Not In My Back Yard

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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.

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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
it.

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.

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“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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