PINE BLUFF, Ark. — In his two short years shepherding the members of New St. Hurricane Baptist Church, a church that predates the Emancipation Proclamation, Pastor Derick Easter has made a significant impact not only in his church community, but throughout the city of Pine Bluff.
While many churches rest in the comfort zone of caring for their own congregations, Easter is working to turn his congregation outward into the greater community. After moving from Little Rock and taking over as pastor in March 2014, Easter immediately zeroed in on a number of needs in the area.
“When I came to pastor this church in Pine Bluff, you could assess that it was a community with a lot of needs, but you could also see that there were great and kind-hearted people in Pine Bluff,” Easter said. “I immediately came to the conclusion that I could have a much broader reach and affect much greater change if I could cultivate a spirit of volunteerism and community service (in the church).”
Valerie Penix, a long-time member of New St. Hurricane, noticed a difference in her church right away.
“He saw a need for us to go beyond the walls (of our church), seeing things that others were not doing,” she said. “We just jumped on the band wagon with him and went into the community and started to see what we could do to help others.”
Penix recently nominated Easter for a Community Service Award, and the pastor was chosen as an honoree by the State of Arkansas.
Various ministries in New St. Hurricane have teamed up with some of Pine Bluff’s non-profits, providing volunteers for places like Diane’s Adult Day Care, the Children’s Advocacy Center, CASA, Access Center for Teen Moms, Margie’s House for Boys, Chapel Pines Long-Term Care Facility, and others. Each of them serves a vulnerable population in Pine Bluff.
“The Bible expresses that as we receive gifts we ought to use those gifts in service to one another,” Easter said. “We have an obligation to reach beyond ourselves and give back.”
The organizations that members now serve with, in addition to community events hosted by the church such as food drives, backpack drives, and community fairs, are opportunities for church members to serve the “least” in the community.
A large-scale initiative started by Easter and New St. Hurricane is Pine Bluff Reads, an educational initiative that teams up volunteer reading mentors with children at 34th Street Elementary School. Each volunteer comes twice a week for a total of one hour, not only covering individualized literacy materials, but building trusting relationships and empowering the students by giving them confidence.
“The number of children that are going to drop out of high school, the no of children that are going to end up in the prison system, the number that will be in poverty: these are outcomes that we can change by ensuring that they are reading on grade level by the third grade,” Easter said.
After only a few months in the Pine Bluff Reads program, 98 percent of the students participating have shown measurable gains, said Leondra Savage, literacy coordinator for 34th Street Elementary. One student even caught up an entire grade level.
“When (Derick Easter) came to us with the program at the beginning of the school year it was an immediate ‘okay,'” Savage said. “There was no question when he presented what his vision was for the school.”
That vision extends beyond 34th Street Elementary, which is just a few blocks away from New St. Hurricane. Easter sees a city-wide reading initiative, with various organizations jumping on board. The Rotary Club and UAPB Honors College have also signed on to offer volunteers for Pine Bluff Reads.
“When I read what those children have written about their experience and the impact that their mentors have had on them and how this time of one-on-one interaction has blessed their lives it is heartwarming,” Easter said.
The other thing that has touched Easter’s heart is seeing that members of New St. Hurricane are now organizing their own community outreach initiatives, such as heading out to laundromats with rolls of quarters, paying for stranger’s laundry services. The church is now looking for ways to encourage and track other random acts of kindness, and coming up with a system to log volunteer hours and experience. On Sunday mornings, certain church members are chosen to be “Hurricane Heroes,” and are publicly recognized for giving back to the community the prior week.
“The one prevailing question that I would hope we would always ask: ‘What can we do to be a blessing to someone else?'”