Cornerstone: Birmingham Blues and Hyperopic Humanitarianism

For many of us, myself included, the brokenness within the borders of our own country, our own cities and zip codes, goes unnoticed. Not that hyperopic humanitarianism is anything new. People have been bemoaning the evils in the wild jungles and deserts of Africa and the perhaps wilder metropolises of Asia for hundreds of years, while often failing to see the full extent of the injustices on their own street corner – or rather, perhaps, on the street corners in the dicey neighborhoods and projects of Anytown, USA; pushed back, Verdun-like, further and further to the fringes, out of sight, and out of mind.

It’s one of those problems we all know is there, but don’t grasp just how much is going down in our own backyard.

In his recent article in The Rolling Stone, ”Apocalypse New Jersey,” journalist Matt Taibbi writes:

“Camden is just across the Delaware River from the brick and polished cobblestone streets of downtown Philadelphia, where oblivious tourists pour in every year, gobbling cheese steaks and gazing at the Liberty Bell, having no idea that they’re a short walk over the Ben Franklin Bridge from a full-blown sovereignty crisis – an un-Fantasy Island of extreme poverty and violence where the police just a few years ago essentially surrendered a city of 77,000… It’s a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food, and not long ago, while the rest of America was ranting about debt ceilings and Obamacares, Camden quietly got pushed off the map…. Over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it ‘put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,’ says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson…. All over America, communities are failing. Once-mighty Rust Belt capitals that made steel or cars are now wastelands.”[1]

It’s not just Camden. Some friends of mine work in a Bible-study/outreach ministry in south Jackson, Mississippi. Teen pregnancy, drug use and dealing, dropping out of school, and a general fatalism of life are common threads. Over the last few months I’ve been told that they’ve had a kid shot every week – either one of their own or someone known by their kids. It’s a warzone out there.

Another friend, involved in a ministry in Chattanooga, told me how, some time ago, some local community development experts had gone around to low income neighborhoods and asked people: “What do you want to change in your community?” One girl answered: “I just wish I wouldn’t get raped so much.”

Inner city inequalities, education, crime and justice came on my radar more than usual over the last month or so, when I took on a freelance assignment chronicling the 20-year history of a school in inner city Birmingham. I listened and collected the stories of the courageous and driven men and women who had been instrumental in founding the school, and turned them into polished articles. Their stories were inspiring and, frankly, heartbreaking at times. I know I only scratched the surface, but it’s good to hear of an organization gaining some real headway in inner city ministry and education.

Building from the foundation of a pre-existing after-school care and tutoring ministry called El Shaddai, Cornerstone Schools was started in downtown Birmingham in 1993 with the mission of renewing the neighborhoods of a crumbling city. The inner city carried the weight of a dark history of racism and bombed churches, and cracked at the seams by a seemingly endless cycle of pervasive poverty, violence, drugs, and gangs. I listened to the stories of drive-by shootings, households with no father-figure in sight, and a 12-year-old kid trying to succeed scholastically who was beaten up by a group of baseball bat wielding teens hired by the boy’s aunt, angry because, in her words: “You can’t be better than us.”

Spearheading Cornerstone’s efforts was Molton Williams, a successful Birmingham businessman who had developed a passion for transforming the inner city through his experiences in prison ministry. Williams, along with other community and business leaders, looked to intervene in the seemingly endless cycle of poverty, crime, and brokenness deeply rooted in the city and its history. The best way to end this cycle, determined Williams, was through education – reaching kids while they were young.

In 1993, El Shaddai officially became Cornerstone Schools of Alabama and started up their elementary classes with K-3rd grade in the El Shaddai ministry center. Within three years, Cornerstone had shifted completely over a property in the Woodlawn area of Birmingham, renting a building from a local Methodist Church on a dollar per year lease for 99 years.

“That’s Bull Connor’s old church,” laughs Board Member Bill Hart. “Bull Connor was the one that called the fire hoses and dogs out on the protestors, that’s the irony. We laugh and say: ‘The very people you hated are having their lives changed by this church.’”

The years that followed had plenty of bumps, but Cornerstone has grown from 15 students in the very first class at El Shaddai to nearly 300 hundred students, from an after-school tutoring center to a top notch center for inner city education, Christ-centered character development and transformation.

“We’ve become, I think, probably the best private school within the city limits of Birmingham,” says Nabers. “We created a school to give an excellent primary education to kids, and that’s what we do. I want us to be a light on a hill, an example to the community that – Yes. Inner city education is possible. And you can give a really good education to really poor people, at a very low cost compared to public education. “

Neighborhoods and communities in Birmingham (and elsewhere I’m sure) are seeing real, redemptive change. It’s not just Cornerstone of course. A few of the struggling parts of town have seen a huge influx of ministries and community leaders actively looking to take back their neighborhoods, but it’s all made a difference and shown that such a thing is in fact possible.

In Camden, Jackson, Birmingham, and Chattanooga, bullets fly and lives break and fatalism sets in cyclically and exponentially far more than we would like to admit to ourselves. This is America, after all. We’ve got it together. We’d like to think that the real gritty stuff only happens to either bad people in dark alleys or in the far frontiers of continents more ancient than our own. I have no magical prescription for “fixing” things, but the answer is not to hole ourselves up in suburbs and church walls and grumble between bites of raspberry-nutella muffin that “the neighborhood is going to hell,” but rather to look for ways to learn what’s going on in our own town and then to engage. Schools like Cornerstone give us an example of one way that can be done, and its a privilege to tell stories like theirs.