Delta Streets Academy in Greenwood graduated its first senior class in May. The five seniors are all heading off to college, one of them to Mississippi State University on a full scholarship. The private school for young men, which is a member of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools, was founded in 2012 by T. Mac Howard, a white guy who was a young twenty-something at the time and who caught a vision for what it meant to heed God’s call to do justice, to love mercy, and to sacrifice for others in the way Jesus sacrificed for him.
Mo Leverett, the founder of Desire Street Ministries in New Orleans, came to speak at T.Mac’s Reformed University Fellowship group during his freshman year at MSU. His stories of the poverty and the desperation of the people in the infamous urban housing project touched T. Mac in a profound way, and he asked Mo is he could do a summer internship there. The summer of 2005 opened T. Mac’s eyes to a world he had never experienced. Reading about squalor and dysfunction and lack of hope is one thing, but seeing it first hand, interacting with those who live it, is something altogether different. It broke his heart.
After T. Mac graduated in 2008, he took a job at Greenwood High School teaching math and coaching baseball and football. He chose the Mississippi Delta because there weren’t a lot of established ministries trying to address the overwhelming problems that had morphed in the last few decades. He originally planned to teach and coach and use those as a way to build relationships and to share the gospel.
“The original idea was to do Bible studies in my house and disciple guys like that.” What he discovered was that teaching is exhausting in a classroom of 28 kids, all at different levels, where there are no consequences for misbehavior, tardiness, or skipping school, and where chaos is just the order of the day.”
At the end of the first year, he had not held one Bible study or shared the gospel with one kid. He was still committed, but he knew he had to come up with Plan B. He toyed with the idea of accepting a position with Fellowship of Christian Athletes as an area director in Northeast Mississippi, but he says, “God got hold of me and said, ‘If you leave now and try to come back they’re just going to expect you to leave again because that’s what so many white people do—they come in, lead a Bible study in the neighborhood, and then you never hear from them again.”
He taught at GHS for one more year, but in his mind, he was prepping to start the ministry before the next fall rolled around.
The following summer T.Mac offered a Christian day camp, complete with arts and crafts and sports instruction. He gathered his own interns who were mostly Reformed University Fellowship participants from MSU and Ole Miss. T. Mac had built a friendship with the pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church who offered his fellowship hall for an after-school tutoring program that started in fall 2011. It was a slow beginning, but it grew month to month.
When Delta Streets Academy opened in 2012, there were six young men enrolled. T.Mac says he can’t praise their parents enough for trusting their sons to “a white dude” who had never run a school. Each year has seen growth, and this past school year 58 boys in grades 7–12 completed the second semester.
At the present time, there are nine full-time staff and four part-time faculty members. First Baptist Church offers space rent free, and that is a great blessing. Cannon Motors has given the school the old Delta Chevrolet building in downtown, but the renovation price tag of $1.3 million has made renovation a distant dream for the time being. T.Mac wears many hats, from driving the bus to teaching to running the payroll, but one of his most important jobs is fundraiser in chief. “That’s the thing that keeps me up at night, but God has taught me a lot these past six years about his sufficiency.”
“We’re not a great school yet,” he says. “But we are a good school right now. The sooner I can hand off some of my jobs, the better off we’ll be.” He adds, “The only thing I’m really good at is talking to people. But the day we have a $900,000 budget and 120 kids in school is the day we have the potential to be a great school.”
T.Mac believes they will get there. He wants to see his students competing with the strongest private schools in the state, signing Division 1 scholarships and being taught by a world-class faculty. He calls it a total “God thing” that it has come as far as it has in five years.
In the beginning, the great challenge for the boys who enroll at Delta Streets is the radical difference in the culture between the public and the private school. The structure and the discipline hit them hard at first because they have never had rules and consequences. Some push the boundaries, and some decide it’s not for them, but the ones who persevere flourish and will go on to bright futures and better lives than they have known.
Although T.Mac says the students themselves are pretty color-blind, he would very much like to attract minority staff. The racial reconciliation aspect of Delta Streets is just a beautiful byproduct of the Christian foundation. “It’s just in the culture at Delta Streets.”
When the Delta Streets students play other schools in the MAIS, the opposition is usually a private academy whose founding was all about preserving segregation. T.Mac could not be happier with the way his well-mannered students conduct themselves on the field or on the basketball court. He watches the walls come down.
Discipleship is a huge part of DSA. “We have an open enrollment,” he says. “Anybody can come here for $75 a month, but you have to choose to follow. I totally get that this is not for everybody, but our students are learning life skills that they would not be getting in the public school. They’re getting structure, discipline, work ethic, rules, and a sense of their worth and value as children of the God who loves them and desires the best for them.”
Changing Lives in Marks
About 70 miles north of Greenwood is the little town of Marks where the local economy was once dependent on the health and wealth of the large Delta farms. The radical transformation in farming operations hit Quitman County hard. Compounding that shrinking demand for an unskilled labor force was the effect of NAFTA, which closed small manufacturing plants taking those few jobs as well.
The railroad runs through the center of the once busy downtown. Many empty storefronts line the main street, and several beautiful old churches are in close proximity. Well-kept homes and lawns in the neighborhood hint that once upon a time this was a thriving Delta town.
Jaby Denton is a fourth generation Marks stakeholder. His family has forever owned a large farming operation in Quitman County. His entire life was lived right there until he moved his family to Oxford. When his children were in high school, he wanted them to have opportunities that were simply no longer there for them in Marks. He became a daily commuter between farm and home.
Although his children moved on to college, Jaby didn’t move back to Marks right away. Oxford was booming. He began attending a men’s weekly inspirational breakfast group at a local restaurant. Guest speakers each week discussed a myriad of topics. Jaby happened to attend one morning when T. Mac Howard was there to tell the story of Delta Streets Academy.
Either T. Mac or God spoke to Jaby in a big way. He wanted to spark the same kind of revival in Marks. And so he moved back to the farm and began to assess and plan. He found that in assessing the needs, they were even more overwhelming than he had imagined at first. Among one of the first things he discovered almost by accident was that a huge number of ninth and tenth graders in the local high school were not able to read.
Meanwhile, Jason Stoker of Starkville, Executive Director of Reclaimed Project, spent an anniversary weekend in Greenwood. He was there to eat well, take a cooking class for fun at Viking Cooking School, and have some real downtime with Shannon, his wife. But they drove around enough to get an unvarnished picture in his mind of what poverty in the Delta looked like. It reminded him of what he saw on his visits to Africa.
He was thoroughly convinced that Reclaimed’s next ministry outreach needed to be in the Mississippi Delta—but where? Jason called Jill Freeze knowing she and Hugh had been great supporters of Reclaimed and he knew they had also been interested in some ministries in the Delta. Jill indirectly put him in touch with Jaby, who, in Jason’s words “has been the game changer.”
Local leadership and local “buy in” is, next to Jesus Christ, the most important factor in getting an effort off the ground and maintaining the momentum. Jaby has an “umbrella” vision for revitalizing Marks, and he has been able to do things that no outsider could possibly have done.
However, Reclaimed ministry’s piece of the pie is key. Reclaimed’s heart is for the children with a holistic and long-view approach. The strategy for “reclaiming” the Delta is not far removed from the strategy for “reclaiming” anybody anywhere. What are the short-term needs that will undergird the long term goals?
The same ills that have affected public education across other parts of Mississippi have hit this Delta town especially hard. Finding and keeping teachers has been next to impossible. Aside from the run down facilities and the lack of family stability, teachers who might come to Marks had no options for places to live.
One of the first things Reclaimed did was to purchase a building in downtown Marks with the plan to repurpose it as a place for single teachers to live. It’s a very cool loft, apartment-style community of six private apartments sharing a common area, a kitchen, and a laundry room. Keeping its restoration true to the 1930 period of its origin means huge windows, high ceilings, old brick, and an aesthetic that would be enticing to most any 20 something! Rent-free and a commitment for two years seem like a generous contract.
The renovation of the building has been a real showcase for how the body of Christ works. The pro bono contributions in materials and time from contractors, electricians, and construction specialists have saved thousands and thousands of dollars. Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Ridgeland has a special group of volunteers who man their own construction ministry. They are all professionals whose day jobs involve building, but they usually take at least one trip a year giving their services for free to a cause that builds the body of Christ.
Tim Blocker, stewardship minister, with a lot of support from builders Ty Gardner and Jon Ramsay, has led a team of about 30 devoted volunteers who have spent many a Saturday in the last few months renovating the building that will house the teachers.
Reclaimed is about $40,000 shy of being able to finish the building debt-free. The plan is to have it complete and ready for move-in before the 2017 fall session begins.
Jason speaks highly of the leadership at the public school. There is a dedicated team who shares the vision for discipling and equipping students. There is an esprit de corps between Reclaimed and the school administration that is filled with hope for the immediate future.
Reclaimed is also about job creation. One thing that differentiates the Greenwood ministry from the Marks ministry is the presence of jobs. Not many jobs exist in Marks. Reclaimed wanted to do something about that, so taking their blueprint from their ministry in Lesotho and Botswana, they began looking for skills among the ladies of Marks.
Bethany Kuenzli, Director of Reclaimed Marketplace, came up with some patterns for aprons and pillows that the Marks ladies could sew. Many of them had worked in upholstery and garment factories and knew more than rudimentary things about sewing. The concept is much like the micro businesses that have helped support locals in third world countries. A volunteer from Jackson’s Fondren Church planned to teach a class for several Marks ladies on how to do more elaborate things – like bedding. It would be a gold mine for the ministry if a few moms decorating daughters’ dorm rooms let the Reclaimed ladies do their custom sewing.
When the instructor began her first class in Marks, she quickly discovered these ladies were already master seamstresses. They just needed the materials to put their skills to work. Mississippi Magazine was planning their Mercantile Shopping Event in early May. This was an opportunity to attract business. Premier Fabrics donated yards and yards of fabric. The Marks ladies worked their magic to create comforters, curtains, pillows, and dust ruffles. Hopefully, this will be an ongoing job-producing cottage industry to help the Reclaimed Project and the Marks revival.
Jason Stoker is definitely the kind of guy who can rally others to the vision. During spring break he took about 50 families from First Baptist Church in Starkville to Marks to do a four-day camp. (Let that sink in—a spring break vacation with no snow skiing, no beach, no place exotic, but going to Marks, MS to serve strangers)
The Starkville families took their children, and most of them stayed in the homes of the very grateful Marks families who wanted to be involved in the Reclaimed efforts. They wanted to bring black and white together, but they welcomed the know-how of Reclaimed.
First Baptist offered their facility for daytime activity, and First United Methodist took on feeding the volunteers every night. It was a week of bonding and learning and wrapping many heartstrings around the mission.
The locals and the children of the volunteers played side by side. They had a total blast, and they were completely color-blind. That in itself inspires hope.
Jason also learned that as the small town ages and the job market disintegrates, the young who go off to college, understandably do not return. The underclass continues to grow. They are children created in the image of an eternal God, and they need hope and a future.
Reclaimed longs to help create that.
The Heart of a Change Agent
Ole Miss alumnus Daniel Myrick, like T. Mac Howard, grew up in Brandon and attended Northwest Rankin. Jason Stoker had been his middle-school pastor at Pinelake Church. He had participated in mission trips through Pinelake and knew his calling was to be a coach and a teacher.
He signed on to teach in Marks his first year out of college. Expecting it to be hard, he found it to be even harder. There were some long days and some emotional lows. Teaching in Marks was about so much more than the classroom instruction.
As the assistant basketball coach, his team lost the first 14 games of the season. “That’s 14 post-game talks you have to have with the players, and after a while, you run out of things to say,” he says. Daniel persevered believing that his team wasn’t losing due to lack of talent. He continued to pour into the team, and they responded by working hard and trying harder. “Eventually we did win one, and then we won another. We kept winning, went to a district tournament, played the number one seed and won the district championship for the first time in twelve years.”
A very committed Daniel sees that win as symbolic of something more—something about hope and a future that is brighter than the one staring his players in the face today. He is coming back to Marks this fall and will be living in one of the Reclaimed apartments.
“If I can make a difference in just a few lives, those kids will change this community,” he says.
After all, wasn’t Jesus Christ all about relationships?
One of his brightest stars is a student named Daisia. She has a sister who is attending college at USM, and Daisia’s dream is to get there, too. Daniel has no doubt she can and will. These are her words and part of a letter she wrote in answer to Daniel’s question, “What would you want me to tell others about Marks?”
Dear Those Who I Believe Will Make a Change,
Where I’m from, I’m pretty sure everyone is familiar with the struggle. Whether it’s no lights or all you have is cold water, everyone is familiar with it. Everyone who ever had a chance to make it out of this place I call the “Waiting Place” never comes back. It’s like escaping from a living hell.
The reason I like calling it the “Waiting Place” is because some just sit around thinking, not getting up doing nothing. But how can one take action when there is nothing around to take action about? … It’s like once you’re in the Waiting Place, you can’t get out because you don’t know which path to take.
But people like you are the only chance for my people to finally escape the Waiting Place. Every day and every night I pray for someone who actually believes in us to come and make a change…It would be such a blessing if you all took time out of your personal schedule to devote some of your time to help my people of Quitman County.
What Is the Future?
God, bless the T. Mac Howards and the Jason Stokers, the Daniel Myricks and the Jaby Dentons of the world. I asked them all if tackling the layers of issues in the Delta is a little like eating an elephant. That old cliché answers that it IS possible to eat an elephant one bite at a time.
Jason has a much better analogy. He compares tackling the problems in the Delta to peeling an onion. With every layer removed, the onion gets smaller.
No doubt, in the Delta, there are layers and layers of issues that have multiplied over several generations. What matters most at this intersection of time is that God’s people pay attention. In the kingdom of Light and Dark, there exists a great opportunity for impact at the moment.
The epistle of James is pretty clear. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James 2:15-17.
Lord, make us your vessels!
By Marilyn Tinnin, a former Miss University at Ole Miss. This story was originally published in Mississippi Christian Living Magazine
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