Ministry with Confederate roots helps African-American children become better readers, citizens

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted May 31, 2018

The core work of Appleton Episcopal Ministries’ Freedom School is to help struggling first-through-third-graders improve their reading. A 2015 Annie E. Casey Foundation study found that 60 percent of Georgia’s fourth-graders were not proficient readers. Photo: Appleton Episcopal Ministries

[Episcopal News Service] Julie Groce works for a ministry of the Diocese of Atlanta that began as an orphanage for the daughters of Confederate soldiers, and she is old enough to remember the days of separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks.

It thus makes sense to her that Appleton Episcopal Ministries, which she says has been evolving since its founding in 1870, has begun a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School. Fifty African-American first-, second- and third-graders from the Macon, Georgia, area attended the school’s inaugural 2017 summer session.

The school, an intensive six-week summer reading and enrichment program for children living in poverty who need to improve their reading skills, “kind of turns all that Confederate stuff on its ear,” Groce told Episcopal News Service.

Sister Elenor, left, and Sister Sophie stand at the entrance to Appleton’s Beckwith Chapel in 1915. Appleton Episcopal Ministries, in the Diocese of Atlanta, began as an orphanage for the daughters of Confederate soldiers. Photo: Appleton Episcopal Ministries

One of the earliest orders of deaconesses in the Episcopal Church, the Order of St. Katharine, formed at the Appleton Church Home, as the orphanage was first known.

Groce believes that the deaconesses “would be so proud that this is what we’re doing and this is who we are serving, because we are still serving children in need and God doesn’t care what those children look like.”

The Rev. John Thompson-Quartey, the diocese’s canon for ministry, said that Appleton’s founders are “spinning in their graves, for good reasons.” The organization, he said, has not lost its vision of “being a refuge or a safe haven for poor children. The focus is always on children.”

The Freedom School will have its second session this summer from June 14 to July 25. This year’s students will read culturally appropriate books that explore history, civic engagement and social justice. They will also have art, science, dance, music and swimming classes, as well as field trips. College and graduate interns, enrichment teachers and nearly 100 volunteers make the school work.

In 2017, Freedom Schools served more than 12,225 children at 173 program sites in 89 cities and 27 states including Washington, D.C., according to the Children’s Defense Fund website.

Appleton received a $20,000 Episcopal Church Mission Enterprise Zone grant for the school. It also gets money from the Diocesan Ministry Innovations Fund and the USDA Summer Feeding Program, a grant from Appleton itself, and donations from individuals, churches and clergy groups. Classes are held in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and the St. Francis Art Center, both in Macon.

There’s more going on at the school than simply helping struggling students read better. It’s about starting to connect people in an area that has had troubled race relations for decades.

“The primary inspiration for Freedom School was that it was automatically going to be a prospect of racial reconciliation,” Groce said, adding that organizers thought uniting the churches and the neighborhood around helping poor and struggling students might be a place to start mending that part of Georgia. There is still the aftermath of slavery and all of its modern-day heritage to confront, and there is still economic and de facto segregation in Macon, she said.

“It allows us the ability to have some reconciliation begin in a gentle manner, and then as you interface with parents, we take it to another level,” she said. “And then the community takes it to another level, and it’s not perfect but it sure is a start.”

If the Freedom School is providing connections in the community, then the people who form Appleton Episcopal Ministries are all finding wider connections. “Now we are part of this big thing,” Groce said, referring to the churchwide support represented in the grant, as well as the network of mission developers that Appleton joined when it received its Mission Enterprise Zone grant. “It is very inspirational to all of us and it reminds us daily, weekly, monthly of our Episcopal heritage, our commitment to love and to do social justice and just to do God’s work in the world.”

Some students in Appleton Episcopal Ministries’ 2017 session of its Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School learn to play chess. Photo: Appleton Episcopal Ministries

Appleton Episcopal Ministries operates out of the Appleton Church Home’s original 1870 building. The building is now also the parish hall for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in the diocese’s Macon Convocation. There are 10 congregations in the convocation, most of them small in membership and scattered across the mainly rural southern end of the diocese.

An endowment helps defray some of Appleton’s expenses. Since 2014, each congregation has had a seat on Appleton’s board. They pay an annual percentage of their income to support Appleton, and all the congregations in the diocese are required by canon to contribute each year. Some of those contributions are given back in the form of program grants.

The aim is for the programs supported by the grants to eventually become self-sufficient, so they no longer need Appleton’s help. “We act as a multiplier,” Groce said, partnering with other denominations and organizations to help children in need.

“My job is to serve those parishes and the Appleton board by going to those parishes and saying, ‘If money were no object, what would you like to do in community ministry?’” she said. She then helps those congregations find the resources to do that work. “I have a super cool job,” Groce added.

The idea for a Freedom School came after Groce and others in the diocese saw the success of such a summer program run by the diocese’s Emmaus House in Atlanta. Groce knew, however, that bringing the program to Macon would require outside help.

“It costs a lot of money, and there are lots of moving parts, and it is not for the fainthearted,” she said. “What made Freedom School different for us was that, unlike targeted parish programming, this was a program we did as Appleton overall, all of us as partners.”

It was the prospect of that new partnership, and all the ways Appleton was already working to foster such relationships, that caught the attention of the Episcopal Church’s Genesis Advisory Group on Church Planting, the Rev. Thomas Brackett, Episcopal Church manager for church planting and mission development, told ENS.

“They are curating community connections and creating partnerships that most Episcopal churches don’t even have the vision to create, much less sustain,” Brackett said. “They’re not giving money away as a one-off because somebody demonstrates need. They are strategically giving away money to partners who share their vision for creating community.”

A student at Appleton Episcopal Ministries’ 2017 session of Freedom School paints a sea turtle. Enrichment activities reinforce the school’s efforts to help students become better readers and explore history, civic engagement and social justice. Freedom School scholars are encouraged to make a difference in their families, their community and the world. Photo: Appleton Episcopal Ministries

Brackett said the Genesis Group was intrigued by Appleton’s pledge that “the leadership there is fully supported by the diocese in the work of bringing area congregations together to consolidate their energies in engaging people who, historically, would never come to the Episcopal Church.”

They are engaging those people, not to invite them to come to church, but to minister with them in their communities, he explained. It is not that they aren’t welcome to come to church. Instead, the Appleton group hopes that “as they develop these ministries, they’ll spin off new worshipping communities as well, each with their own unique character,” Brackett said.

Appleton’s grant application not only outlined what the goal was, but also spelled out what the strategies for success would be.

“We could tell from the very beginning that these people were going to make it with or without funding,” Brackett said. “They were basically inviting us as partners to come learn from what they’re doing.”

Atlanta Bishop Rob Wright gave Appleton a glowing recommendation, Brackett said, and told the Genesis Group that the diocese was lucky to have the Episcopalians in the Macon Convocation as part of the diocese. Many of them were not born into the Episcopal Church, but they chose to become Episcopalians. Plus, Brackett said, “They’re dealing with people that we don’t normally have come through our doors, African-American, Latino folks, and they’re doing ministry as shaped by community leaders.”

Groce said Freedom School’s first year taught lessons to everyone who helped run the program. It “sensitized all of us to the absolute fragility of the lives of so many children that we had never reached,” she said.

Moreover, while the session hosted just 50 children, Groce said the influence is rippling far beyond them. “We impacted three elementary schools outside the traditional Episcopal circle, and those are seeds that are now planted that continue to grow beyond our tiny little field.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.