With the moving of Red Bank Middle School this year, students who want to attend Safe House at Red Bank United Methodist Church have to take a bus. On average, 25-50 of them make that trip every week day.
It’s a healthy decision, notes Rev. Jeff Lambert, pastor of Red Bank U.M.C. “With latch-key kids in middle school,” he says, “they are old enough to stay home by themselves and just old enough to get into trouble.” Add to that stronger emotions and developing maturity, and handling these kids can be a challenge, but at Safe House the kids have somewhere to go until their parents get home. “Parents who don’t get off work until 5-6 love it. They don’t have to worry about their kids.”
At Safe House, the church offers games in their gym, laptops for learning, and game systems for playing. “We do a 15-minute devotion,” Rev. Lambert explains. “Sometimes it’s religious in nature and sometimes it’s practical advice, like staying in school and not doing drugs. We don’t try to shove the Bible down their throat, but we do share Bible stories.”
They also organize tutoring with qualified volunteers, so those who need it can get help.
“One-on-one tutoring for 30 minutes or an hour, three to five times a week, will make a difference in a kid’s grades,” Rev. Lambert says. “Sometimes you don’t want to ask dumb questions in front of your friends [in class], but if you’re with someone one-on-one, they can know exactly what you’re missing.”
Red Bank U.M.C. sees their community trending toward younger, more diverse, and lower income people, often single mothers, and free programs like Safe House are helping. Of those who come, 80-90 percent do not attend the church, though they may attend elsewhere.
Safe House has strict rules. “It’s very organized and supervised. Every room has an adult in it and cameras too,” Rev. Lambert explains. They want to the students to know they are being watched in order to help them control themselves. Both the rules and the supervision are there for everyone’s protection.
“We want to make sure they know the church is a place where people love you,” he says.
Rev. Lambert talks about one young lady they have helped since her sixth grade year. “She’s a sweet girl,” he says. “When I first got here, we began trying to connect the [Safe House] kids to our church kids. We will feed them for free on Wednesday nights so they can connect with our youth, and she started coming to that. She was saved and baptized, and when we realized she was poor, we have been taking care of her ever since.
“All you have to do is tell somebody here she doesn’t have a coat, and the next day I’ll have a coat for her. This church has people with a heart for kids. And then we found out she didn’t have a bed. She was sleeping on the floor. So I called this guy and told him about her. He said, ‘When does she want it? I’m off work. I’ll go get one.’”
Because this young lady is the only one of her family who attends a church, Rev. Lambert has been able to give her family some pastoral care.
“We’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives,” Rev. Lambert says, by building trusting relationships.
Phil Wade is a local writer and native Chattanoogan. Find him on Twitter: @Brandywinebooks or LinkedIn. He blogs regularly at Brandywinebooks.net