November-December 2004 – Of the approximate 295,000,000 people in the United States, 35.9 million are living below the official poverty thresholds as of 2003. In addition, “the nation’s official poverty rate rose from 12.1% in 2002 to 12.5% in 2003” (www.census.gov).
Although the rate is lower than the averages of the past two decades, the sad fact is that poverty still exists and always will as evident from Scripture.
In Deuteronomy 15:11, the Lord instructs His people to remember, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
More than 25 years ago, a young lady named Dr. JoeAnn Ballard took God’s commands to heart and became the executive director of Neighborhood Christian Centers, Inc. (NCC), a ministry that presently serves about 125,000 impoverished people in and around Memphis, Tennessee.
Since the inception of the first Neighborhood Christian Center in 1978, the mission remains “to provide compassionate, Christ centered ministry to the practical and spiritual needs of the city’s poor.” Now with nine full centers and 75 affiliate ministry sites in the city of Memphis and neighboring cities, Ballard still sees the ministry’s mission as one that is simple and straightforward.
But actually executing the mission involves an annual budget in excess of $1.5 million and 25 full-time employees, 20 part-time employees, and approximately 1,000 volunteers. The ministry receives no government money and is completely funded by grants and donations, thus indicating a backbone of faith accompanied by giving and volunteerism.
In addition, Ballard finds success in actually going into the various communities to meet needs rather than bringing those needs to a central location.
“Many of our clients do not have proper transportation nor do they have jobs,” Ballard explained. “So you want to put familiar people that they know and that they trust, who they see all the time in their communities, to serve them and to meet their needs, modeling responsible behavior in front of them, allowing them to emerge more quickly as a whole person.”
Members of the impoverished communities long to see such familiar faces, especially around the Christmas season.
Christmas at NCC
Each Christmas, NCC provides for more than 50,000 impoverished people through three aspects of ministry: Christmas baskets, Christmas pairing and Christmas toy store.
Christmas baskets are baskets of food distributed to approximately 12,000 heads of households each year. The food in each basket feeds about four people for three days.
“The Christmas pairing program is an opportunity for low income families to be matched with families of means during the Christmas season,” explained NCC Administrative Director Ephie B. Johnson.
The Christmas toy store project receives and distributes donated toys to needy children December 18 each year.
“Last year NCC served 400+ heads of households equaling to 1,500 children receiving toys for Christmas,” Johnson said.
“It is just this high-spirited [event],” said Aubrey Houston, 20, NCC volunteer coordinator who came to his position through participation in NCC’s various programs.
While excitement is certainly a prevailing feeling around NCC during the holidays, the purpose of the Christmas ministries is grounded in something much deeper than an emotional high.
“Where the Lord says the poor will be with us always – that is the group we are targeting,” Johnson explained.
“We don’t seek to help just because it’s Christmas,” she continued. “We [also] realize that during Christmas most parents who are poor are unable to buy the items that their child(ren) would need for returning to school in January.
“We not only give them foods that are traditionally for Christmas but foods that will carry them through the Christmas break,” Johnson added.
The ministry structure
However, the work of NCC extends far beyond Christmas as it provides services on a daily basis through four departments that act as umbrellas to approximately 20 different ministry programs:
1. Affiliate Ministries – provide grass roots services such as utility and rental assistance directly to the community, as well as commissioning community missionaries to serve in specific areas.
2. Family and Church Enrichment Ministries – approach families and instill in them the purpose of healthy families and healthy marriages by mentoring and counseling couples through a program known as Love Builders; provide seminary-type training for pastors and lay people through the Memphis Institute.
3. Department of Operations and Administrative Services – tends to the upkeep of the grounds and buildings and is responsible for the distribution of over 60 million pounds of food, annually.
4. Youth Ministries – minister to children of all ages through Bible-based initiatives including after-school tutoring, after-school Bible studies, overnight camps, hands-on multi-media production, summer missions art programs and a college scholarship program.
These programs involve both adults and children in a variety of capacities, often introducing Christ to some for the very first time while spurring changes in others.
“I used to be this loud-mouth, always-talking kid. I’ve learned there’s a time to talk, and there’s a time to listen,” Houston explained. “I’ve learned organization. I’ve learned to present myself in a very respectful way and to hold up the respect you gain from people. It’s taught me to keep my morals polished and [to] shine all the time.”
A glimpse of history
As evident from the various programs, carrying out the mission of NCC is a monumental task, especially when realizing that it began under the direction of one woman.
“Now you know what’s wrong with my back,” Ballard said with a smile.
But she was prepared for the persistence and dedication that must accompany her compassion after being the last of 48 children to be raised by her foster parents, DeLoach and Ora Mae Benjamin.
Although Ballard is thankful for the blessings of her family, she had no intentions of continuing the trend of foster care prior to taking in the first of what would become 78 foster children for her and her husband.
Before the first foster child came into the picture, about 250 children revolved around the Ballard home for nearly two years. The children would come in on the weekends and over for dinner.
“It evolved from a need…It was a natural process….” Ballard explained. “But God knew the pattern, the course that He set.
“So that’s how we went from 1966 to 1978 doing foster care without an organization” or assistance from the government.
“…We found ways, and what we did was the work of the Neighborhood Christian Center, but we did it in our homes,” Ballard said. “It was the same principle.”
In time, this principle converged with the efforts of Larry Lloyd and John Abercrombie, who had founded NCC just six month earlier.
The match was perfect and so began the growing ministry of NCC, grounded in the support of Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis.
“So rather than making something, I’m following a vision,” Ballard said.
The ongoing vision of NCC is two-fold. Phase I evolved out of Ballard's foster care and the initial efforts of Lloyd and Abercrombie. It involved establishing a staff and a presence in the targeted communities through ministry.
With a presence established, NCC is in the beginning stages of Phase II which is “a phase of educating and training a generation so that they’ll be prepared for adulthood and all that accompanies it,” Johnson said.
“The goal of Phase II is to change a generation by 2030 so that the ministry continues through the indigenous leadership of our present participants and those in our target groups ages 0 to 5 and 6 to 21, thus changing the cyclical effect of poverty into a cyclical effect of ministry and personal growth,” she added.
The future of NCC
As the cycle continues to change, NCC is expanding its horizons with a new 24,000 square-foot Gateway facility for youth. The new North Center will include a gymnasium, performing arts center, banquet facility, chapel, and classrooms.
NCC will use the new facility to continue a ministry that was catapulted by Ballard accepting Christ as her personal Savior.
“It’s that experience that’s been the driving force to make sure others know this Christ as I know Him,” she said.
The driving force remains strong as Ballard eyes retirement and her daughter, Johnson, plans to follow in her footsteps.
Ballard desires to spend the rest of her life researching and writing on the importance of community as unified through the love of Christ – a vision God planted in her heart decades ago.
“My parents have always reached out to others, as a result, many people have responded to them and the message they have demonstrated in love and deed,” Johnson commented.
“Over the years, God provided the means to add room to our home and eventually a place for our family to minister to hundreds of people.
“Once again in great fashion, God is doing it again – providing more space for all who are in need to come.”
Contact information for volunteering and donations:
Neighborhood Christian Centers, Inc.
223 Scott Street
Memphis, TN 38112