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Bethlehem Centers seek to be ?beacons’ in inner city

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

The Bethlehem Center in Nashville helps families meet their basic needs and creates opportunities for growth.

June 8, 2006

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 (RSV)

A UMNS Feature
By Linda Green*

Bethlehem Centers across the United States are providing healing, hope and wholeness to people with many needs and few advantages.

The centers began in African-American neighborhoods in Southern cities in the late 1800s, offering a variety of education, recreation and health care opportunities. As inner-city populations have changed or become multiethnic and diverse, the centers have adapted to meet new needs.

“Our mission is the same today as it was yesterday, when the first center began in Augusta, Ga.,” said Jerald McKie, director of community and institutional ministries for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. “It is helping families meet their basic needs, creating opportunities for growth, healing, self-determination, empowerment and success.”

Bethlehem Centers were started by women of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, as places within the church where African Americans could receive the same services that their white counterparts received at Wesley Centers and Wesley Houses. No longer segregated today, the centers are supported by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and its Women’s Division.

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Jerald Mckie
The centers “serve as a beacon of light across this country for individuals who may not know about the United Methodist Church, (but) when they step into one of these places, they find out immediately what our church is all about,” McKie said.

They are still addressing issues of poverty, as well as challenges posed by development and encroachment by businesses and others moving into the community, McKie said. She noted that as cities have grown, the Bethlehem Center sites — many of them dating back more than 100 years — “have become more the center of town than say, the outskirts of town.”

While contending with such problems as drugs and alcohol, gangs and violence, the centers offer after-school child care, arts and crafts, training to develop young people’s self-esteem, and other positive activities for youth and young people.

They still have an educational focus and work with a variety of ethnic and immigrant populations. They also perform needs assessments and strategic planning. Boards of directors are now incorporated, and centers hire their own executive directors as opposed to when the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries sent staff — often deaconesses — to lead them.

Of the 103 institutional ministries supported by the board and United Methodist Women — ministries such as community centers, schools and colleges, residential treatment centers, women’s residences and the Red Bird Missionary Conference — eight are Bethlehem Centers.

Building futures

The Bethlehem Centers of Nashville is three facilities working as one. Along with a youth camp, the three sites work together to “promote self-reliance and positive life choices for children, teens, adults and families in Middle Tennessee by delivering and advocating quality programs and services,” said Joyce Searcy, the executive director. Founded in 1894, the centers were dedicated to young mothers and their children in Nashville. 

During the past 112 years, Bethlehem Center, Wesley House and Centenary Center evolved into one multi-service agency, with a mission to reach all poverty-restricted infants and young children, teens, women and senior citizens in neighborhoods surrounding the centers. The agency also runs Camp Dogwood, which was started in the 1920s as the first location in Middle Tennessee where African-American youngsters could attend camp.

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Joyce Searcy
Working under the theme “Changing Lives, Building Futures,” the centers serve people and families from three of the poorest areas of the city, with 97 percent of the clients living at 90 percent or below federal poverty guidelines, and attempts to make them self-reliant. “What we do is change lives and build futures for our families, children, youth and adults,” Searcy said.

Kim Parks, 42, said the center’s motto has been a testimony about her life. She was a client of the center for six months, and she is now a dental student at United Methodist-related Meharry Medical College. Recalling her “time in the wilderness,” she said, the Bethlehem Center helped her remember that she is not alone and could rely on the “village.”

“While going through the crossroads of my life, I am so grateful that Bethlehem Centers was my village.” The center enabled her to create resumes for her job search, and the staff provided a listening ear. “Most importantly, everything was free,” she said.

As a dental student, she has been existing on a “shoestring budget,” she said. The center “lightened the load at times and became a guiding light.”
According to an agency fact sheet, nearly 90 percent of the children and youth served are in single-parent households, and 100 percent of the elderly served receive various forms of public assistance.

Helping children

Searcy offered United Methodist News Service a glimpse into Nashville’s centers. “We are serving children as young as 6 weeks old. It is very important that as brains are developing and bodies are developing, that moral values are developed in those children.” She outlined the various programs that impact women, children, teens and adults, noting that the ministries provide empowerment, advocacy, substance abuse prevention, job training and hunger assistance.

When she arrived as executive director in 1987, she said she was most impressed with volunteer spirit and dedication of one of the daily workers. That volunteer inspired her.

“It was my vision to put programs in place here and have the agency do a better job of serving the community, and if it was going to serve the community, then the community would need to be more involved here,” she said.

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

Kim Parks, a dental student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., examines Kayla Pierce's teeth.
During her tenure, she has introduced and expanded programs and incorporated measurable goals. The center is ranked by the state as “Three Star,” which is the highest rating a day care can receive in Tennessee. In addition, it is accredited by a national association for the education of young children. “It is like the national Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to say you are the best of the best,” she said.

Searcy wants the Bethlehem Centers to become a leader in the community. “I want the agency to continue to produce community leaders, children who are educated and people who are self-reliant, people determining their own destiny and giving back to the community.”

Giving back is what Jessica Oldham, 25, is doing. A former recipient of the center’s day care services, Oldham teaches day care students at the center today. The experience, love and attention she received at the center made her want to work with children as an adult.

“It is exciting. It is never a dull moment. Every day is different. The Bethlehem Center is a place to be loved. It is a loving place. Everyone loves everybody here.”

The center embodies the Christian principle of serving “the least of these,” and no one is turned away, Oldham said. “It is a place that believes in families, is Christian and believes in helping one another.”

Support needed

To promote the center and its work, Searcy speaks to a lot of church groups, during worship services, and to United Methodist Women and youth groups.

“What I try to do is let United Methodists know that their foremothers founded (Bethlehem Centers), and it sinks or swims on their involvement.” A large portion of their funding comes through the local, regional and general conferences of the United Methodist Church. The agencies also receive financial support through the donations of individuals, businesses and churches, both local and across the country.

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

Jessica Oldham reads to 3-year-old Jason Rhodes.
The center recently revamped its logo to include the Star of Bethlehem and to express its ecumenism and interdenominational community outreach. “We don’t care who you are, we want to bring the love of Christ to you,” Searcy said.

For its work in promoting abstinence and the prevention of substance abuse, the Bethlehem Centers of Nashville is one of 13 agencies nationwide chosen by the federal government to use a program called “Too Smart To Start,” to help ’tweens — kids who aren’t small children but not quite teenagers — make decisions about their future and say no to sex, drugs and alcohol.

McKie said the eight centers share in common the challenges associated with racism and poverty. Impoverished people, even if they are trained and employed, have a hard time juggling the costs of health care, child care and homeownership — pressures that keep many people down, she said.

If the Bethlehem Centers and other mission institutions could eradicate the issues stemming from poverty in their clients’ lives, “then we would see women and children and their families being able to step beyond that issue and join the rest of us who have been blessed and have been able to maintain a semblance of a good caring environment for our families,” she said.

More information on Bethlehem Centers is available at or by calling (212) 870-3843. Donations can be designated for Advance Special #982149 and mailed to 475 Riverside Dr.  Room 1544, New York, N.Y. 10115. Money specifically for children’s programs, can be designated for Advance Special #123456, which helps ministries with children at the United Methodist Church’s National Mission Institutions.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

Audio Interviews

Joyce Searcy: Bethlehem Centers has been around since 1894.

Joyce Searcy: I would like to see us produce leaders in the community.

Jeri McKie: I think some of the challenges are associated with racism.

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