A Place Called Hope

Cordova Church gets national support after documentary airs.

| September 03, 2008
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Hope Presbyterian Church never expected to end up on national news program 20/20.

When Craig Leake, a filmmaker from the University of Memphis, asked program directors at Cordova's Hope Presbyterian to participate in a documentary on Memphis' infant mortality crisis, they thought the film would be shown around town.

"We thought it would be something that he would do locally," says Oasis of Hope executive director Terry Hoff. "We're protective of our youth and want to make sure they're not put in any compromising situation. He dealt with it with such integrity that we had a good feeling about it."

Along with colleague David Appleby, Leake created a documentary called Babyland about Shelby County's sky-high infant mortality rate.

With a baby dying every 43 hours, Memphis has a higher infant mortality rate than any other major U.S. city. The documentary featured the Med's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the Health Department's "Babyland" cemetery, and Andreah "Precious" Simpson, a young, pregnant teenager in one of Hope Presbyterian's mentoring programs.

Almost six years ago, Hope Presbyterian opened its Oasis of Hope, a mission in North Memphis near Danny Thomas and Chelsea Avenue.

The Cordova-based church had partnered with other groups to do Easter egg hunts, vacation Bible school, and Thanksgiving events in the inner city, but church leaders didn't feel the programs had a permanent impact.

"It was kind of like a shotgun approach," Hoff says. "We met with city leaders and asked, 'How do we do urban ministry with more depth? How can we build deeper relationships?'"

The church already had a relationship with Caldwell Elementary, so moving into the surrounding North Memphis community made sense. Since then, the church has sought to develop young Christian leaders and empower neighborhood adults through a number of programs, including after-school tutoring and mentoring, recreational sports, a daily senior-citizens program, and a free tax-filing service.

The church also has helped with small business loans and assisted the local community development corporation with new affordable housing.

"We've rehabbed a few houses in the community," Hoff says. "We built another. Quality affordable housing is a real need."

Oasis of Hope's ministry for young mothers came about as a natural extension of the mission's youth mentoring program. The church works with mentors to help young mothers get prenatal care and to help them after babies are born.

"Our ministry is the kind that if there's a significant need and we can make a difference, then we're going to do whatever we can," Hoff says. "One of those situations is definitely expecting young mothers."

The documentary aired on ABC's 20/20 recently, and so far national response to Hope Presbyterian has been substantial.

"We have received phone calls and e-mails from across the country: people saying they're praying for us, giving us words of encouragement, saying, 'I have some baby supplies I'd like to send,'" Hoff says. "It's been a very humbling, overwhelming experience."

But the city needs more than just Hope. The infant mortality rate is a symptom of a larger poverty crisis.

Data by Richard Janikowski and Phyllis Betts, referenced in this space just a few weeks ago and presented to the City Council last month, shows how babies with low birth weights are distributed across the city.

The distribution aligns closely with births to mothers who don't have a high school diploma and to teen mothers. As Janikowski has pointed out, young, under-educated mothers are also more likely to be poor.

And the number of people living in poverty in Shelby County is growing. Just last week, the U.S. Census bureau released 2007 data showing that 179,000 people — or one in every five Shelby Countians — live below the poverty line.

That number is up 2 percent from 2005.

As for Hope Presbyterian Church, they wanted to make a big difference in a small pocket of Memphis.

"We will continue to serve and learn with our neighbors and friends," Hoff says. "Hopefully, day by day and year by year, we'll make a significant impact on the community."

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