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Small town churches doing big things

Outreach pastor befriends troubled youth

By John W. Kennedy

It’s finals time at Burlington High School. In between exams on this gorgeous June Friday in Vermont, students wander in and out of the austere second-floor room occupied by two staff members employed by the district.

Henry Sparks is director of student support services; Jesse Cope is his assistant. Both also are members of Hilltop Light Assembly of God, the Fellowship’s only church in the Green Mountain State’s largest city.

The pair aren’t counselors. They run what’s called an alternative day program, dealing with students who have displayed behavioral problems: Kids who have repeatedly skipped classes; kids who get into fights with teachers; kids who have cut themselves in suicide attempts. Strands of Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” play on a CD player in the corner. Sparks finds classical music helps cooler heads prevail.

Sparks and Cope exhibit a tough exterior. They demand respect, and won’t tolerate threats or swearing. On the wall behind Sparks’ desk is a poster warning that name-calling of any kind is verboten. Cope has erected a sign on a bulletin board behind him that reads, “This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way.”

With such barriers, one might expect teens entering the premises to be even more belligerent. Yet students come to the room not simply for corrective action; some just want to hang out. In Sparks and Cope they have found friends.

While not overt about it, the men are engaged in a form of ministry by showing genuine love on God’s behalf. Cope, who also is outreach pastor at Hilltop Light, invites students who express a spiritual interest to church.

“Whenever I struggle in school or at home I come to them and they help me out,” says Lamba Crane. “They encourage me to pray.”

Lamba, the only student from Gabon at the school, says he is lonely often. He moved to the United States from the French-speaking African nation with his father eight years ago. His mother and siblings remain in Gabon.

The high school junior, who teaches hip-hop classes to middle school students, eventually wants to be a music producer. Lamba works on Sundays at one of the city’s ubiquitous bagel cafés. “Mr. Cope is kind of my church,” he says.

Sparks and Cope serve as advocates, sounding boards and confidants to many troubled students. For teens who don’t trust anyone else, especially an adult, the men are a safety net.

“A lot of time kids are told at home that what they’re doing is bad,” Cope says. “They just want somebody to listen to them. I don’t let them get away with bunk. But I’m a good listener.”

When he moved to Vermont a decade ago, Cope admits he hadn’t forsaken sinful habits, including using marijuana. But when he began attending Hilltop Light, Pastor Patty “Kwacha” Davis made it clear Cope couldn’t serve two masters.

Today, Cope, 40, has a well-worn Bible in his desk drawer. Students feel comfortable sharing dilemmas with the man who has broad shoulders, a shaved head and understanding eyes. Teens have affixed photos, drawings and poems to the cluttered bulletin board behind his desk.

It’s been quite a journey for Cope, who experienced racism growing up in Kentucky. He hated white people. But he learned to forgive. Cope’s wife, Clea, is white.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Vermont was 96.8 percent white, the second-whitest state in the union (exceeded only by Maine). “The first two months I lived here I saw three other people of color,” Cope says. Now Burlington High is the most ethnically diverse secondary institution in the state, with students from Puerto Rico, Bosnia, Sudan, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and 28 other nationalities. Around 7 percent of the student body is black. Part of that influx involves African-Americans moving to rural areas so that their children are out of the drug environs of New York City and Boston. Also in recent years, hundreds of Somali Bantu refugees have moved to the Burlington area.

At midday, Cope drives his PT Cruiser downtown, looking for more students and former students he can engage in conversations about God’s plan for their lives.

And a beautiful drive it is. Burlington is nestled between New York’s Adirondack Mountains hugging the west shore of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont. In large measure Burlington on the surface retains the idyllic rural image of maple syrup, blueberries and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Vermont ranks 49th in national population, ahead of only Wyoming.

People here ride buses not so much out of economic necessity as environmental principle. Unlike most of America, obese people are hard to find. Joggers, bicyclists and pedestrians are everywhere.

Cope must park his car on the top of a parking garage as locals have gathered en masse downtown on Friday afternoon. As we survey the skyline, seagulls swirl above Lake Champlain. Steeples dot the landscape but many of the churches lost their moorings long ago and have few attendees. Vermont in 2000 became the first state to authorize civil unions for homosexuals, granting same-sex couples similar legal rights and benefits of marriage. Burlington has the second highest concentration of same-sex couples among U.S. cities with fewer than 200,000 people.

Downtown is a bastion for libertarian Vermonters. We see a handful standing at the corner of Pearl and Church streets holding placards with anti-war slogans. Shoppers take dogs of all sorts — from miniature schnauzers to St. Bernards — with them into stores.

Seemingly everyone knows Cope along the five-block stretch of Church Street that has been converted into a pedestrian mall. A police officer grasps his hand and the two chat on the brick walkway that is crowded with kiosks, outdoor cafes, pigeons and people.

Plenty of teens recognize Cope and treat him as an old friend. Samuel Selman, a junior at Burlington High, is hanging out with friends. He attends Hilltop, but his friends for the most part don’t believe in God, or at least don’t understand Him.

“Nearly all kids my age are atheists,” Samuel says. “They believe in fate: Everything happens and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Samuel says Cope pays attention when students talk about their predicaments; and he explains the options facing them, even if it’s not what they want to hear.

Cope says, “I tell these kids, ‘God allows things to happen in life so that you’ll wake up. God is trying to give you signs before it’s too late.’ ”

He eyeballs a group of eight youths loitering outside the downtown mall. All moved to Burlington from New York City; none has a father as a role model. Cope is concerned that they will become involved in gang violence, which is now a reality in Burlington. The state’s incarceration rate rose last year nearly five times as fast as the national average.

Authorities uncovered the state’s first methamphetamine lab in June.

Drug-related deaths have claimed half a dozen students in Cope’s six years at the school. Yet Cope believes as long as a person is breathing it’s not too late to change.

“A lot of young people are ready for the Lord,” he maintains. “They’ve tried everything else.”

Anita Van Tubergan greets Cope warmly on the street. She visits Cope regularly in his office, even though she transferred to another high school last year. Her father died early this year; her brother broke his neck this spring in a snowboarding mishap and is paralyzed from the neck down. Anita doesn’t attend church. But she says Cope offers solace when she pours out her feelings.

Nikki Cram, a senior, chats weekly with Cope. Nikki, who recently completed a year at a drug treatment facility, doesn’t attend church either but she is grateful for Cope. “He’s the only adult I can relate to,” Nikki says. “Others just said, ‘Drugs are bad; don’t use them.’ But he listens to me and helps me.”

In part, Cope learned compassion from Pastor Davis, who started Hilltop Light Ministries in 1985. The outreach has done everything from providing free food to Burlington’s inner-city needy to opening an orphanage in Malawi. For the past decade she has been a licensed Assemblies of God minister, and the multicultural Hilltop Light is one of only two dozen Assemblies of God congregations in the state.

As we talk in the ministry’s office in the old north end of Burlington, it’s apparent that Davis is an evangelist at heart. She speaks with authority and has a take-charge personality. Over the years Davis has found various ways to minister in public schools, from sponsoring a smoking prevention health program to talking about her missions trips during African history month.

“The devil is bold,” the fast-talking, deep-voiced Davis says. “We need to be, too. We can’t just sit in church and sing hallelujah. We have to be involved in the community.”

Davis has triumphed through life’s trials. As a young married woman she contracted Crohn’s disease, which led to a dependence on alcohol and tranquilizers. Her weight dropped to 89 pounds after two major surgeries. Doctors sent her home to die.

But sitting at home she heard the gospel on a Christian radio station. Davis surrendered her life to Jesus and kept listening to Christian radio programs. It almost cost Davis her marriage. Her husband, Ron, didn’t like the new “religious fanatic.”

With the spiritual rebirth came a physical restoration as Davis gained weight and strength. However, she was involved in a car wreck and doctors ordered 45 X-rays at a hospital. Immediately afterwards — just six weeks after her conversion — Davis learned she was pregnant. Doctors insisted she have an abortion. Because of all the X-rays, they advised, the baby surely would be doomed to a vegetative state. Today, 29-year-old daughter Susan speaks three languages fluently.

Soft-spoken husband Ron, who is Hilltop Light assistant pastor, committed his life to Christ seven years later. “Satan is a loser,” Ron says. “He lost both of us.”

Back at Burlington High, Sparks reflects on the changes in his life after eight years at the school, which has 1,075 students. Sparks, the former youth advocate for the city of Burlington, had been a vocal critic of the school district for its failure to hire minorities. The superintendent offered a newly created position of director of student support services to the articulate and confident Sparks.

Before, no one dealt with at-risk students on a daily basis. So Sparks, who has a master’s degree in community and economic development, had to devise his own blueprint on how to do his job.

Along the way, Sparks worked too long and drank too much, neglecting his marriage. He and his wife, Laura, divorced.

Sparks, 43, began attending Hilltop Light last year after persistent invitations from Cope. At a healing service, congregants asked the Lord to restore the marriage that ended five years earlier, even though Laura expressed no interest. In a May ceremony, Davis remarried the couple. Cope served as best man.

“This isn’t the type of church you can go to and not be serious about your spiritual walk,” Sparks says. “If we’re serving God faithfully, people shouldn’t wonder if we’re Christian; it should be evident.”

Sparks now begins his day at home praying for God’s will in his efforts at school. “It’s not like we’re working on cars,” Sparks says. “We’re impacting students’ lives one way or another every day.”

Few students have exposure to the Lord at home. “I see a lot of kids headed toward a dangerous path with gangs,” says Sparks, who grew up in a violent area of Compton, Calif. Sparks and Cope deal with students who have brought a weapon to school, been kicked out of their home or fought a classmate. The students must write a paper explaining reasons for their wayward behavior.

“A lot of my time is just spent talking about what’s going on in the student’s life,” Sparks says. “We want them to leave here with a solution, even if it’s a referral to someone else who can help.”

John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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