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Bethel Baptist Church

BY NADINE WILSON Sunday Observer staff reporter wilsonn@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 20, 2009    

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IT is no easy feat climbing the stairs to the top floor of the three-storey building located at 6 Hope Road in Kingston. But those who make the trek daily understand that to get to the top of those stairs - as it is with achieving anything worthwhile in life - requires hard work and tenacity.

The building is nameless to mask its real purpose, but overtime those who visit it daily have dubbed it: 'Bethel Adult Education Centre'. Built in 1972 by Bethel Baptist Church, the centre is one of the first Christian education facilities established in Jamaica and, in fact, preceded the establishment of the Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning (JFLL), formerly JAMAL.

Reverend Dr Burchell Taylor, pastor for Bethel Baptist Church that also operates a skills training centre as well as a health clinic on their compound, said the aim of the institution is to help shape the lives of people in a positive way.

"We recognise that literacy has always been an issue in the society and affording people the opportunity to read and to comprehend is a form of liberating life," he said. "It's one of the ways to release people to reach their full potential."

Secretary for the church, Karl James, said Bethel Baptist operates both a day school for secondary school-aged children and an evening programme for adults who are unable to read and write. The day programme is staffed by the JFLL, while the evening programme is operated solely by the church, which relies on it's members to volunteer to teach for two hours in the evenings. More than 30 people volunteer themselves annually.

The day programme is held each weekday for about seven hours each day. The evening programme is only offered from Mondays to Thursdays. The programmes accommodate a total of 160 students each year, although much more than that turn up at the school every year to reserve their place.

"It's like a school with different classes and different teachers teaching different subjects and different stages based on where the students have reached in their learning," said James of the school's day programme that requires students to wear uniform.

The school has earned a good reputation for itself over the years as a place to see results, so much so that: "As fast as we let out some, we are taking back in, but we are limited in the number of persons that we can take in because of space," James said.

Director for public relations and marketing at the JFLL, Gerry McDaniel, hails the centre as an "an icon within the system".

"We have a great level of respect for what they do there," he said.

Bethel Baptist Church is just one of about 25 churches on the island that have volunteered themselves to assist the JFLL to carry out its adult literacy programmes.

"It's definitely one of our long-standing centres and it's a perfect example of how churches can impact adult education. It is almost fully subscribed because people want to go there and they tend to do well - and they subsidise the cost significantly," McDaniel noted.

By offering their facilities, Bethel Baptist Church has helped to save the JFLL much in overhead cost. They have also saved their students a lot of money.

"In our regular adult education for our foundation courses and computer courses and so, bearing in mind our overhead and the likes, they would pay $5,000 or so per year. But in a centre like Bethel, many of the learners end up paying maybe like $2,000 because they pay primarily for the books and so," McDaniel said.

He added that the church has been very self-sufficient which means that the JFLL only has to send in field officers to monitor the progress of the students.

Meanwhile, James said the fact that the church and the JFLL had to develop adult literacy classes "only tells you that your school system is failing".

He recounts a recent case where a girl, 16, in school uniform came to him asking for directions to the centre. When he asked her why she wanted to know, she told him that she had come to reserve her space for when she leaves school.

"Some of them come from high school and different places. Because of where we are located - we are very central - people come from across Portmore, Stony Hill and all over the place," James said. "Nobody knows what they are coming for when they come here; some of them you don't know themselves. They just know the school and they come and register and are faithful; they come every day."

The church's evening programme focus on those people 18 years and older. They are taught, among other things, numeracy and literacy skills and are also given the opportunity to worship during the daily devotions that the church hosts for them at the beginning of each class.

"So for the taxi drivers who can't spell "cat" and "rat" and "dog", they will come in. They just move in and they seem as self-assured as anything when you see them about the place or coming in with their bags on their shoulder. They go up with their books and things; nobody troubles them," he said.

Although the majority of those who come do not attend the church, James said they have no problem with discipline. He believes this is because most of those who attend are serious about learning.

"These people are serious about learning to read and write because they want to manage their own business. Some of them want to read the Bible, some of them want to manage their own affairs, they want to read their own letter, write their own letter and count their own money," he said.

James added that there is mutual respect between the students and the church members who continue to contribute their time and resources to seeing the students succeed.

Still, James maintains that it would be nice if programmes such as the one they operate and institutions such as the JFLL did not have to exist.

Front Pew with Reverend Michael Shim-Hue

Name: Reverend Michael Shim-Hue

Church: Bethel Baptist Church

Location: 6 Hope Road, Kingston 10

Membership: About 2,000

Number of years as pastor: 13 years

Marital status: Married to Sharon

(no children)

Four things people would be surprised to know about me:

1. I have never tried to have a child although I am married.

"I love children a lot and I love all my nieces and nephews, and God's children. But because I am a pastor and because my wife and I - from we were courting - led hectic lives, we decided not to have a child. I think that because pastors have to care for so many people, I don't think they should have children of their own and as a result of which, my wife and I have never ever tried to have a child. I am a trained pharmacist and in my 15 years of practising (in the field) and before I got married, I thought of it (having a child). But when I answered the call of God on my life, some things had to go through the window."

2. I am demophobic.

"Standing before a group of people drives so much fear in me. I have that phobia (demophobia). Those who sit before me at Bethel would see me always patting because my nervousness causes me to sweat like crazy, so I am afraid of crowds. I credit myself for having a high sense of responsibility, so I do what I have to do, but I am nervous - nervous in groups and before crowds."

3. I love to plant trees.

My hobby is planting trees, so once I don't have a wedding or a funeral, I am on the hillside of Mount Airy planting mahogany trees and cedar trees. It gets me all bruised and cut up and so forth and tired for Sunday, but I love nothing more than to be on the hillside planting trees. I plant trees because it represents life, and it is the same thing I do as a pastor shaping lives.

4. I don't like to preach.

"I don't like preaching. I prefer to stay in my office and read and write. I absolutely do not like to preach. Maybe it is because I can't preach. I hate to preach; it is as strongly as that. But since I said yes to the Lord, I just do what I have to do. I didn't want to become a pastor, so I went and became a pharmacist and then during my honeymoon the Lord called me and say 'You have to stop running'."

SHIM-HUE... I absolutely do not like to preach

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