In the spring of 2010, Huntsville, Alabama’s local newspaper ran articles about the school board’s decision to close Lincoln Elementary School in the city’s Lincoln Mill neighborhood. Touted as a stellar example of what strong teachers, parent involvement, community support and volunteerism could accomplish in a place where poverty was the rule rather than the exception, news that the school would be closing was shocking to many.
This was a school where every child qualified for free or reduced lunches, a factor that should have laid the groundwork for poor academic performance. Yet the previous year, Lincoln’s fifth graders scored in the 79th percentile in math on standardized tests, considerably above the national average. Just weeks before its closing, Lincoln Elementary School received the Panasonic National School Change Award, one of several excellence awards the school had been honored with in recent years.
Part of the students’ success was attributed to the support of Lincoln Village Ministry, a collection of volunteers from various churches who had adopted the neighborhood several years earlier. In that final year alone, their volunteers provided fifty full-time tutors, ten women who served as volunteer room mothers and another twenty volunteers who stayed on call to provide chaperones for field day events, food for parent/teacher meetings, and whatever else teachers might have needed. It was clear their help had greatly contributed to the tremendous academic growth seen at Lincoln Elementary over the years.
Despite those successes, school board members were nearly unanimous in their decision. It was deemed too expensive to continue educating 154 students in the then 81-year-old building, so the school closed its doors. Students were reassigned to another school, but that did not dissuade Lincoln Village volunteers from the educational aspect of their ministry.
They simply moved right along with them.
The Lincoln Mill neighborhood, situated about a mile north of downtown Huntsville, rose up near the beginning of the 20th century when Madison Spinning Company established the foundation for what would later become Lincoln Mills of Alabama, one of four mills in the area. Each mill established its own residential community, and Lincoln Mill was no exception. Within walking distance, tenants could find anything they needed: schools, churches, shopping and even a theatre.
Lincoln Elementary School was built there in 1929. Workers lived in neat, shotgun style houses owned by the mill and rented for pennies a day. It was a happy, simpler time back then — no need for a car and everyone knew and helped everyone. Former residents said they all felt like family. It was a wonderful life, they said.
But in 1955, Lincoln Mill closed, and the community began its decline. Years passed. The nation’s economic decline did not spare the residents of Lincoln Mill and jobs disappeared. Life became harder and often more lonely. The need was great.
Then came Lincoln Village Ministry.
Once God Shows, We Must Do
It’s difficult to listen to Mark Stearn’s story. It is a heartbreaking account of utter brokenness followed by redemption that carried this soft-spoken man all the way to a place he never thought possible growing up.
As a fighting-tough teenager, Mark had no idea God would later use him and countless others to impact a community full of people who reminded him of himself. Because before he was ever born, before Mark and some of his teenaged friends set out to beat up a classmate he didn’t like, before God used that same classmate to lead Mark to Christ, God ordained a day when Mark Stearns would wander into a community he would ultimately be unable to leave behind — Lincoln Mill Village.
In 2002, Mark decided to take a walk through a neighborhood he had driven by many times before, an area just miles from historic mansions and the most expensive homes in the city. He wanted to walk the streets of Lincoln Mill Village, to meet people there — even if only to say hello.
He met a little girl who invited him to come inside the dilapidated house she occupied with her mother and visit for a little while. He agreed and soon found himself wishing for a moment that he hadn’t gone in and seen it. But he HAD seen, and he couldn’t make himself un-see it.
Inside the house things looked even worse than he imagined from the outside. The little girl and her mother were living in conditions that left him speechless, and there was no running water or electricity. Mark felt an indescribable hurt. Even after he went back home, his heart ached as he remembered the suffering and despair he saw in the Village.
Mark knew God had shown him this place for a reason, and he soon returned with his pastor, hoping the experience would make him angry too. They visited the home of the little girl and her mother, and it was a decision that proved to be hugely effective.
Mark’s pastor declared that this place was where the Kingdom of God needed to be, and Lincoln Village Ministry was born. Its workers began a mission to break the cycle of poverty they had witnessed and see God heal the brokenness of the community.
And Just Like That…
Word quickly spread, and other churches from the area came on board. Volunteers began by serving students and staff at Lincoln Elementary School financially and personally. Mark said it was a wonderful start, but God had really shown them something bigger. Those very children the Ministry volunteers were lovingly tutoring left at the end of every day and went to sleep in dilapidated homes much like the ones Mark and his pastor had visited. As one stricken volunteer once commented, “No one should have to live this way.”
To address those needs, Lincoln Village Preservation Corporation was formed. They purchased the historic neighborhood’s run-down homes with the aim to restore them to safe living conditions and provide safe, affordable housing to Village residents. Work began immediately, and volunteers from local churches provided the labor. An area hardware store donated many of the supplies.
Years later, the Lincoln Village neighborhood is a new place. A recent tour inside one nearly completed two-bedroom house revealed a home so beautiful it was hard to believe all the work was done by volunteers who wanted nothing more than to share their varied skills. What was once a run-down area has become a community of friends and neighbors supported by a committed group of volunteers whose members come from dozens of area churches, all determined to offer them a chance to dream. Where despair once lived, there is hope.
A once crumbling community now offers sports and fine arts programs, counseling, education, medical services, single mother support group meetings, Bible studies and a church. And they are making a difference. In one of the many informational videos posted on the Lincoln Village Ministry website, one young resident confessed, “I didn’t think I was worthy. I didn’t want to talk to God because why would He want to talk to me? I hated God. Anything bad that happened was because of God, and anything good that happened was because I made it happen.”
She began attending church services and Bible study in the neighborhood, and her views changed. “I learned God does love me … I am pretty cool.” And her smile said it all.
At Lincoln Village Ministry, there are no handouts. As homes are renovated, they are leased back to residents at an extremely affordable rate, but anyone who wants to rent one of the newly rehabilitated homes must hold a job. History had already demonstrated that to require anything less would simply allow this neighborhood to continue to be trapped in dependency. The goal is to offer hope and to provide opportunities that will direct them toward a new way.
There is still much work that needs to be done, and Lincoln Preservation Corporation has committed to continuing the effort at least through 2022. As the ministry grows, the staff and volunteers continue to experience the blessings that come from serving.
Back to the Beginning: School
Here is where this story comes full circle. Remember when the school board voted to close Lincoln Elementary? At the news, Lincoln Village Preservation Corporation organizers knew it was the perfect opportunity to continue their work through Lincoln Village Ministry. They could reclaim the very building they had spent eight years improving. They could continue impacting the children and families they had been pouring into for nearly ten years.
In early 2012, a private donor granted the funds to purchase the school building, and the dream to grow the church school they had begun the previous year — with eighteen students — was realized. Students of the new Lincoln Academy would come back to their old familiar building.
They celebrated on the grounds that April, and when participants stepped outside the building later in the day, they were astonished to see a beautiful double rainbow hovering over the school. There is a large poster of a picture someone took that day, and it shows the building glowing under the double arches. Lincoln Village staff members delight in showing the photograph to visitors as a visible reminder that their true desire is to serve these people and that the gift of a school building was God’s blessing.
At this writing, teachers are happily readying their rooms for the students who will attend during the coming school year. The classrooms are brightly decorated. There is a fully stocked library, which will be run by volunteer retired city school librarians, and a computer lab a few doors down. The hallway walls are decorated with oversized panoramic photographs of nature’s wonders, hung there to inspire students to dream of places outside their little neighborhood. Of note is the fact that the local printer who creates them donates the giant inspirational works of art.
And out back, between an impressive science lab designed and built by NASA engineers and the gym, lies a garden for horticultural studies.
The Most Powerful Room
Perhaps the most powerful room in the entire building is found behind a door that is always closed. Inside, soothing instrumental music plays and chairs are arranged to facilitate private or group use. This is where really big things happen. It is the prayer room, and Lincoln Village members agree it is answered prayer that fuels their work.
The story of Lincoln Village Ministry began as a lesson in obedience, and it continues its inspirational journey as a reminder to the rest of us that in God’s Kingdom, something very big and good will come from even the smallest idea.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).