The people of Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, entered into a season of discernment three or four years ago for our next missions venture.
The congregation prayed for a vision from God and was polled to identify passions, gifts and concerns in the local community.

Our hope was to impact the root causes of an issue, penetrating to the depths of an injustice rather than treating the symptoms of it.

Research was conducted. Prayers were offered. Options were presented.

The congregation noticed during this process that there were an inordinate amount of educators, retired educators and public school administrators in its pews. Second Baptist possesses an educational spirit and passion.

Further research led the church to center on third-grade reading levels. Research shows strong correlations between those students who are below grade reading levels and future incarceration, dropout and poverty.

Up to the third grade, a child is learning to read, but around the third grade, a child must be able to read to learn.

Therefore, being behind in third-grade reading levels has disastrous consequences for a child.

When the needs around us were matched with our giftedness as a congregation, we decided to partner with a local elementary school.

Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary is a nearby school in a downtown setting, facing all of the typical challenges inherent in downtown schools. Most of the children come from low-income families with numerous needs.

The school was as open to the partnership as the church was. After further planning and conversing, the program was called MLK Reads and was scheduled to launch in the fall of 2013.

Other partners assisted in creating the program. We received a two-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped with initial funding.

We connected with other local organizations for a volunteer base, including Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the governor’s office.

All of the work on the ground, however, was done by Second Baptist Church workers and volunteers.

During the 2013-14 school year, around 60 children signed up for the program. They were partnered with tutors who worked with them for one hour per week.

The curriculum is highly structured, teaching children how to read and allowing the children to read.

While many literacy programs simply read to the children, our program is more focused on teaching the children to read.

At the end of the school year, 40 percent of the children had caught up to their grade level and graduated out of the program, while 50 percent of the children had significant gains but remained behind grade level. They will continue in the program.

The remaining 10 percent were identified as special needs and are receiving expert intervention for their acute needs.

The school, the church and the children were ecstatic over these results, and last year Second Baptist Church received the Partners in Education Award from the Little Rock School District.

Another component of the MLK Reads program addresses summer retention loss for these students.

It has been observed that children who do not read during the summer months experience some retention loss when school begins in August.

To address this problem, Second Baptist hosted two, weeklong summer reading camps at our church.

Each day, our MLK Reads children were matched with a tutor who worked with them for more than an hour.

We provided other learning opportunities, such as drama, magic and science that were related to the theme for the week. We also provided fun activities and food for the children.

Our work with the children has also opened up doors for more holistic ministry to children and families alike.

In August, we helped some of our MLK Reads children buy back-to-school supplies and clothes. In December, we will provide coats to some of these underprivileged children.

We’ve even had some of these families join us for worship. In this case, mission has led to mission, and we have every intention of ministering to these families in every way possible.

The exposure from this ministry continues to bless our congregation. Local news agencies have run three stories on MLK Reads.

For the 2014-15 academic year, we have received another grant from Dollar General and have garnered volunteers from a large electric company in downtown Little Rock.

In short, this work served as a front porch for our church to get to know our community and vice versa.

Frederick Buechner writes that God usually calls us to the place where the world’s great needs meet our great joys.

MLK Reads exists precisely at the intersection between the joys of Second Baptist Church and the needs of downtown Little Rock.

We hope we have blessed the children and families as much as they’ve blessed us.

While the subject is third-grade literacy, it sure feels as though we’re learning about the gospel, under which we are all teachers and students alike.

Preston Clegg is the pastor of Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas. He blogs at The Bright Field.

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