In a Winter Term course on poverty this January, Erskine students explored a topic many people hope to avoid. The course was capped by a trip to the Triune Mercy Center—a non-denominational mission church that ministers alongside the homeless in Greenville and is directed by senior pastor and 2005 Erskine Seminary graduate Deb Richardson-Moore.
What we take for granted
Stepping away from the piano and out of his usual area of expertise, Associate Professor of Music Dr. Brad Parker led the class, bringing to it a perspective gained from volunteering at a Christian summer music camp in Haiti. “Teaching music at the North Haiti Music Camp has connected me to people who witness some of the most extreme situations of poverty on a daily basis,” Parker said.
“I believe that continued correspondence with Haitian friends has greatly informed my sense of what it is like to live without the resources that we often take for granted—security, opportunity, access to safe food, water, shelter.”
Despite his heightened awareness of poverty, Parker has learned along with his students that “Our ideas about poverty, the causes and solutions, are so often completely wrong and even harmful to both the poor and ourselves.”
Parker, who is a Sullivan Fellow, also brought to the class his experience with social entrepreneurship. “My involvement with the Sullivan Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurship Retreat Weekends has been a strong motivator,” he said. “The students in my class have read David Bornstein’s How to Change the World, which describes the work of several social entrepreneurs who are changing the world through their work with the poor.” He noted that Bornstein spoke at an Erskine convocation in 2012.
Shocks and surprises
In the context of learning about social entrepreneurship and other efforts to confront the problems of poverty, a chance to observe the Triune Mercy Center in action added another level of depth for the students, whatever their reasons for taking the class.
For some, a desire to learn about poverty was linked to their career goals.
Freshman Alysha Tabb of Spartanburg, S.C. hopes to engage in social work and wants to work with the foster care system. She was interested in learning “why people become homeless or ways to help them.”
“Visiting the Triune Center was a big eye-opener for me,” Tabb said. “Learning that so many people in Greenville are homeless was a shock.”
Christian Brown, a freshman from Hopkins, S.C., is considering a sports management major and a minor in social work. She was interested in learning about the causes of poverty in the United States as well as in other countries.
Brown was amazed at “being able to walk into a real live ‘homeless tent city,’” and found that meeting and talking with “people who struggle to find jobs and even find a place to stay” was a meaningful experience.
“After stumbling through 20 yards of mudded trails, you go through a wooded area to see a huge community of tents everywhere,” sophomore Eric Edwards said. “I’ve seen a tent city in documentaries, but I never thought I would see it in person.”
Edwards, who is from Inman, S.C., expressed admiration for the work of the Triune Mercy Center, but also found something to admire in some of the homeless people he met.
“I asked one woman, who was standing in front of her tent, if she ever found her faith in God decreasing when she first became homeless,” Edwards said. “Without a second thought or a pause, she told me that she never lost her faith or was mad at the Lord—she kept persevering with a great attitude.”
When Edwards heard the woman’s explanation, “My heart skipped a beat,” he said. “She lost everything but retained her faith through all obstacles. It was a truly humbling experience.”
The combination of reading and experience in the Winter Term class seemed to strike the right balance.
Parker said that on the day after the class visited the Triune Mercy Center, he and the students made a list of “memorable stories and concepts from the first four books we read,” and he was “amazed by how much content they remembered.”
As for the experience of visiting the Center, “It was extraordinary,” Parker said. “I think that the students were really blown away—I was blown away.”
The students planned group projects in connection with what they learned in class and what they gleaned from going out into the field, focusing on the areas of crime, homelessness, nutrition, and education.
One group toured the McCormick Detention Center and planned to sell T-shirts “to raise money to support methods that can prevent sexual crimes in prison,”
Parker said. Money raised might go toward purchasing more or better cameras, raising awareness of the problem, or other needs.
After the class trip to the Triune Mercy Center, another group planned to “partner with local businesses and aid agencies to provide a job fair, and also programs to prepare homeless people for specific jobs,” Parker said. They also planned to contact Triune Mercy Center “to learn about ways for other people to get involved with their excellent programs.”
Learning about the importance of health in poverty prevention, a third group decided to focus on nutrition in local schools. They compiled a recipe book of healthy foods and created smoothie recipes using nutritious ingredients. “The class sampled two different smoothies that were loaded with vitamin-rich ingredients such as spinach,” Parker said. “They tasted really good!”
Statistics regarding dropout rates and other issues in education inspired another group to develop a college orientation program, developing “plans that could be implemented either during orientation or at other times during the school year,” Parker said.
Since their tour of Triune Mercy Center made such an impression on the class, Parker hopes to help publicize the Center’s new “Backyard Missions” program for groups from schools, churches, and other organizations. “This includes a tour of the facilities and services that Triune offers, and also a tour led by one or two homeless people to see how some people are living in Greenville.”