Can a nonprofit that serves the poor and underprivileged thrive without receiving any government money? Yes — and it can even succeed in a city that often makes national news for its homicide rate and violence. Streets Ministries, a faith-based organization, has been serving some of Memphis, Tennessee’s roughest neighborhoods for three decades.
Crime, drugs, violence and a high poverty rate are facts of life in Memphis. The city is also home to one of the worst public school districts in America. In fact, according to a recent report, about three-quarters of the city’s African-American high school freshmen cannot read at grade level. In the shadow of Memphis’ glittering lights and live music on Beale Street, the future appears bleak for many families trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and violence.
But for nearly 30 years, a devoted group of volunteers and staff have been creating a safe environment for young adults in Memphis where they can work on their studies, play sports and also learn scripture and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Founded by lifelong Memphian Ken Bennett and a powerful desire to provide hope, support and encouragement to kids in Memphis, Streets Ministries has grown from a modest operation to a $1.8 million organization.
At first Bennett’s work was met with skepticism from the community. “Folks in the neighborhood thought I was the police and police thought I was a drug dealer,” he recalled.
Streets Ministries serves over 1,000 young adults in three Memphis community centers. | Photo: Streets Ministries
In time, Bennett and his growing ranks of volunteers earned the community’s trust. Today Streets Ministries serves more than 1,000 young adults in two state-of-the-art community centers that feature study rooms and computers, all of which has been made possible by by the generosity of individuals, charities, churches and private companies.
Bennett no longer runs the ministry’s day-to-day operations. Those responsibilities are in the able hands of Executive Director Reggie Davis and Site Director Kelechi Ordu. Opportunity Lives spoke with Davis and Ordu about their philosophy of building trust and fostering personal relationships with the kids, rather than proselytizing from the moment they walk in the door. In time, the kids begin to ask about scripture and Jesus.
Davis says their approach is one reason why Streets Ministries has children from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds participating in its programs. He recalled feeling uneasy recently about having a conversation with an Islamic family. He needed to make sure they were comfortable having their son attend a Christian camp. Davis fully expected the family to rescind their permission once they learned about the evangelical nature of the camp. Instead, he was told: “We know that you and your staff love our son. We trust you with him.”
Volunteers at Streets Ministries focus on building personal relationships | Photo: Streets Ministries
Streets Ministries does not take any local, state or federal money. Ordu says that they have avoided seeking government money because there has not been an overwhelming need, but also because the small organization wants to avoid bureaucracy and red tape. Davis added that the policy wasn’t set in stone and could change. But for now, the organization has been blessed with generous contributions from the community, which appreciates the important work Streets Ministries is doing.
Poverty, hunger, and a lack of hope and opportunity are a constant reality for many young adults in our country. Often, people look to the government for remedies. But Streets Ministries is an example of an organization that is meeting this urgent need every day with compassion, support and love — and without a dime of taxpayer funding.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @IzzyOrtega.