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Iowa is missionaries’ ‘field of dreams’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2008 Week of Prayer, March 2-9, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $61 million to help support 5,000-plus North American missionaries. 2008 Week of Prayer missionaries are Daniel and Marta Caceres, Dewey and Kathie Aiken, Melanie Lawler, Jon and Mindy Jamison, David and Shirley Proffitt, Jon and Linda Hodge, Brad Lartigue, and Chris and Monica Woodall.

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP)–The mention of Iowa conjures up Midwestern scenes of green cornfields, pig and dairy farming, small towns and the fictional setting for movies like “The Music Man” and “Field of Dreams.”

The Hawkeye State certainly is all those things and more. But Des Moines — Iowa’s capital and largest city, with 500,000 people — also is plagued with the same neighborhood gangs, crime, violence, drugs and poverty of other American cities. Just ask Jon and Mindy Jamison.

For nearly nine years, Jon and Mindy, both 33, have been co-directors of the Friendship Baptist Center in inner-city Des Moines. They also are the Baptist Convention of Iowa’s church and community ministries directors.

The Jamisons are among 5,000-plus North American Mission Board missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and Southern Baptist churches’ gifts through the Cooperative Program.

The theme for this year’s March 2-9 Week of Prayer for North American Missions is “Live with Urgency: Seize Your Divine Moment.” The 2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering goal is $61 million.

The Friendship Baptist Center, a non-descript building, sits on the corner of Meek Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway in Des Moines.

“The neighborhood surrounding the Friendship Baptist Center is a poverty-impacted community,” Jon says. “Upwards of 30-35 percent of the households are in poverty. Many of the people are victims of crime. There’s a lot of violence, gang activity and drugs in the communities surrounding the center. So we have a challenge just outside our doors.

“Many people struggle with having something to eat, having clothes to wear, shelter, heat in the winter. For kids in the area, there’s no one at home to take care of them. Kids must find a way to wake themselves up in the morning. If there’s food in the house, they have to make their own breakfast. They have to find a way to school, if they go. Many kids are sort of their own parents. That may sound like fun, but it also brings some struggles for the kids.”

Mindy echoes her husband.

“The kids get up and don’t take a bath because there’s no water. They don’t have a toothbrush or shampoo. They probably forget to take their books to school. They walk to school in the cold, and it gets very cold in Des Moines,” she says. “They go hungry and without basic needs, much less encouragement and nourishment.

“I think if that doesn’t break our heart, if that doesn’t concern us, then our heart isn’t lined up with the heart of Christ. He was so concerned for the least of these.”

Mindy, who grew up doing urban missions work in her native Fort Myers, Fla., calls the neighborhood around the Friendship Center “great” and “horrible” at the same time. The center serves primarily African Americans and Hispanics and refugee families from Zaire, Sudan and Bosnia.

The Friendship Center is multi-faceted. “Kids Club” is an after-school program in which children come in and get help with their homework, play board games or sports. They also learn about life skills, nutrition and even how to cook. And, of course, the Jamisons teach them about the Bible.

“Once we get to know the kids better, we offer a Bible study and teach them what God says about their lives and how God wants to be a part of their lives,” Jon says. “Many times, we tell them Bible stories, and it’s the first time they’ve ever heard Bible stories. It’s great to see the lights come on when they realize that God loves them and can provide for them.”

Telling the center’s kids Bible stories is different from teaching children who’ve grown up in a Southern Baptist church, who can finish the story just by giving them the story’s character or topic.

“Many of the neighborhood kids here are waiting on the edge of their seats to find out how the Bible story ends,” Mindy says, “because they haven’t heard it before.”

Mindy credits the center’s 15 Kid’s Club volunteers, who come and “pour their lives into these kids every day.” In all, some 250 volunteers support Jon and Mindy each year in their myriad of ministries.

“The kids get to meet volunteers from all over who may be Iowa State students, people from local churches and others. The kids get to rub shoulders with them and be mentored by them. Our kids get help with their homework, hear the Gospel and get a snack. It’s so important … to get them here, off the streets and into a positive place.”

Another key project for the center is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), conversational English and the ability to read.

“It’s a great way for us to connect to the community,” Jon says. “Immigrants and refugees come to Des Moines and need to provide for their families. They need a job. And often they can find better jobs if they speak English. They may not have a hunger need or a clothing need, but it’s easy for them to know that they have a need to speak English.”

The center also provides food to the hungry, clothes to the needy, adult Bible studies, GED tutoring and summer camps.

“The Clothes Closet is an important ministry because it’s free, and because it’s meeting such a basic need,” Mindy says. “A lot of our ladies come to the Clothes Closet. They call it ‘The Mall.’ It’s fun for them to come and get new clothes for themselves and for their children, as well as free household items.”

The Clothes Closet offers the Jamisons a chance to build personal relationships, share with the women “customers” and talk about spiritual things.

“When they come in for clothes, we ask them about other needs in their lives,” Mindy says. “We ask them if we can pray for them. We ask them if they know about Christ. It’s an avenue for us to share the Gospel and build relationships.”

“We have found that forming relationships is the way we’re going to introduce Christ in Des Moines,” Jon says, “not only to the children but to the adults. If we can connect with them on a level that is non-threatening -– a level that says, ‘I’m fun and I want to have fun with you’ — then we can relax. Once we get to know them, the spiritual conversations can take place. We can talk to them about the things that bother and worry them, and share the love of Christ with them.”

One of the most challenging problems facing the Jamisons is ongoing gang activity in the area — and trying to deter kids at the Friendship Center from joining the gangs that roam inner-city Des Moines.

“Many of the kids join a gang because either they want power or protection,” Jon says. “Some people will join a gang because they know they can wield power. They can be a powerful person in the neighborhood. Or they fear that without the gang they will be picked on. They feel like a gang gives them a ready-made group of people who are willing to stand up with them.

“A lot of times the gang becomes their family. The gang provides immediate support, immediate family and immediate love.”

Gangs make it especially difficult for the children and youth who want to do what’s right, who want to follow Christ, Jon notes.

“The kids still have to face the pressures of violence in the streets,” he says. “They have to decide, ‘Am I willing to stand alone and be a Christian and follow Christ and do what that means, or do I want to surround myself with gang members and let them become my family?'”

Through the Friendship Baptist Center, the kids are taught that God loves them and that God has a plan for them beyond violence and destructiveness.

“Some people have not heard the name of Jesus. We share the Gospel and often it’s the first time someone’s ever heard of Jesus,” Mindy says.

“This community also is, at times, devastated by violence,” Jon adds. “Many people in the community have had violence affect them in some way. Family members have been affected. We have many people from the community who are in prison right now because of violence. Our goal is that as these people come to know Christ, the crimes will stop and the reliance on drugs will stop.”

The stakes are high in inner-city Des Moines, Jon says.

“While we know we’re attempting to reach this community for Christ, there are gang leaders who are attempting to reach the community, too. There are people of other faiths who are trying to reach this community,” he says, referring to Muslims, Buddhists and Mormons who are aggressive in spreading their religions locally.

The Jamisons say they are “blessed” they are able to serve together as husband and wife and bring Maggie, their almost 2-year-old daughter, to work with them every day.

“When Jon and I first met, we both knew that God had called us to do inner-city missions work, and so we knew we would work together. We can come to work together every day and can both be used of God,” Mindy says.

Jon, a native of Elizabethton, Tenn., and Mindy both accepted Christ as children, graduated from Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., and from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. They fell in love with missions through the mission trips they participated in during their youth.

“We’re so thankful that we don’t have to stop our work and go and raise funds somewhere,” Mindy says of the financial cooperation among Southern Baptist. “[W]e can focus on the ministry without worrying about where funds will come from or where our next paycheck will come from, or how to find money to feed hungry people.

With the aid of the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong offering, “we are able to offer … consistent, reliable ministry for those in need all year-round. We also know Baptists are praying for us as they give. It enables us to be here and the ministries to continue. It’s our lifeline here in Iowa.”
Mickey Noah is a writer with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.

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