Gary Riggins, an associate professor of education at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, to create a ministry in Lee University's back yard. William and Gary prayed about what they could do to introduce the university campus to the struggling families that lived just a few blocks away from campus.

Together they laid the foundation for what is now a thriving ministry. Gary announced the opportunity to the students in his classes, while William let the kids on his school-bus route know about the available tutoring. The first tutoring session had 24 students and 26 tutors.

Although students and children flocked to The Backyard, the ministry faltered in getting off the ground. Both William and Gary hoped that financial resources would be provided at the onset of the ministry.

One day, though, Gary said to William, "We're not doing this right. God has told us to do this ministry and we're waiting for perfect conditions. We need to step out on faith rather than wait for resources."

William agreed and they created the ministry, trusting that God would bring in the needed resources in the right time. Four years later, The Backyard averages 60 students and 50 to 60 tutors at the 10th Street property and 15 at the Park Terrace property. Heart 2 Heart Ministries is now purchasing a house in the neighborhood.

William is an entertaining storyteller, and his favorite stories are about his kids and the neighbors in his back yard. To protect the children, William prefers not to share specific details of the brokenness in children's homes. Obviously, not every home is wrought with problems, but William has seen children victimized by alcoholism and other addictions, incest, neglect and abuse, depression, and more.

Yet God has given William and Gary eyes to see the beauty in the children's lives and homes. That's why The Backyard gave each child a camera to capture their world's beauty. The result was a children's book entitled Neighborhood Nouns: People, Places, and Things in the Backyard. The book is a collection of the children's photographs and journal entries of the things of beauty and value in their community.

The introductory page to the "People" section celebrates the wonder of children's unconditional acceptance by saying "No matter how fat or skinny, tall or short, smart or dumb, children have the uncanny ability to spot that fleeting glimmer of value that God somehow sees in each of us. The people in this section are not unlike any of us. They are ordinary human beings who know what it's like to bask in the warm, reflected glow of a child's love and admiration."

The children photographed the people, places, and things of their lives. Then they wrote things like this...

"I took a picture of myself because I'm cute."

"Dad. He works hard at 31st Street for a home for us."

"We took cameras home, and I took a picture of my house, which I like because I have a roof over my head."

"This is my ex-boyfriend sitting next to me on the bus. I wish I had not taken this picture because I did not like him in the first place! My two friends talked me into going out with him."

"This is my pig Babe. I liked when she rooted me with her nose. I like the way she oinked. The people that lived next to us broke her ribs and we had to put her to sleep."

The Backyard exists to make investments in the lives of people to empower them to change their world from the inside out. "The Backyard Team really believes it," says Gary. "We think relationships built on mutual respect change lives and can ultimately reshape a community. The warmth and light generated by a common understanding of how we are all connected can bend perceptions forged over generations of suspicion and neglect."

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