South Charlotte

Church offers help to nearby neighbors

Though only a mile and a half from each other, Church at Charlotte and Gladedale Apartments were relative strangers.

But this fall, church members and residents started an intimate conversation and a heartwarming partnership.

In September, R.J. Caswell, the outreach pastor at Church at Charlotte on Carmel Road, wanted to find a way for the church to help in its immediate community. A little research pointed him to Gladedale Apartments - low-income-housing on Old Providence Road, managed by the Charlotte Housing Authority.

The 49 apartment units are just two left turns and a right from the church's main entrance.

The children living in Gladedale attend Sharon Elementary, Carmel Middle and Myers Park High, just like many kids at Church at Charlotte.

But "daily life for them looks very different from that of the average person who goes to Church at Charlotte," said the Rev. Jim Kallam.

A number of Gladedale residents are on disability or unemployed. Many of the parents have more mouths to feed than there is food. Many of the children need help with schoolwork and have nowhere to turn.

Donna Green, president of the Gladedale Resident Advisory Committee, and her three advisory committee officers worked hard to organize a weekly tutoring session for students living in the complex.

But without much manpower, attendance hovered at four or five students. Now, with the help of Church at Charlotte volunteers and Green's peppering the community with fliers, the sessions host 25 students.

Last Wednesday was also the community's first job-prep group meeting. Church volunteers are now helping residents write resumes, prepare for interviews and find ways to make career goals a reality.

But Christmas for many Gladedale families isn't what most south Charlotteans are used to; Christmas presents often are unaffordable. Caswell and the pastor team saw that as another way the church could help and demonstrate the church's overarching Christmas message this year.

In the weeks before Christmas, the pastors at Church at Charlotte are encouraging the congregation to be more critical of the annual Christmas frenzy: Spend less on frivolous items. Think more about others who lack necessities.

"We American Christians get sucked into the trap of Christmas as much as anybody does," said Kallam.

The request to rein in spending comes as part of a program called Advent Conspiracy.

Founded several years ago by a small group of pastors, Advent Conspiracy is a national organization that encourages people to substitute consumption with compassion and debt with investments of time.

The organization generally focuses on building wells to respond to the international water crisis, but Church at Charlotte decided to act out the message of Advent Conspiracy with Gladedale.

Ninety-six children live in Gladedale, and many parents can't afford to pay retail prices for presents.

So several weeks ago, church leaders set up trees with special ornaments, each with a message such as "gift for a 16-year-old girl" or "gift for a 10-year-old boy."

Church members are purchasing these gifts - spending a minimum of $50 on each - which then will be set up in the Gladedale activity center, where parents can purchase them at a discounted price.

"We're empowering them to do something for their kids," said Kallam. "We're not just buying (the gifts) and handing them over to (the children). (The parents) will spend their own money on it."

The group hopes to have close to 400 gifts in the shop when it opens Dec. 18.

Church at Charlotte, which has a weekly attendance of about 1,800, is taking up a special offering Dec. 19, and all donations will go toward building a new playground in the Gladedale complex. The current playground is dilapidated. Church at Charlotte has worked out a deal with the Charlotte Housing Authority. If they can raise the funds, Gladedale will get its new playground.

"I sense an excitement amongst our congregation," said Kallam. But one of the most important aspects is that the relationship between Gladedale and Church at Charlotte will continue to blossom, even after the presents have been opened.

"It's a relationship, a partnership, getting to know our neighbors," said Caswell.

"I think it's a great picture of Christ's commandment to love one another," said Kallam.

At last Wednesday's first job-training session in the Gladedale activity center, Green stood up from the table to introduce herself.

"It's been a blessing that they came into our lives," she said. "They're donating the playground, they've donated the Christmas tree (in the activity center). There are a lot of kids who were missing out who aren't missing out anymore."