We’re on a spring break mission trip with Baylor University students to the border city of Eagle Pass, TX .
I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but when the time arrived, I set my sights on Army Officer Candidate School. On my application, I stated that it was important to me to fully believe in the organization I worked for, and to participate in activities that would be not only meaningful to me but would have a big impact on others and my country.
Fairly lofty conditions, considering the ink had barely dried on my college diploma and my only previous job experience had been at Winchell’s Donuts and A&W Root Beer. The Army showed me who was boss, though; I got commissioned, but in total disregard of my hard-earned journalism degree, they pronounced me a petroleum officer.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those Army days recently, probably because in the past year, my life has made another unexpected and dramatic about face. It started with a simple prayer prior to the 2010 Morning of Missions activity at the Texas Baptists Annual Meeting in McAllen: Let my morning’s involvement have an impact on others and myself that will last long beyond this day.
I ended up at a Books for the Border family reading fair and witnessed beginning home libraries—Bibles, health literacy books, story books, and bookcases—being given to families living in poverty. I met Literacy Connexus executive director and founder of Books for the Border, Lester Meriwether, who, after a moment’s introduction, asked if I would be interested in writing the planning guide for his ministry. Yes, Sir! Never had I been so certain of God’s immediate answer to prayer.
My biggest obstacles in attacking this assignment were knowing nothing about Books for the Border except for what I had seen that morning, and knowing even less about literacy missions ministry as a whole. But Lester was a veteran, and with his leadership–and a frontal assault on the internet–I managed to gain steady ground over the next couple of months.
I found a barrage of evidence pointing to the need for literacy ministry. More than 3.8 million adults in Texas possess a level of literacy inadequate to earn a sustainable living. Families in poverty often remain stuck, generation after generation, because homes without books produce kids who can’t read. If a child has scarcely, or never, been read to prior to kindergarten, he will likely start school behind his peers and lag even farther as time goes on. Kids in poverty often find themselves on a trajectory toward high school dropout, unemployment, crime, and lifelong struggle.
But there is a war being waged against illiteracy as a root cause of poverty, and as I became indoctrinated to the strategies employed by those on mission, I knew I wanted to enlist. I learned that effective ministry involves recognizing the gifts of every person and the assets of every community, and then using those strengths as a starting point. Effective ministry means understanding that all people are loved and gifted by God. With sensitivity and collaboration, we come alongside of those in need and work with them, not for them, to shore up their flanks. The results are sustainable solutions that will annihilate the cycle of generational poverty.
My tour of duty with Literacy Connexus has put me on soldierly alert to the pervasiveness of poverty and to the work to be done. I can see how my experiences in the military, raising a family, and serving in my church and community all combine to give me the skills needed to help me do this job. It’s exciting to me that God gives us the experience long before we know what it’s for, and the awareness and the passion at just the right time—and at Literacy Connexus, a generous dose of esprit de corps on top of everything!
God knew exactly what I would want to do when I grew up. And He had in mind for me the very things I mentioned on my OCS application—an organization I could believe in, meaningful activities, and the opportunity to impact others. The U.S. Army was merely the warm-up.
Psalm 92:14 reads Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green. In October, Trinity Terrace Retirement Community yielded much fruit, as we made Books for the Border our fall mission project.
Trinity Terrace is not a faith-based community, but it is a community of many faithful people who care. As chaplain for the past five years, I knew our community would get behind Books for the Border, sharing our resources to make a difference. We have many retired educators, librarians, and community leaders who know well the value of early literacy.
Our retirement community has a woodworking group called Tinker’s Den–and they definitely go beyond tinkering, as they crafted 26 bookcases for our project. Other residents hit the bookstores, while others encouraged great grandchildren to donate from the books on their shelves. Still others gave generous donations to help purchase lumber and paint, and to buy additional books at the Friends of the Library sale.
Our project was a great success, as so many people were eager to help in whatever way they were able. It was exciting to see the bookcases and books grow to cover the entire front of the chapel. On the final Sunday, we held a Vespers service dedicated to a Blessing of the Books. It was a meaningful culmination of the retirement community and Books for the Border bearing fruit together.
Tricia Baldwin, Chaplain
Trinity Terrace, Fort Worth
Several years ago, at the Church Librarian’s Conference in Dallas, I came upon the Books for the Border display. I was intrigued. After talking to Lester Meriwether for only a few moments, I was hooked on this program. I was surprised to learn that seven Texas counties are on a short list of the poorest in our country. I was moved by the idea that education, access to books, and teaching families to read together are ways to end the poverty cycle. Lester used words like family libraries, literacy missions, and book fairs. Well, as an avid reader, a school and church librarian, and a Texas history teacher, I felt called to listen and respond.
God used that quick meeting to open my eyes to ways I could use my time and talents to serve Him and His people. Enthusiastically, I came back to Tyler and my home church, First Baptist, with many ideas. We were fortunate to have Rev. Scott Wiley on our staff who has a real passion for Family Ministry. He and I worked together with Lester to plan a Books for the Border family mission trip to Starr county. About 40 FBC members of all ages built book cases, held a Book Fiesta, passed out Bibles and books we had collected, and shared with many families the importance of reading aloud to children. It was fun and fulfilling.
Since then, I have enjoyed working with Lester and other Literacy Connexus members to spread the word about this wonderful program. It is my dream to eliminate poverty in Texas by teaching families about the value of faith, reading, and education. I hope to motivate others to take the following simple steps to help eliminate poverty and illiteracy in our state:
1. Pray and listen to how God is moving you to use your talents and interests to serve others.
2. Contact Literacy Connexus and find out how easy it is to help get books into the hands of people who have none.
3. Take action! Hold a book drive, collect money, build bookshelves, sit and read to a child, volunteer at your local literacy center. DO something!
Sarah Starr, Literacy Connexus Board of Directors