A.J. was clearly pleased with her outfit, a light crimson blouse embroidered with flowers, and a pair of sheen, white cotton slacks. She sat in a room with soft, pastel green walls and large windows letting in floods of natural light.
“Miss Cathy helped me pick this out,” said A.J., smiling and nodding toward the woman on the other side of the room.
A.J. is the newest participant in the Christian Women’s Job Corps, a national organization that builds women’s self-esteem and prepares them for life’s challenges.
Before an abusive man sent her life into a spiral, A.J. worked in the health care industry. A couple of months ago a friend told her about the Job Corps and since she signed up things have taken a turn for the better.
“I’m learning simple life skills,” she said, like how to communicate clearly and how to present herself in a professional manner. “What I get here is priceless,” she said. “They make me feel like what I say is important.”
“This is strength-based ministry,” said Sandra Nash, state coordinator for the CWJC in Mississippi. “Our government has done a great job of teaching people to be dependent. We want to help women become self-sufficient.”
Mississippi routinely ranks as the poorest state and women – especially single mothers – are the poorest of the poor. It’s for that reason, Nash said, that the mission of the CWJC is so important here. But the organization isn’t just for the poor. All women ages 18 and older are welcome.
The idea for the non-profit started in 1994 when Dellanna O’Brien, then director of the Women’s Missionary Union, an auxiliary of the Southern Baptist Convention, took a tour of Appalachia. She was so moved by seeing women and children in abject poverty that she decided to do something about it.
Unlike many similar organizations that sprang up after the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, the CWJC had a strong religious component. The corps’ mission was not only to teach women job-related skills, such as how to present themselves during an interview, but to encourage them in lives of prayer and spirituality.
The CWJC doesn’t take any federal money so there’s no conflict between church and state.
“We believe that the first step for a woman to succeed is for her to have a relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Cathy Davis, site coordinator for the Tupelo CWJC, the longest-running of the 12 sites statewide.
“We like to say that women should be self-sufficient yet dependent upon God.”
The first CWJC sites were in Chicago, San Antonio and South Carolina and the first site opened in Mississippi in 1997 in Pearl. Today there are nearly 15,000 volunteers serving at CWJC sites in 25 states, as well as one in South Africa.
“It’s definitely having an impact,” said Nash. “Through the grace of God we’re changing women’s lives.”
The CWJC offers classes on everything from computer skills to cooking. Some of its volunteers also visit women in the Lee County Jail but the core of the ministry is pairing women in personal, one-on-one relationships with mentors.
On a Tuesday afternoon Maria Cole, a native of Honduras, arrived for her weekly meeting with her friend and teacher, Sue Simmons.
As always, the women started with prayer and Bible study. For the past two years, Simmons, a retired teacher, has worked with Cole to help her learn English.
Cole came to the CWJC because she was having trouble navigating her new surroundings. After a lot of hard work she passed her U.S. citizenship test last year and now works at Calvary Baptist Church.
“I’m not afraid of saying the wrong thing. I have confidence,” said Cole with near perfect pronunciation. “This is one of the most important experiences in my life. Sue and I are more than friends. She is like my family, God’s family.”
Sandra Penro already had a job when she came to CWJC last year. She had a high school education and even a little college but she wanted to catch up on math and computer skills and to make a few new friends.
“It’s just like a safe haven,” said Penro, a member of Emmanuel Church of God in Christ. “It’s a place to fellowship with other women and to get your mind pumping. “I even learned how to knit.”
Davis said the strong bonds that form between women are a great context for evangelizing, and women are in a unique position to help their sisters with sensitive issues.
“When you get a group of women together, we’re bound to have something in common,” said Peggy Tubbs who’s been Penro’s mentor for a year. “Maybe we’ve been through something, like certain pressures, and we can relate to each other.”
Tubbs said it’s sometimes frustrating when women don’t hang with the program. There’s no fee and the only requirement is that women sign a covenant promising to participate in at least six months of mentoring and Bible study. Still, the good always outweighs the bad.
Tubbs and Penro have doubled their six-month commitment to work together yet they have no plans to stop.
“We just started another book, and now we’re working on Ephesians,” said Tubbs. “We encourage each other. Sandra is as much of a blessing to me as I ever have been to her.”
The Tupelo CWJC site started in 1997 on the grounds of Tupelo First Baptist Church. Since then it’s been in two other locations but now it’s coming back home. Davis, along with her small, part-time staff, 14 mentors and scores of volunteers have moved into the old Whitfield home next to First Baptist.
The comfortable setting offers them a chance to expand their services which will now include learning sign language. Classes of 8-10 weeks will start in September but in the meantime the ladies are holding an open house to show off their new digs and to raise awareness.
A.J. can hardly wait. She’s been working with Davis and other staff members on her interpersonal skills, as well as canvassing the neighborhood with fliers and telling anyone who’ll listen about the great thing she’s found.
“I didn’t know how to fix what was broken in my life,” she said, fighting back tears. She was recently baptized at her local church and she’s still riding a wave of joy.
Gathering up a stack of fliers, she said, “These women just want the best for me, and they have no ulterior motive.” She paused, then added, “It means so much that somebody depends on me to hand out fliers.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal