Spring 2000
Volume 4 Number 4


By Barbara. A. Chaapel

"All the great youth ministries shouldn’t be in the suburbs," says Bruce Main, a PTS D.Min. student and executive director of UrbanPromise in Camden, New Jersey. He has put his ministry where his mouth is!

In 1988, Main left his studies at Fuller Seminary in California to respond to a challenge from Tony Campolo, well-known evangelical minister and author, to come east to begin a program for urban kids in New Jersey’s poorest city.

UrbanPromise started with three summer camp programs based in churches. "The most striking thing I remember," says Main, "is the large number of churches in Camden, yet how disconnected they were from the young people in the community. I wanted to establish partnerships between the churches, the kids, and the neighborhoods."

Beginning one church at a time, Main urged congregations to open their buildings to the kids after school and in the summer. He looked for struggling congregations with visionary pastors, like Westminster Presbyterian Church, and promised to provide staffing and financial resources if the church could provide space, volunteers, and pastoral follow-up with parents.

What started with a handful of kids in summer camp has blossomed into an organization that gives developmental and educational support to 1,000 young people daily.

In its twelfth year, UrbanPromise has established two schools, a private Christian day school for pre-kindergarten through second grade whose goal is to add a grade each year until it reaches eighth-graders, and a high school targeted at teens who are not making it in the public schools, usually dropouts or low-achievers. "We limit class size to sixteen kids, with two adults in every classroom," explains Main. "We ask every parent to pay $50 per month, and we provide the rest of the cost—$3800 per year per child— as scholarship." The funding comes from individual donors and churches; the human commitment comes from Main and his staff of almost 100 teachers, tutors, mentors, and coaches whom he hires citywide.

UrbanPromise also boasts a Streetleaders program that trains teens for leadership. "The best way to develop leadership is to help kids learn to lead, through mentors," says Main. Staff, including college students recruited from across the country, serve as role models to older kids, and older kids in turn to the younger kids. "The program has its own momentum now; young kids anticipate the day when they will become street leaders."

The program offers SAT prep classes, college tours, and tutoring as well as participation in the fine arts and in gospel choirs. The goal? Teaching urban kids that they can make it—go to college, graduate, and make a difference in the world.

It’s working. "We have thirty kids in college now, at the edge of graduating," says Main. "They’re at Rutgers, Eastern, Howard, Cornell. Most of these kids began in UrbanPromise when they were nine or ten."

Just as life has changed for his kids, so it has for Main. "One day I was flipping pancakes and running the day school," he remembers with a laugh. "Now I manage a $2 million budget and a large staff. I have to work to keep hands-on involvement. The challenges have changed."

His organization’s challenges are the meat of Main’s Doctor of Ministry project. "UrbanPromise is a place where people in the city and people in the suburbs meet. We create unique relationships, atypical of what happens in the rest of society.

"For example, Camden is isolated from Cherry Hill [an adjacent wealthy suburb] and there’s not much bridge-building. At UrbanPromise, city young people of many different ethnicities meet people from the suburbs. I want to look at what happens, what can happen, in those encounters."

Main believes that both city and suburban dwellers stand to gain. "Kids from the city need to broaden their networks beyond their city block to have a chance at success in life. And CEOs, pastors, laypeople from suburban churches need to broaden their world, too, and go beyond the 6:00 o’clock news image of Camden kids."

Main is thrilled to find among his D.Min. workshop colleagues a prison chaplain, a minister involved in AIDS ministry, a military chaplain, and a pastor of an interracial congregation. "My kids connect with each of these places," he says. His colleagues are helping him reflect on his vision for the kids of Camden.

For the love of those kids Main earned an M.A. at PTS and entered the D.Min. program. "I’ve always believed that my faith should be concrete. For me, that means insuring justice for kids in the city — and bringing whatever I can in human and financial resources to that goal." 


Copyright 2000 Princeton Theological Seminary
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