Mike Hughes feels called to work with inner city youth because he knows what they are going through. His father was abusive and left him, his mom, and his seven siblings when he was 11-years-old. Though vocationally a missionary, his father “wasn’t fully dedicated to God,” Mr. Hughes says. “I resented him and that flowed into resenting a heavenly father.”
Mr. Hughes, the director of youth and children’s ministry at New City Fellowship, reaches out to many kids whose father or mother left them to fend for themselves. As a teenager without a father watching out for him, he says, “I went wild. I never would have thought I would live passed the age of 25.”
“If we want to change [the Glenwood area], we need to reach the children while they are taking care of their mom at seven years old. I never had a childhood, so I see where they are coming from. The older they get, the harder they are.”
Coming from neglected communities like Woodlawn, where, Mr. Hughes states, “the buildings are crumbling away in the shadows,” kids will put up defensive walls quickly.
“It’s funny,” he says. “In most youth groups, you’ll see cliques. Well, in our youth group, we don’t have any cliques. It’s all meshed. Now, when new inner city kids come in, there’s a clique because they aren’t used to that, but you can see the wall start to come down and they begin to blend in with everyone.”
He quoted Ephesians 2:14 as one of New City’s foundational principles: “For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”
The church building is 2412 E. 4th St., just a few blocks from Memorial Hospital. They organize many different programs to reach the families nearby. One is Glenwood Learning Adventure Days (GLAD), an after-school tutoring program for elementary students, which talks through the gospel at the end of each class. Classes teaching English as a second language also draw many students into a gospel-oriented curriculum.
“The summer is the biggest time of the year for us in reaching out to the community,” Mr. Hughes says. “We work with Widow’s Harvest and with Joel Tippens [of Fair Share Urban Growers]. We have a block party every Memorial Day [in the Woodlawn community]. We fix all the bikes, put new chains on the swings, cookout, and sing.”
Once someone begins attending the church, teachers help them understand what’s in the Bible and how it applies to life. One of their primary goals is racial reconciliation.
“The only way that is done is through the Holy Spirit’s interaction,” Mr. Hughes notes. “We come from different backgrounds and cultures, and not knowing someone’s background can be intimidating. One of the things we like to do is to educate everyone on their own culture—where they come from.”
By understanding your past, you are better equipped to accept yourself and other people. “We try to not to dwell too much on our histories, but we don’t keep it in the closet.”
To build racial reconciliation, New City leaders teach several principles: sincerity, intentionality, sensitivity, empowerment, interdependence, and sacrifice. “It’s tough for anyone to realize that they have to open up and embrace someone else,” he says, but that is the way to live by faith and love.
For the young people with whom he works, Mr. Hughes hopes to see new believers and growing leaders. “It will be great to have indigenous African-American leaders, who have grown up in the church and have had a relationship with Christ for so many years, become pastors or leaders in the church—whatever God calls them to do. The more of these leaders, the better it will be to change the culture.”
Phil Wade is a local writer and native Chattanoogan. Find him on Twitter: @Brandywinebooks or LinkedIn. He blogs regularly at Brandywinebooks.net.