Off of Rough Streets, Into a Haven for Learning
Fifty years and 6,000 students later, a Chicago church’s free-tutoring program carries on.
By Bob Greene Oct. 9, 2014 8:39 p.m. ET
On a crisp-as-an-apple-slice autumn afternoon in Chicago, a man named Tylus Allen looked around a softly lighted chapel and said, “When I first came here, it was because I heard this was where people were willing to help you.”
He is 24 now, a clerk at a downtown hospital. When he began evening visits to the Fourth Presbyterian Church, he was a fifth-grader who lived many grim miles away. His father was in prison. He was a boy who yearned to learn, to better himself, but wasn’t sure how. “I was hoping to find people who wouldn’t give up on me,” he said.
He came to the right place. The church, on a postcard-glamorous North Michigan Avenue corner, has, for 50 years, provided a tutoring program for children as young as first graders. Most of the boys and girls, often from the city’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods, are African-American. Most of the volunteer tutors are white, many of them professional men and women.
On this afternoon hundreds of them—former pupils like Mr. Allen, current pupils, present and past tutors—were gathering at the church to celebrate half a century of lives made better. The premise of what goes on there on weeknights is simple: The children seek one-on-one help with the basics of mathematics and reading and writing. They don’t always get that kind of individual attention in their public schools. There are successful men and women willing to sit down with them at the church and share what they have always taken for granted: the ability to add and subtract and divide, the ability to spell and to read with understanding.
ENLARGE Getty Images I first reported on the church’s tutoring program 25 years ago, and then, as now, I was most struck by the devotion on both sides. On the coldest Chicago winter nights, in drenching rain and biting winds, the children would arrive for their tutoring sessions right on time. So would the volunteer tutors. Attendance was typically 100%.
“At first, the children don’t even know exactly what they’re hoping for,” said Stefani Turken, who is in her 22nd year of tutoring. “But little by little, they see that there is a different world available to them, that they can dream of something better. That if you want it to, life can change.”
Tamatha Webster, a single mother from Chicago’s West Side, said she enrolled her daughter in the tutoring program—it has always been free of charge—when the girl was 6. “She was going to a school where there was so much disruption in classes—children being rude and disrespectful to the teachers. She was trying to block all that out, and learn, but it was very hard.”
Most of the tutors, not all of whom are church members, have just finished a full day at work. “We never start by just opening the books,” said Jon Findley, a bank data-base manager who has been volunteering for 24 years. “These kids bring their day with them. So you listen. It’s important that they know someone wants to hear about their lives. I don’t want to be another person who lets them down.”
Since the program started in 1964—one night a week, that first year, in the church basement—more than 6,000 children have been taught. Now tutoring is available four nights a week. The children who journey downtown from some of the city’s bleakest, most dangerous neighborhoods could be excused for complaining about the hand life has dealt them. But complaining is easy; working to better oneself is hard. The volunteers could be excused—even commended—if they chose only to give money to charities instead. But writing a check is easy; being the person who does something—the one who shows up—is hard.
The rewards, though, are lasting. Tamatha Webster’s daughter no longer has to struggle to learn in chaotic classrooms. She has been a faithful attendee on tutoring nights for seven years now, and because of her intelligence and diligent work has been awarded a scholarship to one of Chicago’s finest private schools.
Her name is Brenna. She said that one of the happiest moments in her life was when, during her first year of tutoring, she finished in second place in a spelling bee, with her mother watching. Brenna aspires to become a pediatrician.
During her early years in the program, she said, on blizzardy days at her public elementary school she would look out the window at the swirling snow. “I told myself that no matter what, I was going to make it to tutoring that night,” she said. “I hoped it wouldn’t be snowed out. There was never a time that I didn’t get there. And there was never a time when they weren’t there waiting.”
Mr. Greene is the author, most recently, of “Late Edition: A Love Story” (St. Martin ’s Griffin, 2010).
There are faiths in the United States of America that support traditional marriage (see PDF below). It is then the duty of all faiths to rally to that cause, in the true spirit of American religious freedom.
Religious Freedom (in its most basic form)
It was conceived in a patriot's mind
And forged 'mid raucous debate
That I need not bow down to his God,
Nor he say prayers to mine.
Virginia 14 year-old
Years ago, the Rev. Richard B. Martin, who died May 3 at 74, was searching for a way to make the Lenten season more meaningful for his parishioners in Northern Virginia. Instead of calling on them to give up the simple indulgences often sacrificed during the 40 days of reflection before Easter — chocolate or television shows — he asked for their spare change.
Father Martin settled on 50 cents a day, the amount someone might have spent at that time, in 1998, on a soda or pizza topping. The 2,500 families he served as pastor of Burke’s Catholic Church of the Nativity raised $67,000 by Easter.
Father Martin had developed ties with the Florida-based humanitarian organization Food for the Poor, which sent the money to the needy in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the developing world. In that first year after the Lenten collection, Food for the Poor built 27 houses.
Father Martin impressed on his parishioners the ongoing need in Haiti and strengthened the bond between his church and Food for the Poor’s outreach efforts there. By the time of his death, he had raised $4 million for housing and access to health care, education and clean water.
To date, the Church of the Nativity has helped finance homes for 1,300 families in eight “Nativity Villages.” The villages are developments that include community centers used for vocational training or as clinics or places of worship.
Father Martin had traveled throughout the Caribbean and Latin America during his decades as a priest and spoke in simple but harrowing ways about Cité Soleil, a slum near Port-au-Prince.
Hundreds of thousands of people there were terrorized by gangs, disease and chaos, he told his congregants. Roofs were made of cardboard, and families lacked electricity and running water.
“They use the creek to urinate and bathe in,” he said, according to a Washington Post account at the time, describing the living conditions he had witnessed.
“It got us all thinking,” parishioner Richard Miserendino told The Post in 1998. “We kept wondering what kind of house you could possibly buy for $2,500, but the fact that people [in Haiti] don’t even have that much really had an impact on our kids. . . . It’s easy to take things for granted, particularly when you live in Fairfax.”
Father Martin dubbed the effort Operation Starfish, a reference to one of his favorite parables.
In the story, a storm has thrown millions of starfish onto a beach. An old man is determined to save the delicate creatures and pitches them, one at a time, back into the sea.
“How can your effort make any difference?” asks a boy who has been watching.
The man tosses another starfish into the water and replies, “It made a difference to that one.”
Officials at Food for the Poor, which trademarked the Starfish name, said Father Martin’s work in Haiti spurred similar programs at more than 300 churches, schools and organizations across the United States.
“Many churches have done it over Easter, but none with the level of success that he inspired in his people,” said Angel Aloma, executive director of Food for the Poor.
“He wasn’t satisfied with just building the stuff,” Aloma added. “He’d go back the next year and help the people by doing another project. If the village needed clean water, he’d help dig a well so the village would not have to send its little girls walking three hours away to find water.”
In all, Aloma said, Father Martin’s efforts benefited many thousands of Haitians.
“They no longer live on dirt floors and no longer get wet when it rains and have to sleep in the mud,” he said. “They have a home, with a door that locks with a key, so parents find it safer to leave their kids with Granny. They leave their home, with its few possessions, to go out and find work.”
Aloma added that Father Martin funded efforts to teach sewing and animal husbandry, among other skills, that would help Haitians “not only come out of poverty, but have the dignity to support themselves, to move them up in the ladder of life. That is a huge thing.”
Richard Bernard Martin was born Oct. 17, 1939, in Providence, R.I., and grew up in Warwick, R.I. He was a 1962 graduate of Providence College and attended St. Francis Seminary in Loretto, Pa., before his ordination in 1966 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond.
He worked at churches across Northern Virginia before joining Church of the Nativity in 1997. From 1977 to 1981, he was an Air Force chaplain.
Father Martin, a Burke resident, died at a hospital in Fairfax County of complications from diabetes, said Jim McDaniel, the Operation Starfish coordinator at Church of the Nativity. Survivors include a brother and a sister.
In addition to his work in Haiti, Father Martin helped the poor and the marginalized in the Washington area through Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. His efforts were aimed at promoting affordable housing and work opportunities for immigrants.
The parish motto, Father Martin once wrote in the Church of the Nativity bulletin, was, “We reach out to those in need, across the street and around the world.”