It all began with a question from Pastor David Platt early in 2009: “What would happen if we gave ourselves to a specific area of our city, where there is urgent physical poverty and spiritual poverty, over a long period of time?”
That question led to many ‘prayer drives’ by our staff throughout Birmingham and countless conversations with urban leaders. Our goal was long-term relational disciple-making, but how could suburban Christ-followers who were primarily Caucasian build long-term friendships and disciple-making relationships in the urban area of our city without coming across paternalistic? How could we love our neighbors well with Christ-like humility without doing more harm than good as we sought to advance to gospel work in our city?
We realized pretty quickly that public housing communities were ground zero for a lot of physical poverty, and most families living there were living in isolation from any spiritual community and influence due to the transient nature of the communities.
After a conversation with an officer who pulled me over during one of my prayer drives through Marks Village in Gate City, after being told by the public housing administrators that Marks Village is probably the poorest of the public housing communities and is too dangerous for outsiders, and after a local pastor told us he had been praying regularly that God would send him help and partners, we sensed God calling us to invest long-term in the Gate City and East Lake areas of our city. We felt this especially applied to Marks Village, where the 500 family units were about to become full again.
At that time, we had over 100 volunteers already serving regularly alongside ministries in the East Lake area and in Tom Brown Village, a public housing community in Avondale.
We were learning that if we were to be effective, we were going to need to join others already serving in the area. In 2010, we developed a partnership with a local church next door to Marks Village. We led our first urban Rock the Block there, helped them stabilize their building, coordinated a health fair and community party, and some of our members began serving there helping them establish a children’s ministry and Sunday school for kids. Some of our small groups even helped build a community garden.
Later, we partnered with Mission Alabama in Marks Village to do health fairs, Fall festivals, after-school tutoring, a food and clothes closet, and a summer camp. We held our first Ready Day One event together in 2012 to help provide clothes, backpacks, shoes, and school supplies for the children living in Marks Village, so they could be ready to start school on day one.
In 2013, Mission Alabama lost their contract to help the families of Marks Village. This led to the realization that we needed to get more involved with other local churches and begin a deeper partnership with the new elementary school, Oliver Elementary, in order to have long-term ministry bases.
We moved Ready Day One to the school and threw a big back-to-school party to help kids get registered for school. Our Wednesday night Bible Club for kids eventually moved to Ambassadors For Christ Church on Sunday afternoons. We held our Rock the Block summer event there too. Several Brook Hills volunteers joined the local pastor’s wife there to form Oak Tree Ministries so they could have a more consistent ministry to the families of Marks Village. They took over the Bible Club and started an after-school reading club. They began other ministries to teens and women throughout the week and became our partners at Oliver Elementary School too.
The principal at Oliver asked us if we could help provide some mentors for the kids at Oliver, so we started a Breakfast Club where mentors could meet with a couple of children each week. That grew to a Lunch Club opportunity too and eventually, classroom volunteers, reading and math buddies, support for teacher appreciation events, and special Serve Days at the school.
Over time, we worked with the school to create an incentive program for children and parents to earn points to purchase their needed clothes and shoes for school, creating a more ‘honorable exchange’ avenue to empower families to succeed. And five years ago, we launched WorkFaith Birmingham workshops to help empower the families living there and across the urban area to enjoy God’s good design for life through faith and work.
For the past few years, we have been able to purchase all the school supplies needed for every classroom at Oliver, invest in needed computers and tablets, support special events for children and their families, and affirm the hard work of the staff. This has all been possible because our faith family has faithfully given their time, treasures, talents, and prayer support over the years.
Will you help us to continue to Love Oliver well this next year for the glory of Christ?
Keith and Robin Stanley have been members of Brook Hills since 2007. He currently serves as our City Ministries Pastor and is the founder of WorkFaith Birmingham. They have two adult children and three grandchildren.