Librarian’s love for books becomes mission focus

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TYLER—This summer, mission plans at First Baptist Church in Tyler were guided by a Starr.

Sarah Starr, school librarian and former church librarian, led the church to become involved with Books for the Border, a literacy program in the Rio Grande Valley.

While attending the 2007 Baptist General Convention of Texas’ church librarians’ conference, Starr first became acquainted with Books for the Border, a collaboration of Literacy ConneXus, churches, and community groups who together make a significant impact on Texas children and families stuck in poverty because of unmet literacy needs.

Lisa Massar from First Baptist Church in Tyler introduces a mother and child to the joy of reading together during at Family Literacy Fiesta at Primera Iglesia Bautista. Volunteers from First Baptist Church in Tyler helped the Rio Grande City congregation sponsor the event.

A video showing the Books for the Border pilot project caught her attention, and she questioned Lester Meriwether, executive director of Literacy ConneXus, about the program.

“I had never heard of it, but I was amazed by the potential this ministry opportunity holds,” Starr said. “The idea of breaking the cycle of poverty through literacy makes perfect sense to me as a teacher, mother and librarian.

“I know that God uses books to change lives. If children learn to enjoy reading and have a positive experience with books, they usually go on to excel in school and are motivated to finish. I knew there were people in my church who would be happy to build some bookshelves, and I was confident we could easily collect children’s books and Bibles. It just seemed so simple—a need I could help meet. I couldn’t wait to get my church family involved in this.”

Forty-six people representing 10 families from First Baptist Church in Tyler followed Starr’s lead and traveled this summer to facilitate a Family Literacy Fiesta at Primera Iglesia Bautista in Rio Grande City, about 40 miles northwest of McAllen.

Starr’s husband, Michael, was moved by the way the children from First Baptist Church in Tyler became engaged in the mission work so willingly, with no reluctance.

“Our children, Elizabeth, 14, Emily, 11, and Matthew, 7, along with all of the other youth and children in our group, worked extremely hard to meet the needs of the people we came to serve,” he said.

“They had no reservations at all about offering friendship and kindness to each child with whom they came in contact, despite the language barrier and other cultural differences. Matthew and several other young boys and teenagers worked very hard to paint the house of a family in need in scorching heat over 100 degrees. Overall, the blessing I received from getting to see these young people serve Jesus Christ by helping others was much greater than anything I ever imagined.”

Moving last summer to Tyler from Missouri, Kerry and Paula Bickerstaff are fairly new members to First Baptist Church. No one in their family had ever participated in a mission trip, but the Bickerstaffs were eager to expose their 10-year-old daughter, Bailey, to a different culture. They are confident she discovered ways she can make a difference in someone’s life and affirm the blessing that the Rio Grande City families were to all of them.

Jeff Hunter, a pediatric ophthalmologist, and his wife, Kelley, traveled from Tyler with their four children, ages 17, 16, 12 and 10. Every year their family participates in a mission trip, but the Rio Grande City experience was especially significant to them. Although life in Starr County, the poorest county in Texas, does not begin to compare to poverty in Third World countries, Hunter wanted his children to see American poverty first-hand. He also wants his children not to fear different cultures and situations—to be risk-takers for Christ. 

In January 2008, an advance team from First Baptist in Tyler including Associate Pastor and Family Minister Scott Wylie and Sarah Starr arrived in Rio Grande City to plan a Books for the Border event. 

Once there, they believed God began to expand their vision for literacy ministry in the area. Primera Iglesia Bautista Pastor Osdy Luna told them of an orphanage in Camargo, Mexico, that desperately needed a library. As the team members visited with pastors and community representatives in the area, additional ideas for mission service surfaced—offering day camps at a local park and at First Baptist Church, San Isidro, and painting houses in a poor neighborhood.

“Books for the Border is not a cookie-cutter program,” Meriwether explained. “Its aim is to work with parents and families with literacy needs as is necessary and appropriate for each community, always working with the infrastructure that exists.”

Four components are: 

• Seeking input from local people for selection of books, participation in decorating bookshelves and other matters.

• Linking the family reading fair to local literacy efforts.

• Providing connections for follow-up and evaluation.

• Encouraging long-term commitment to the community by mission groups from outside the area. 

“Beyond these essentials, churches can create unique ways of incorporating these basics through the Holy Spirit’s leading,” Meriwether said.

Dale Sawyer of Tyler led the construction of the bookcases months before the trip.  After a donor provided lumber for the three-foot by four-foot bookcases, Sawyer and his friend Bob McCollum helped cut them out. A shop class at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler constructed the 63 bookcases, later given to 63 families. 

“An odd number, you would think,” Sawyer noted. “Originally, we were supposed to have 65 bookcases, but God knew just the amount we needed.”
Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley is the poorest county in Texas and one of the 20 poorest counties in the United States, as identified by Together for Hope, the rural poverty initiative of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. 

Many adults in the county cannot read or write in English but can read in Spanish. Parents at the Family Literacy Fiesta received information about English-as-a-Second- Language classes and adult basic reading offered in their area.

More than 300 people attended a two-hour Family Literacy Fiesta at Primera Iglesia Bautista’s fellowship hall, courtyard and even the street within one block of the church. The children participated in games, face-painting, and storytime. The fiesta began with a brief church service in Spanish.
Children and families from First Baptist in Tyler had primed and painted the bookcases in bright solid colors before the trip. Fiesta children added painted designs or stickers to personalize them. 

Each family was given one bookcase, and each child could pick out four books to take home as the start of a family library. While one group painted bookcases, others participated in games or enjoyed hot dogs and snow cones on the hot June afternoon. At a given signal, families moved to a new area for a different activity.

First Baptist Tyler’s downtown campus borders a large Hispanic neighborhood, so ministry to Hispanic families was familiar to this congregation. The church sponsors a Hispanic preschool, Ninos de Promesa, which is directed by Lisa Massar, wife of Pastor Michael Massar. She was part of the mission trip to Rio Grande City and read stories in English and Spanish to the families at the fiesta.

The Tyler church also offers ESL classes to adults and supports an Hispanic congregation which meets on church property. Starr is hoping that the members who were unable to come on the mission trip will participate in a future Books for the Border event in Tyler for the families of Ninos de Promesa.

Starr and members of her church already are thinking about where they might go next summer. With seven of the nation’s poorest counties in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, there is work for many churches to do, she noted. Books for the Border is a vital piece in reducing poverty and its root causes such as illiteracy in these counties along the Texas/Mexico border.

“This was a great experience for everyone involved. The relationships we built with each other and with Starr County Christians are eternal,” Starr concluded. “We did not end illiteracy or poverty with this one trip, but I know there’s a good chance we made a difference in a child’s life. And who knows how God will use that one.”

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