Herbie Miller is the pastor of Corinth Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Dayton, OH. He has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton’s Department of Religious Studies. His academic work centers on historical theology and American Christianity. He has published in U.S. Catholic Historian and is an adjunct lecturer for Emmanuel Christian Seminary.
In my last post, I described how the history of Corinth Presbyterian Church in east Dayton reflected the general decline of mainline American Protestantism. I also discussed how this church is finding hope and direction amidst this decline by redoubling our commitment to our neighborhood. Doing this has led to developing unexpected friendships with its new neighbors, refugees from Burundi, the Congo, and Tanzania.
In early 2017, a member of Corinth — a Rwandan who happens to be one of the main translators for Swahili speakers in the Dayton area – was approached by the local Shoes 4 The Shoeless to identify east African refugee families who might be in need new shoes. When he asked our leadership if we would open our cavernous multipurpose room for a shoe giveaway, we were delighted to say yes!
On the day of the event, over 200 refugees received new shoes. At the shoe giveaway, plans were made for Corinth to host a joint prayer service which would be co-led by myself and one of the ministers from the refugee community. Attended by members of Corinth and a few refugee families, this service was a special time of connection and bonding. Wanting to deepen our friendship with our neighbors, Corinth then welcomed them to our “Family Game Nights,” where we play games, enjoy snacks, and have a pretty epic dance party at the end (using our 70s era disco ball and all!) Then we had Vacation Bible School together. And not long after that, our church kitchen was the site of cooking and nutrition lessons administered by the Ohio State Extension Office of Montgomery County.
Soon an opportunity presented itself that would give us a chance to use our space for the long-term benefit of our new friends, thanks to Robin, a local advocate in behalf of refugees who has made a special effort to connect them with local churches. Robin approached Corinth Presbyterian to ask if we would let her administer a tutoring program for these families in our church building. Recognizing that tutoring and English language instruction are crucial elements in helping these families succeed in American society, we gave the tutoring program a green light.
Currently, the church hosts two nights of tutoring per week, each session lasting from 6:30 to 8pm. Approximately 25 children from elementary school age up through high school are coming to get help with their homework and practice English, while five adults are receiving ESL instruction. The volunteers who tutor are a mix: there are Corinth members; interested individuals (and sometimes their children) from the Dayton area who want to serve the immigrant population; and, local high school and college students. The desire to volunteer has been so great that on nights when volunteer turnout is low we “only” have a student to tutor ratio of 2:1!
As a minister, what inspires me most are the stories of changed lives. Just the other night, Robin exclaimed in writing: “It’s so easy to take education and literacy for granted! Tonight, a young mother of two children read a book for the first time! She asked if she could take it home and read it to her 2 year old! Her excitement is contagious!” All of those exclamation points are not just grammatical excess; there is real, ongoing excitement about changed lives.
Our new neighbors’ excitement is breathing new life into our church. Their grit and faith are inspiring us give sacrificially of our time and finances. And, in a way, they’re welcoming us back into our own neighborhood. They’re reminding us of the importance of knowing our neighbors; responding to their actual needs; and being flexible enough to go where God is leading.