GASTONIA — On a Monday afternoon Wavey Williams greeted children as they trooped past the “Mission Gaston at Highland Hills” banner and into an apartment.
Inside the kids sat down at work tables; most pulled homework assignment sheets from bags and started to work while some of the younger children practiced their crayon skills.
Wavey began helping the kids figure out questions and work problems. At one point he takes a boy’s small hand in his to show him how to shape the alphabet correctly.
Soon Valarie, Wavey’s wife, arrived and also started helping kids. Caroline Burgess, a volunteer and member of Lowell Church of God, does the same. Caroline’s husband, Jack, often helps as well. Last Christmas the Burgesses gave gifts and Bibles to many children in the complex.
Wavey is grateful for their help, but thousands of North Carolina Baptist churches also are behind him. He is getting financial backing through the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina as he is launching a new church here and ministers in this multi-unit housing area.
Wavey Williams is one of some 170 church-planting missionaries who North Carolina Baptists support through their Cooperative Program and North Carolina Missions Offering. These missionaries started 108 new churches in the state during 2008; that’s an average of a new church every three days.
Inside the classroom, the kids were well-behaved and polite; they worked with focused attention. After school lessons the kids moved into a Vacation Bible School sort of program; they sang songs and listened to Bible stories. This day they read a play adapted from the Old Testament story of Joseph and his many-colored coat.
It’s clearly an after-school class, and a good one, but that’s not what Wavey Williams saw. To him this program is a launching pad to help win these kids a better chance of having solid lives.
He started the work two years ago by showing the “Facing the Giants” movie outdoors and visiting people. The work has grown steadily.
As he works here week by week, he keeps Philippians 4:13 in mind: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” His own life is proof of the verse, he said.
“I was once just like these kids; my background was just like theirs. If I can make it, they can also,” he explained.
He says the odds are against his kids.
This apartment complex is better than most in the area and has recently been upgraded by the owners. Many good people live here. But overall the surrounding Highland Hills area on the west side of Gastonia is a battleground for gangs and drug dealers.
This is a place of fractured families, many of whom are unemployed or under-employed. Many here are transient; they will be here a few weeks or a few months before moving on.
Street-smart kids know about the gangs and the drugs. Wavey told of one 13-year-old boy whose father was a drug dealer before he was murdered in another state. This boy is one of many who look to Wavey as a kind father, the first one they have ever seen.
“These kids live in a very negative world and they face struggles of all kinds. We have them for a short time and then we turn them loose. We do the best we can and leave the rest to God,” Wavey said.
Mid-afternoon a girl perhaps 13 or 14 comes into the classroom. She is very pregnant. She says little but asks for a coloring book. She sits quietly, moving the crayons over the picture, hanging onto the last few minutes of childhood. It’s an old story here.
“The most basic thing we do is get kids to see Jesus in us and we just love them. We stay prayerful that God’s Word and the teaching we impart will stay with them the rest of their lives. We try to give these kids a sense of hope and love, the same things that God has give to us,” Wavey said.
Pamela Mungo checks in often to see how the ministry is going. She is a church planting consultant for the Baptist State Convention; her work involves coaching and encouraging church planters the convention supports. She also assures accountability. It is the close partnering that helps assure that 96 percent of all convention- supported church starts will survive to become self-supporting churches.
Mungo has been impressed both with the gentle but firm way Wavey and Valarie work with the kids, investing huge amounts of time in work many would pass by. She admires their persistence.
“Wavey and Valarie are an incredible couple. It has been my pleasure to serve with them and call them friends. They serve sacrificially in order to change lives,” she said.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s also the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Wavey said.
They have seen victories. Some of the kids who first came to the after-school program angry and cursing morphed into clean-talking, calm kids after a few months.
Wavey knows he may never see the lasting results of his work here, but once in a while there’s a payoff.
Recently a U.S. Army veteran, just back from Iraq, came by to see Wavey.
“You saved my life,” he told Wavey, who pushed and prodded him to get a high school diploma and do something good with his life. “I spent time with him years before and he turned out OK,” Wavey said with a smile. “You don’t know what the seeds you’re planting will develop into.”
Helping kids in the afternoon is almost like working a second shift for Wavey. He teaches physical education at two local elementary schools. A native of Philadelphia, Pa., he graduated from Winston-Salem State University in 1980 with a bachelor of science degree in health and physical education.
He taught school in Winston-Salem for five years and then worked in state government for nine years before returning to teaching in 2007. His wife, Valarie, is a school social worker. They have two children of their own, Tasha and Joshua.
But watching Wavey move from one child to the next, calling each by name, it’s clear that these multi-housing kids are “his” as well.