(NNPA)—The three major Black Methodist denominations—American Methodist Episcopal (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) and Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME)—emerged from their joint Great Gathering conference here last week with a plan to establish Saturday Academies in cities across the nation as a way of improving the plight of young African-American males.
A pilot project is scheduled to begin in the Washington, D.C.-area in May, with a Saturday Academy rotating between three churches in the major Methodist denominations. Organizers say the concept will be expanded later to 13 regions across the United States.
If Methodists are looking for a successful academy model, they should study the one developed 26 years ago in St. Louis, Mo. by St. Paul AME Church under Rev. C. Garnett Henning, now an AME bishop. It was the brainchild of Bishop Henning and my friend William J. Harrison, a local educator and member of the church.
The program, which is now a separate non-profit organization, describes itself as “a manhood, leadership and development group.” The 9 a.m.-noon sessions are held each Saturday and target Black males ages 6-17. It has grown from an initial class of 12 to 100. According to its website, all seniors participating in the program have graduated from high school and college.
Keith Turner, a member of the original class, graduated from high school in St. Louis and enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta, William Harrison’s alma mater. Turner, the owner of TurnGroup Technologies in St. Louis, and two other program participants graduated cum laude from Morehouse.
“The program provided me with an opportunity to have experiences and meet people who were outside my family’s normal or professional circle,” Turner explained. “That type of exposure allowed me to be shaped by the successful people that we met that looked like us.”
There is no charge for enrolling in the program, but the parents or guardians must attend an orientation session before a young man can join the group. And when he does join, there is no confusion about what is expected:
•Each young man is expected to attend the program all year;
•Proper decorum and discipline will be observed;
•Each young man is expected to graduate from high school;
•Each young man is expected to graduate from college;
•Young men are expected to volunteer for service in the home, church and community;
•Each young man is expected to accept responsibility in every aspect of his life;
•Each young man is expected to strive for leadership in organizations and groups in which he is a participant;
•Each young man is to earn whatever he expects to receive and beg for nothing;
•Each young man is to become a man with all of its positive connotations;
•Each young man is expected to average at least a 3.0 (a B) on a 4.0 scale;
•Each young man taking the SAT is expected to score at least 1,000 on a 1,600-point scale and at least 26 points on the ACT 36-point scale.
Harrison, the program founder, was a no-nonsense taskmaster. He reminded parents, “We are not saviors. If you want your child saved, take him to church.”
But if you want assistance in helping a boy move successfully into manhood, St. Paul Saturdays is the place to be.
“I was blessed to have two good, hard-working parents in my life,” recalls Turner. “I was privileged to have a mentor like Dr. Harrison who believed that if young people were taught better, they would do better. He dedicated his life to the cultivation and development of young minds, all with the hope and expectation that by changing our lives, participants of St. Paul Saturdays would have a positive impact on our communities.”
It is a lesson that another former participant, Jay Rhodes, learned well. He returned as a volunteer 15 years ago and is now co-director with Vince Pierce, who began volunteering when Rhodes returned. Other long-time volunteers include Turner (14 years), Byron Price (15 years), Henry Graham (15 years), Alan Green (10 years) and Don Henning (eight years).
No instructor receives a salary and all donations go directly to the program to help finance college tours, trips to hotspots of the Civil Rights Movement and other activities.
St. Paul Saturdays has made cleaning up Father Dickson Cemetery, a Black cemetery, a special project.
An examination of recent schedules reflect the range of group activities: Black History Saturday, Rites of Passage services, Academic Goal-Setting Saturday, Community Health Saturday, a tennis clinic, Entrepreneurial Saturday, Aviation Day (flying a plane with professional pilots) and computer literacy.
All participants are expected to excel.
Turner said, “This program helped instill within me that the only limitations that I have are the limitations that I place on myself.”
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)