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Taking Kids By the Hand

‘Be present’—Sarah James discovers the key to urban ministry

by Linda Piepenbrink

In early 1999 a parent came into the sixth-grade classroom where Sarah James MA ’01 was in her first year of teaching. The mom was crying because her son was stealing cars. “I don’t know how to help him anymore,” she told Sarah.

Working in a public school in Indianapolis, Sarah wasn’t sure how to react. She knew the teenager needed Jesus, but she was limited in what she could say.

Incidents like this gnawed at Sarah. “I realized I wanted to work with students in a holistic approach—in mind, body, and soul—not just in academics,” Sarah decided. “Most importantly, I wanted to share the love of Christ with them because I know Christ really changes lives.” She didn’t feel equipped for the task, however. I need to go to Bible school, she thought.

Sarah drove to Chicago to visit a friend who was attending Moody Bible Institute. They attended Founder’s Week and stopped by a professor’s home.

Before returning to Indianapolis, Sarah decided to take a prayer walk west of Moody to the Cabrini Green housing development, which reminded her of the low-income housing in Indianapolis where she ran sports camps for youth.

“I just wanted to see it with my own eyes,” she says.

Stopping at the corner of Hill and Orleans Streets, she noticed a dilapidated elementary school on her left and basketball courts to her right. What would it be like to be a teacher in that school or to play basketball with kids on those courts and share the gospel? she wondered. Then looming in front of her were the Cabrini Green high-rises.

“I could see there were thousands of kids there that needed Jesus,” she recalls.

On that corner, Sarah felt compelled to pray—with three requests. First, she wanted to do what God wanted her to do wherever He sent her. Second, she prayed, “God, give me the toughest assignment. Give me the kids that nobody wants to work with.” Third, she asked God to provide financially and confirm her desire to attend Moody.

•   •   •

A couple of weeks later, she was attending her home church in Kentucky when a lawyer approached her. “Sarah, your mom said you’re thinking about going to Moody.”

Sarah shrugged. “I’m not sure they would even accept me,” she said. “I know nothing about theology. I have no idea how to get there.”

Undeterred, he told Sarah that an elderly believer in their church passed away a few months earlier but had set up a trust fund to be used by someone preparing for ministry. “I think this is for you. You’re the perfect person,” he said.

“Go to Moody,” the lawyer continued. “I’ve got money for two years—and send me the bills.”

With that confirmation, Sarah was accepted into Moody’s Master of Arts in Urban Ministry program. She showed up on the Chicago campus in the fall of 1999.

In her first week of graduate school, Sarah sat in the front row as Dr. John Fuder taught “Practice of Ministry,” a class that mobilized the students to do outreach ministry together and serve the needs of the city. He recalls, “During a break, Sarah bounced up, looked at me, and said, ‘Doc, I want to go to the worst neighborhood in Chicago!’”

Doc Fuder laughs at the memory. “That was my first impression, and I just liked her from the start—her heart for the city, her heart for youth, and her heart for really some of the hardest places in Chicago.”

Ironically, the worst neighborhood at the time was Cabrini Green, just blocks away from Moody Bible Institute, where Sarah had prayed earlier that year. Little did she know that God had plans for her there.

A heart for God and the city

Sarah was amazed by the teaching at Moody. “The professors put theology in layman’s terms,” she says. In Dr. Bill Thrasher’s class, “Biblical Spiritual Formation,” she loved learning about God’s attributes. “If you didn’t walk out of his class with a deeper relationship with the Lord, you were asleep,” she says.

Sarah built close relationships with the professors and their families. “Doc Fuder invited us to his house for hymn sings. We’d have 50 of us at his house, sitting on the floor singing hymns.”

The graduate program also gave her experience in urban ministry—leading Bible studies in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, taking a mission trip to Asia, doing street evangelism on the West Side, and serving at Pacific Garden Mission’s homeless shelter.

Sarah knew God was calling her to the city. “He had taught me not to worry, just to go out there and do ministry, and God will take care of everything,” she says.

After graduating in 2001, she started working for the Chicago Park District in Seward Park, playing basketball with kids and telling them about Jesus—at the very place where she’d prayed two years earlier.

That’s also where she met Donnita Travis, who walked up one day and told her about the Christ-centered after-school program she’d started with The Moody Church. “I work with kids in mind, body, and soul,” Donnita said. “I’m starting a fourth team—another group of 22 students. Will you come on staff with me?”

Sarah’s yes began a friendship with Donnita and a journey with By The Hand Club For Kids that continues more than 20 years later.

A fun-loving, fight-stopping friend

More than 7,000 kids have been a part of By The Hand since the program launched in 2001, with 1,700 currently enrolled—and Sarah has touched a lot of those lives.

One of the first kids Sarah enrolled was Tasha Childress, a sixth grader who was referred by her school principal to By The Hand because she was performing below grade level.

Even though Tasha felt loved and welcomed at By The Hand, she liked to fight and curse and told herself the club wasn’t for her. But each day after school, Ms. Sarah would show up to transport Tasha to By The Hand.

“She would be in trouble at school, and I’d show up at the principal’s office,” Sarah recalls. “And Tasha would say, ‘What are you doing here?’” At other times, Sarah would run into her at the grocery store or drop by her grandma’s house.

“It was just me being present, just me being in the community, serving the Lord,” Sarah explains.

“You’ve got to build relationships. And the only way to do that is to be present in their life, whether they like it or not. Tasha didn’t like it for a while. But because of that faithfulness and consistency, she finally was like, ‘Okay, Ms. Sarah is legit. She’s here. She’s not going anywhere, so I can start trusting her.’”

Today Tasha has a degree in criminal justice from Indiana State University and is working at the State’s Attorney’s office in New Orleans, helping people who have been victims of crime.

“When I think of Sarah I love all of the memories we have built together over the years,” Tasha says. “One of my favorite things to do is catch up with her on life and what’s happening in the world. We do FaceTime calls together and love laughing at the old days like it was yesterday. Having Sarah in my life has been a true blessing even 20 plus years later.”

Going the extra mile

One way Sarah gets to know the students is by playing basketball and other sports with them. “I love sports, so it’s a great way that we can connect,” says Sarah, who had a full-ride college scholarship for basketball at the University of Indianapolis.

Whether tossing a football around or taking a pie in the face for good attendance, Sarah loves to have fun with the kids. She drives an orange truck to match By The Hand’s logo and keeps a stuffed, red Clifford dog in the back seat, in honor of the Big Red Team she used to direct.

Sarah’s devotion to students means she goes the extra mile to build relationships with them and their families—dropping off groceries at a needy family’s door (“because I love you and Jesus loves you”) or awarding a student with a little money for getting good grades. On Fridays, she picks up a high school student named Dequauna and takes her to school with a beverage from Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks, “just so we can stay connected,” Sarah says.

She recalls many times through the years when she and colleague Bethany Arvin '02, By The Hand's director of College and Career, would drive around the neighborhood to see their students, eat Icee cups sold in the neighborhood, push swings at the playground, and keep kids from fighting.

Sarah gives a welcome hug to a student at By The HandSarah gives a welcome hug to a student at By The Hand.

Filling the void with the gospel

Sarah sees how a student's day is goingSarah sees how a student's day is going.

When Sarah first started working at Cabrini Green, kids went to church. “Your grandma or somebody made you go to church,” Sarah says. “Now some of our kids don't know who God is. They don’t know who Jesus is. I want to make sure all of our students hear the gospel and find a church.”

To fill this void, kids at By The Hand learn the gospel and how to share it through Hope for Kids, a curriculum Sarah chose to increase Bible literacy. She gets Bibles from donors as well as from Bible League International to give to the students. She has taught them theology, such as God’s attributes of omnipotence and omniscience. More recently Sarah has become part of a writing and advisory team partnering with Bible League International to create curriculum that reflects urban culture.

She also takes every opportunity to share biblical principles and pray with students. When a student told Sarah he was being bullied and planned to punch the classmate the next day at school, Sarah was able to defuse the situation with a biblical conversation. “Let’s talk about this. What does Christ want us to do? How can we handle this?”

Meeting needs, sharing Christ

Because students who come to By The Hand Club often lack resources to live an abundant life, Sarah works hard to improve the quality and availability of services.

“If a child comes up to me and says, ‘Ms. Sarah, my tooth hurts,’ or ‘my glasses broke,’ we can take care of that, or ‘Ms. Sarah, my mom lost her job,’ we can help Mom today,” she says.

When she found out kids were getting their teeth cleaned through a state program but still had cavities unfilled, she prayed with other staff members and found a dentist with a mobile dental clinic. “He comes to all the sites and does everything. He’s amazing,” Sarah says. She also expedites eye exams for the students and works with local organizations to get glasses made quickly for those who need them.

Ultimately, “the reason why we do all of that is to share the love of Jesus with our students and our families,” says Sarah, now vice president of programming operations over all six By The Hand locations in Chicago.

The holistic approach is making a remarkable impact on By The Hand students. The organization reports that 91% of students passed their classes last quarter, the graduation rate for seniors is 100%, and 67% of graduates started higher education. More importantly, 74% of By The Hand students say they have a personal and saving relationship with Jesus Christ. And if they’ve been in the program for five years or more, 96% say they have a personal relationship with Christ.

“In the last couple of weeks, we had 29 kids come to know Christ,” she says, “so that’s why we’re here.”

Sarah still sees her education at Moody impacting her work today more than two decades since she graduated.

“What Moody taught me both through my scriptural studies and the example of my professors is to be present and engaged in my ministry. When I started at By The Hand, we didn’t use Uber apps or rely on emails. We gave students a ride ourselves and used that time to build a deeper relationship with them. We went to the schools to visit with our students’ teachers. God often gave me divine appointments to run into a teacher needing school supplies or a principal who’d unexpectedly pull me aside and ask for prayer.

“Being present means being accessible even if in that moment I may not have all the answers. I can share about Christ, be a listening ear, give encouragement, or find needed resources. My role is to create good soil so God can plant and water His seeds that are sown.

“It’s showing up in people’s lives whether I’m sitting in a classroom, attending graduations, supporting our families at a funeral, using my truck to move a couch, or pulling out my firepit to roast marshmallows at one of our sites.

“Christ humbled himself to be present in my life,” Sarah says, referring to Philippians 2:5–8. “It only makes sense for me to follow His lead to be present in the lives of others. Then I get a front row seat to watch God’s goodness at work, transforming lives one student at a time.”


Read more about Sarah's relationship with two students in ‘Family Matters’


About the Author

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni & Friends magazine and is a senior editor for Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute.