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Ladue Chapel

Dreaming the Dream in St. Louis, Missouri

by Elizabeth Terill

What stands between seventy-five inner-city St. Louis kids and the hopelessness rough urban circumstances so often breed?

That would be Ladue Chapel, a Presby-terian Church (USA) congregation in one of the nation’s most affluent suburbs outside St. Louis, Missouri. The church has promised each of those seventy-five young people a college education. Its Gateway “I Have a Dream” (GIHAD) program hopes to make educated dreamers of every one of them.

The catch? Just graduate from high school.

But it’s not that simple. “If you think the college education carrot is enough, you’re too long an Anglo-Saxon,” says Ladue Chapel’s pastor, the Reverend Dr. Donald G. Howland, PTS Class of 1960. “These are kids at risk, living in unstable environments.”

It’s tough to maintain motivation with a promise of reward that lies ten years in the future. Given poverty, crime, accessible drugs, broken families, frustration, and cramped housing that exist in the children’s neighborhoods, Ladue’s offer practically begs to be ignored.

While many benefactors consider urban plight a good set of reasons for not trying to help, Howland and Ladue Chapel find it compelling. “Seminary gave me the theological underpinnings for a social conscience,” Howland explains. “You don’t just do things for social reasons, you do things for biblical reasons.”

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Don Howland surrounded by his Dreamers

In this case, helping people meant adopting two third-grade classes from St. Louis’ near north side, an especially troubled area dubbed “the Blumeyer,” after the Blumeyer Housing Projects that surround it. GIHAD made the offer to fund each youngster’s post-high school education, and vowed to support the offer in concrete ways that will help the dream become a reality for each child — regardless of academic record. “We didn’t just take the best students,” Howland says. “We took them all.”

Those seventy-five kids, once members of the Blumeyer’s Carver and Cole elementary schools, today attend thirty-six different junior high schools throughout the city and county; keeping in touch with them is increasingly difficult. In order to heighten contact and motivation, some of Ladue Chapel’s members serve as volunteer tutors; others act as mentors. GIHAD employs two full-time teachers to assist with studies. Sanchez Lowry and Lisa Tate often bring their own children to the weekday classes, which are held at Central Baptist Church, close to Carver and Cole schools. To give the Dreamers an additional boost, GIHAD built a computer lab at Central Baptist. Biweekly Saturday classes help build and reinforce skills, with an emphasis on computer time and socialization.

The youngsters are also invited to attend the Lee Institute, held twice a year at Ladue Chapel. Up to a thousand people gather for these lectures; speakers have included Cornell West, Jack Danforth, Nancy Kassebaum Baker, and Bill Moyers. Eighteen Dreamers recently had the opportunity to meet privately with General Colin Powell after his Lee Institute lecture.

“We want to give people a hand up, not a handout,” Howland says. It’s a statement that marks his ministry. In addition to the Gateway “I Have a Dream” program, Howland shepherds Ladue Chapel in its involvement with “Homes for the Homeless,” an effort begun in partnership with the Ecumenical Housing Production Corporation (EHPC). EHPC finds refurbishable homes in stable neighborhoods, then organizes the renovations and matches the finished homes with people who desperately need safe housing.

About ten years ago, Howland and Ladue Chapel’s leadership challenged the congregation to raise thirty-six thousand dollars on a single Sunday. When the congregation met that challenge, Ladue Chapel sponsored the renovation of six EHPC homes, naming the houses after the “saints” in the church’s stained-glass window: Francis, Luther, Wesley, Augustine, Calvin, and Schweitzer. More than one hundred congregants volunteered their time to work on the homes. Twelve houses have been sponsored by the congregation so far — ten are Section 8 rental units, the two most recent earmarked for eventual ownership. Most of the early homes were renovation projects, but a few have been built from the ground up. Church volunteers have turned out to help with every one of them.

Building houses and adopting kids have become a passion for Ladue Chapel’s members and their pastor. “Ministry is exciting and unpredictable!” Howland says. “It happens not because you plan it out, but because God is at work.” He believes the same holds true for outreach. “Make mission fun… and make it personal. You can’t just build for yourself. You have to build for others.”dot.gif (37 bytes)

Elizabeth Terrill is a 1998 M.Div. and 1999 Th.M. graduate of the Seminary who is searching for a call in pastoral ministry in the United Church of Christ. Her home is in Porter, Indiana.


Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary
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