Disciples News Service

Arkansas congregation offers literacy support to community

When the problems facing the world, the nation, the town feel insurmountable, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but that’s just when it’s most important to lend a hand. Or a book.

Pine Bluff, AR, a town of about 40,000 people, has been “economically destroyed,” explains Rev. Kevin Robbins, minister at First Christian Church. “We have high crime, high unemployment. Once upon a time, Pine Bluff was the jewel of this part of the state. But somewhere in the 1970s-1990s, industry started fleeing.”

Now, the city is working to rebuild the town and attract new industries. The capstone of that initiative, Rev. Robbins says, is building a new library, still under construction.

There, First Christian Church saw an opportunity to form a new partnership and fill an important need in their struggling community.

Congregation volunteers started offering a monthly children’s reading program in the old library’s small theater. For those children and families, this program provided a safe, inviting place to gather and learn.

“I learned in seminary to know my scope,” Rev. Robbins remembers. “I can’t educate every kid in Pine Bluff, but I know I can provide a group of people, to welcome them, warm them, and read a story once a month.”

­­In practical ways, this program is a success for FCC because there are opportunities for everyone to participate. “For folks who say they have nothing left to give, in terms of age or ability, this program is a new chance,” celebrates Rev. Robbins. “One of our team members is our oldest worship attendee. They have macular degeneration, so they can’t walk well – but they volunteer as a greeter, sitting at the front entrance and welcoming everyone to join us.”

In more philosophical ways, FCC’s literacy work has also been impactful. “Literacy is foundational to education,” Rev. Robbins explains. “If you can’t read, you can’t receive an education. How do we help people move out of a negative life situation if they can’t receive an education because they can’t read?”

The congregation’s new partnership with the library offers both the practical tools needed, and the relational support to sustain the program, “cradling people while they’re learning and making learning fun and valued,” Rev. Robbins suggests.

As their project progresses, FCC also expanded this program to offer a book club around works that share spiritual life lessons. They began this club by selecting books that have been adapted into movies, so they can watch it together and discuss the different interpretations. This program provides “a nonthreatening way to go to church,” Rev. Robbins argues.

As First Christian Church explores new ways to serve their community, they continue to “follow a simple rubric,” Rev. Robbins shares. “Why do we do this? Because Jesus loves us, and we love you.”