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500 volunteers, in the Bronx, paint 5-story middle school

BRONX, N.Y. (BP)–Sometimes “It’s a God-thing” truly is the only explanation.

Robert E. (Bob) Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, heard in late June that a middle school principal in the Bronx would like classrooms painted in her 100-year-old school.

Reccord caught a vision of hundreds of Southern Baptist volunteers painting the interior of the school — which is the size of a city block, and five stories high.

“Let’s do it!” Reccord said to Mickey Caison and Randy Creamer of NAMB’s volunteer mobilization unit, believing it would help build credibility in an area where Southern Baptists are not well-known.

Though ordinarily a much smaller project would be a year or more in the planning, the Bronx school project was organized in less than a month — and completed in less than two.

New Hope New York, the Strategic Focus Cities initiative now in its implementation year, planned a block party for Sept. 3 to say “Thank you for letting Southern Baptists serve you” to Borough President Adolfo Carrion and Isobel Rooney Middle School Principal Lovey Mazique-Rivera.

SBC President Bobby Welch, on a bus tour to kick off “The Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge for Evangelism” push for one million baptisms by SBC Baptist churches across the country, took the lead in the ceremony at the Bronx school.

After becoming principal last year, Mazique-Rivera thought to herself, “Look at the condition of the building. It’s so demoralizing to the kids and the teachers. It would be so nice to get some new colors and make it feel anew.”

She mentioned her wish to Hermes Carabayo, director of the Faith-Based Initiatives Office for the Bronx Borough, when he made a routine visit to the school. When New Hope New York sent a letter to Bronx officials in May asking what Southern Baptists could do to assist in the community, the letter was forwarded to Carabayo, who remembered Mazique-Rivera’s words.

“When I got the call from Georgia [NAMB’s offices] saying they wanted to do the painting, I said, ‘Yeah, sure,'” Mazique-Rivera said. “I thought maybe they’d do a classroom or two. Then they started coming in droves!”

More than 500 volunteers from 70 churches in 15 states answered the urgent call. In 50 days they painted 73 classrooms and four block-long hallways on four floors, plus the foyer and some administrative offices in the school.

Some rooms hadn’t been painted in 20 years; some had 15 layers of peeling paint on them, Creamer said.

“It’s so incredible the job they have done,” Mazique-Rivera said. “And as they’ve painted, they’ve prayed over each room. I feel doubly blessed. What’s wonderful about it is they raised all the money for the paint and all they did was ask me, ‘Lovey, what colors do you want?'”

She chose light yellow and light blue, because they are calming and soothing colors that will help urban youngsters who often deal with an unsettling home life, the principal said.

Cooperative Program money was used to buy the paint and supplies, said Creamer, who served as project manager.

“This is a real challenge,” Creamer said, after climbing down from a ladder where he was rolling butter-yellow paint onto walls in the foyer of the middle school. “It has been a God thing from start to finish to get the number of volunteers that were needed, this late into it.”

Creamer and Caison, who in mid-project was called to oversee disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Charley, first spread the word about the need for volunteers on the Bridge, NAMB’s construction volunteers’ website at www.thebridge.namb.net.

Here’s Hope New York helped by calling all churches in the Metro New York Baptist Association and nearby states to ask for volunteers and then churches in states farther away.

“This past weekend we had 282 people painting on Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” Creamer said Aug. 31. “That was quite a challenge.”

Overall, housing and transportation were the biggest challenges of the project, but the work itself also presented unique challenges, Creamer said.

“This is a five-story building that has no elevator and no air conditioning,” he said. “But for the number of volunteers using ladders and painting, we haven’t had a single accident — nothing more than sore muscles. God has been good to us.”

The best part of the project was the relationships that were built with custodial workers at the school, Home Depot employees — where most of the paint and supplies were purchased, and contractors involved in school maintenance, Creamer said.

“Last week we worked shoulder to shoulder with 60 NYU students and had several opportunities to explain to them what the body of Christ is about,” he said. “They wanted to know why we were here, and we just walked through those open doors.”

That was the question the volunteers fielded over and over again, all summer long, Creamer added.

“Folks have been so open to listen,” he said. “This is the first time anything like this has ever happened in New York….

“The relationships are what meant the most to me. I’m comparing it to past times, when we weren’t there as long. We were able to share Christ in a meaningful way, and follow it up the next day.”

As a contractor and his helper were finishing up a project in late August, for example, Creamer offered them some cold water.

“At first he said no, but then he said OK,” Creamer said. “He said, ‘I’m a believer but I’m not where God wants me to be. My laborer is a devout believer, though.’ An hour later, the contractor and his laborer were back. They shuffled around for a moment, and then said, ‘We’re wondering if we could have prayer together.'”

It was the high point of his time in New York, Creamer said. The man who, an hour before, had said he wasn’t where God wanted him to be, now wanted to pray.

“So three sweaty, dirty men joined hands and then embraced,” Creamer said. “That was special. By the time the prayer was over there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

In addition to the painting project, New Hope New York this summer put on two sports camps in the Bronx, one across from the school.

“In response to our letter asking how we could help the community, the borough president also said he’d like sports camps,” said Shane Critser, New Hope New York’s partnerships and mobilization director. “We were able to bring in two teams. Those 10 volunteers reached 110 kids and saw 15 professions of faith.”

One of the volunteers from Georgia was across the street from the school when she struck up a conversation with a youngster who wasn’t attending the sports camp, Creamer said. She led him to the Lord, then ran over to the school to get some printed material for him. When she returned a few minutes later, the boy had three other kids around him and was telling them the decision he had just made. Those three also made professions of faith.

About 1,300 sixth- through eighth-graders attend Isobel Rooney Middle School, which is on the corner of East Mosholu Parkway and Van Cortland Avenue.

“There isn’t a gang issue, but with three rivaling gangs in the area, it’s always there, lurking to come out,” Mazique-Rivera said. “This is a Title 1 school, which means more than 75 percent of the students receive free lunches because of their parents’ income. We have students here from 92 nations.

“It’s tremendous and awesome the outpouring Southern Baptists have expended to my kids, traveling in cars and buses and being away from home for weeks on end. I’m very grateful,” the principal said. “This is a wonderful expression of people who love children and who want to do something for urban education and for children who live in an urban setting.”

    About the Author

  • Karen Willoughby