Two MB congregations partner to address literacy issues
Story by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest
Photos by Steve Wiest
The three boys had their sights set on the comic books, but Melissa Bergen gently channels them into the children’s book section at Bookhounds, a large used bookstore in Bakersfield, Calif. She reminds them of their mission: to find good books to take home for their families and friends who frequent the little free libraries located in their front yards.
Sixth graders Leo and Cesar along with Angel, Cesar’s fourth-grade brother, come up with books about volcanoes and unsolved mysteries and pick a few from a display of books in the series Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “And don’t forget your little sister,” Bergen reminds them.
Bergen is the boys’ pastor at Iglesia Compañerismo Cristiano in the town of Shafter, 20 miles northwest of Bakersfield. Joining them on this Saturday morning to help choose and purchase books are Mark and Suzanne Franz from their sister church, Shafter MB Church, along with four of their granddaughters.
As a retired kindergarten teacher, Susanne knows the importance of reading in a child’s education. She and Mark have adopted the little free library at Angel and Cesar’s house, working with their family to keep it stocked with books. She encourages the boys and their siblings in their studies.
The Bookhounds children’s book department buzzes with activity as everyone joins in to select books, some for themselves, but most to be shared with the children of Shafter through a network of 11 little free libraries the two churches have established around town. Most of the libraries are located in areas of concentrated poverty in Shafter, including the neighborhood around Iglesia Compañerismo Cristiano.
Each “library” sits atop a wooden fence post like a giant birdhouse. About two feet tall and two feet wide, the library features a pitched roof for protection from the elements and an ample window in the hinged door to reveal an enticing selection of books available to anyone interested.
A few of the libraries in Shafter are registered with the international Little Free Library organization (littlefreelibrary.org). Registered or not, all of them operate on the organization’s motto “Take a book, return a book,” and are entirely on the honor system.
Frankly, Bergen says she is glad when the books disappear into neighborhood homes and don’t return to the boxes. She points to research that has shown that the households in impoverished communities have about one book for every five people. The little free libraries are “blowing those statistics out of the water,” she says with satisfaction.
After a quick stop for burgers and fries, Bergen and her boys head back to Shafter to meet up with David Franz at Shafter City Hall. David, also from Shafter MB Church, is director of the Shafter Education Partnership. He rolls up the warehouse door to reveal dozens of boxes of brand new books purchased by the city at discounted rates from First Book, a non-profit organization whose mission is to give children in need access to new books.
Many of the books in this City of Shafter program go to the local school libraries and classrooms, David explains, “but I usually let Melissa have first choice.” He knows that books in the little free libraries are headed directly for the targeted communities where the need is greatest.
While Franz looks on, making sure they pick out a varied selection, the boys pull stacks books of from various boxes, ferrying armload after armload into the back of Bergen’s Toyota Rav4—a car she selected specially for its convenient rear compartment and swinging back door. It’s perfect for kids to load and unload books, she points out. When the boys’ work is done there are more than 200 books in the car—from hardback novels and political memoires to paint-by-number books complete with watercolor palettes.
The first little library stop is the street where Leo, Angel and Cesar live. The dilapidated fences, patchy lawns and pothole-ridden roads in the rural cluster of homes identify it as a pocket of poverty in Shafter. Excited children pour out to welcome the boys and their treasure in the back of “Ms. Melissa’s” Toyota.
The boys’ favorite picks from the bookstore go into the house for reading later, although Angel just can’t seem to put down that new Diary of a Wimpy Kid #3.
Angel and Cesar’s three-year-old sister, Genesis, is thrilled with the Disney princess book they found for her. Paging through, she proudly demonstrates how she can say the colors of their dresses in English. The family speaks Spanish at home, but big brothers are making sure Genesis is learning her ABC’s and colors in English, too, so she’ll be ready for kindergarten in a couple of years.
The boys fill their little libraries to capacity. Angel and Cesar’s is crammed full as fast as they can shove them in. Next door, Leo is more meticulous, lining them up like books on a regular library shelf with the extras turned horizontally to fit more in at the top. After chatting for a while with neighborhood children and their parents, Bergen calls the boys back to her car to begin their rounds, scores of books still piled high in the back.
“I’m an educational advocate, advocating for children’s enrichment and opportunities,” Bergen says. But she recognizes that her visits to Shafter’s neighborhoods do more than promote literacy. Each time she goes out she prays over the route and looks for other opportunities to minister. “It’s a way to build relationships and connect my church with Shafter,” she says.
The first few stops are uneventful, filling the little libraries in front of Bergen’s apartment and the Shafter Learning Center, but the sight of the blue Toyota brings a half a dozen neighborhood children out on the street at the next stop. Pulling to the curb, Bergen has the boys set the boxes of books on the pavement so everyone can see what’s available.
“Can we have as many as we want?” one boy asks incredulously. Yes, Bergen assures him, you can.
Pre-teen girls giggle and tease as they dig through the boxes. Bergen makes sure they find the chapter books at their reading level and points out the sticker books that little sister or brother would love. Meanwhile the boys empty the little free library across the street of books that have not circulated, refilling it with the fresh stock of brand new paperbacks, hardbacks and activity books for the pre-readers.
Bergen knows all the neighborhood children—some from church and others from previous visits or her work as a substitute teacher and volunteer in the schools. “They know I’m the church lady,” she says and points out one fourth-grade girl who had recently asked if she had any “Jesus books.”
The books in her car that day were from the city’s warehouse and didn’t include any Christian titles, but Melissa knew right where to go to find the books the girl was looking for. She talked to a woman from Shafter MB Church who was interested in helping and before long she had a whole pile of good Christian titles from the thrift store where the woman’s daughter worked.
Moving on, the library stocking team heads for the little library in front of Iglesia Compañerismo Cristiano, where Bergen co-pastors with Pastor Roy Ramirez. Melissa removes the handful of books that hadn’t circulated and the boys filled this one too, a gift from the church that the rural neighborhood seems to appreciate. “This one gets the most traffic,” Bergen explains. “We fill it up and two days later they’re gone.”
Most of the little free libraries in the network are at the homes of members of Iglesia Compañerismo Cristiano. Bergen says the ministry is well-suited to the giving spirit in this small congregation, mainly farm-working families. The little libraries give parents an opportunity to share with their neighbors and pass the spirit of sharing on to their children.
The network of little libraries is part of a partnership between Iglesia Compañerismo Cristiano and Shafter MB Church where Bergen is part-time director of local missions. Each library was built by a Shafter MB Church member. Many families donate books and some, like the Franzes, actually sponsor a specific little library.
At the final stop, in a neighborhood called “La Colonia,” Bergen pauses to recall an incident that illustrates the churches’ larger mission for their partnership. She had spent 20 minutes chatting with neighborhood boys while stocking the library, explaining that the books were from a church in town that wanted them to have them.
As she packed up the car to leave a cluster of boys were talking behind her, and she heard one of them say, “So what about Jesus? Is he real?” She turned around to see the boys all looking at her, waiting for the answer.
The glass door of the little free library had opened to more than just books. The little free library doors have become portals to sharing God’s love for Bergen and Shafter’s two Mennonite Brethren churches who care about their community.