MAXWELL:  A force for good in young lives

3/16/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Bucolic landscapes and children frolicking in fields of wildflowers represent a tiny part of life in rural America.

Carol A. Bigger, minister of Family Life and Education at the First Baptist Church in this southern Virginia town of 2,442 residents, knows another side of rural existence.

During her seven years here, she has seen life become as secular and as violent as that in the neighboring urban centers of Richmond and Raleigh.

The use of crack cocaine, for example, and some of the crimes associated with the drug, such as robbery and larceny, have increased among children and teenagers. And late last year, Chase City was shocked by three murders. All remain unsolved, and everyone, including the police chief, believes that the killings were crack-related.

While many big city residents erect gated enclaves to protect themselves, members of Chase City’s religious community, especially Bigger, are quietly trying to rescue their young people.

Bigger, 37, and others at First Baptist, the town’s largest church, are serving as surrogates in several areas of young people’s lives.

“A lot of things in our society have weakened the family unit,” Bigger said. “We have high divorce rates and other stability problems. Often, young people who fall through the cracks have families that haven’t been there for them. The church can make a difference. If the church can’t help people put their lives together, I don’t know of any other place that can.”

Bigger knows that many city folk, especially journalists for the major dailies, scoff at her simple religious message. But she perseveres, relying on the efficacy of a truth she has learned from working in Chase City: “From a rural perspective, the church is still an important piece of the community.”

Local business leaders, politicians and law enforcement authorities agree. Even school officials, mindful of the separation of church and state, support the minister.

On Mondays, for instance, a church van picks up pupils at Chase City Elementary and brings them to First Baptist to participate in the church-sponsored Adventure Club.

Originally established to give latchkey kids fellowship one afternoon a week, the club has become an integral part of the community. From 3:30 to 5 p.m., activities include refreshments, gospel singing, Bible lessons, memorizing Scriptures, discussion groups, crafts and games.

These activities may seem simple to outsiders, Bigger said, but they give the children an environment that is protected from drugs and crime. They also give the children a sense of meaning in their lives by showing them that the community cares about their welfare.

The program for junior and senior high school students, which meets on Tuesday afternoon, is called After-School Bible Study. In addition to reading the Scripture, listening to music and playing games, the teens are taught to serve the practical needs of other people and those of the community at-large.

Teens who rarely thought of assisting a stranger before they joined the group now help paint the homes of poor people; entertain and assist nursing home residents; make telephone calls and send get-well cards to hospital patients; collect food for low-income families; and clean city streets.

Corn-pone stuff, for sure, but Bigger teaches her charges that each act of kindness is a miracle: “I want the children to understand that Jesus performed miracles that impacted people’s lives. I want our youngsters also to do things for others that make a difference. I encourage them to do little things.

“Just as Jesus had great compassion for all types of people _ spending time with the troubled, the outcast and the everyday-work person _ I want our children and teens to experience many different people, to connect with them.”

Bigger is hardly naive about her mission. She is concerned that while many reported crime problems occur in the town’s African-American community, only one black, a 14-year-old girl, now participates in any local after-school program.

And the minister agrees with Police Chief Jay Jordan, who pleaded with all Chase City residents to get involved in helping all young people. “It’s your town,” Jordan, who is black, told members of the local Neighborhood Watch Program. “Drugs and crime are not race issues. We have to unite as one to fight these problems.”

Again, Bigger believes that the church must lead the way in this fight, too. Just as she is working with all children and teens, she wishes to share her insights with other adults interested in children and teen issues.

“Hopefully, I, along with other grown-ups, can help kids make sound decisions about what they are about,” she said. “I want to help them before they get into life-threatening situations. I want them to have consciously chosen what not to do with their lives, to have higher aspirations. I want all youth to know that wrong choices have consequences.”

On a recent March afternoon, only six teens showed up for Bible study. “I’d like to see kids busting out at the seams,” Bigger said. “But it’s not the numbers of children we reach. It’s in the quality of the caring.

“My role is to have a positive impact on kids _ the ones who will do all kinds of good things in the world. In a rural community, the church can still play such a role.”