Bringing love to Lafayette

by Allison Hurtado, staff writer
New Hope Lafayette

Twelve years ago, John Newman moved his family from Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Lafayette, Louisiana. He took a position as a small groups pastor/ministry director. The transition from the Midwest to Cajun culture, which is extremely close knit and spans generations, proved he had a lot of learning to do. The church founded a ministry in a poor neighborhood, where he started volunteering as a tutor. He signed up to help older kids with math, but to his surprise he was assigned a group of five elementary-age kids. 

“I’m not a little kids kind of guy,” John said. “And I have a group for four kindergartners and one first grader who had never been in school before. They couldn’t read or count.”

He felt he had the worst group in the school. They had never held a pencil before. How was he going to teach them anything? He tried for six weeks before seriously considered quitting. The kids couldn't sit still. John also knew the high schoolers weren’t getting help with algebra. He made up his mind to have a conversation with the executive director of the ministry. Then God intervened.

“I felt marginalized. The ministry didn’t appreciate my skills,” he said. “And God said to me, ‘You don't know what you mean, these kids are marginalized.’ No one cares if they have athletic ability or if they are smart. I knew I was just supposed to love them, so I asked God to teach me how to love them.”

By the end of the school year, after working only one hour and 15 minutes a week with the kids, the most difficult child ran up to John, wrapped his arms around his legs and told him, “I love you.” It was clear to John his love had changed them. It was time for him to do something about it. He and his wife started their church plant with Saturday services, and launched a tutoring program for the neighborhood. But as the tutoring grew, and they faced difficulties with the church plant, they focused on tutoring.

“Transportation was a huge issue. The building we held church in was two miles away and people couldn’t walk that far with little kids,” John said. “We are in the process of rethinking how we can do church on Saturdays and Saturday Bible Club for the kids. Our volunteer base isn’t big enough, so we hope to partner with other churches outdoors in the fall.”

John knew they had to get into the neighborhood to find kids who wanted to be tutored. 

“How do you get known in the neighborhood? We didn’t know how to do that. This neighborhood doesn’t have the best reputation in Lafayette,” John said. “So I was a little afraid of how to even start getting to know these people.”

John felt God prompting him to talk with the parks and recreation director, so he scheduled a meeting. He didn’t realize at the time that God would make his next steps very clear. There was a community recreation center in the northwest corner of the neighborhood they could use for their program. The director suggested they start working with city’s summer enrichment program.

John and Kris worked that summer teaching extra educational components and crafts. They were able to mobilize a few volunteers and created a program that worked in conjunction with the existing program. They met parents, spent time with kids and started tutoring. When New Hope Community Development first launched, it consisted of six students.

“It grew by word of mouth until it doubled, and then we had to find more volunteers,” John said. “We partnered with a few local organizations such as the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and the Baptist Collegiate Ministry.”

The program grew to over 20 students in 2011, the first year. They currently have 40 students. While the program seems large, John says students are currently being placed on waiting lists. Two persistent little boys continued coming every day after school to try and sign up. John couldn’t fathom why they wanted to do more school work.

“My wife said to them, ‘This isn’t play time. We work here. We read, we do homework, we do extra work. It’s not all fun and games. Why do you keep coming back?’” John said. “The boy said, ‘I just don’t want to fail the second grade, Miss Kris.’”

John enrolled these boys into the program, but there are others he can’t help. A group of high school boys began volunteering for special events, helping set up for events and providing childcare during parent meetings. John says they were very respectful young men who asked to join the tutoring program.

“I told them I was sorry, but we didn’t have even have enough volunteers for the elementary-aged kids,” John said. “About six months later they got involved in a gang that murdered someone in the neighborhood, and one of the kids was the main suspect. One of their friends is doing life in prison at age 15.”

John tried reaching out but it was too late; the young men were too caught up in the gang.

“I had the chance to reach out and I lost them,” he said. “The past few years we’ve seen the older kids getting taken to juvenile detention, and high schoolers wearing ankle monitoring bracelets. We decided we had to do something to reach them.”

They started a basketball team that’s part of a Christian sports league for the high schoolers. John says he would love to get them involved in the tutoring program too, but they need 60 to 80 volunteers for just 40 students--just barely scratching the surface in a neighborhood of 600 to 800 kids. There’s still a lot of work left to do, but God’s love is transforming the community. 

“It’s amazing to me that the neighborhood has embraced us. I just credit it to divine favor,” John said. “We are not that smart, that’s for sure. We pray, and God directs us.”

You can partner with John here. Or learn more about Converge church planting.

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