By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
MEMPHIS — Tim Cox initially thought his connection to Brinkley Heights Baptist Church was simply going to be delivering a one-and-done sermon.
Nearly three decades later, he’s still at the church.
Cox’s ministry in Memphis, in fact, has become his life’s work. It also has become his missions field — and his battlefield.
Buoyed by the tireless support of prayer-warrior church members, Cox has helped Brinkley Heights Baptist make an impact in numerous ways, including the creation and development of the Brinkley Heights Urban Academy — a school that helps meet the educational, emotional, and spiritual needs of the inner-city’s highest at-risk children.
The school recently celebrated its first-ever graduating class, with two students — Megan Evans and Chassatea Stone-Bailey — receiving their diplomas. Stone-Bailey started attending BHUA in the second grade while Evans began attending as an eighth grader.
The graduation ceremony represented the culmination of years of hard work by the two students — and by Cox, the church, and everyone involved with the Academy. The ceremony was also a powerful reminder of how prayer changes lives.
“It was really indescribable,” said Cox. “It was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. The Lord was so real in that moment. Just knowing the struggles that we’ve been through, that the students have been through, (made the occasion) very heart-satisfying.”
The Academy is just one facet of Brinkley Heights Ministries, which also includes a Street Reach program, Backyard Bible Clubs, a community center, and a food pantry. The development of those programs has been a long — and often testing — journey for Cox. But it’s a work that he has been called to do, and with which he has felt blessed to be involved.
“It’s funny. I first came (to Brinkley Heights) thinking I was going to preach just one service on a Sunday morning,” Cox said. “And based on what I saw that day — with the roof essentially falling down — there didn’t seem to be much hope for the church.”
Cox said the congregation numbered about 20 people when he first came to Brinkley Heights, and it remains a small gathering even now, with roughly 40 attenders on any given Sunday.
But with love for their community driving their passion, Cox and his congregation have helped “the little church with a big heart” become a beacon in the midst of a dark environment.
Tragedy into triumph
The inspiration behind the development of the Academy came about from the most tragic of circumstances.
In the summer of 2002, Brinkley Heights Baptist was hosting its annual Street Reach program when reports of a shooting rumbled through town. Several children were injured in the fray, and one child — 3-year-old Jessica Borner — was killed.
Jessica had been attending Brinkley Heights Baptist, and Cox’s wife, Karen, was her Sunday School teacher.
To say that Cox and the church as a whole were shaken would be an understatement.
“The shootings changed everything,” said Cox. “At that time, we were already doing some things in the community, but the shootings are when we realized that we were literally in a war for the lives and souls of these children.”
Looking for ways to combat such evil, the church began making plans to open Brinkley Heights Urban Academy. Two years later, in 2004, the school opened, hosting 13 children, ages 4 and 5.
Through persistence and prayer, the school has survived financial challenges and has gradually increased in size, adding another grade each year since its opening. The school is now kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We are a missionary school,” said Cox. “Yes, we serve in the local area, but we are missionaries.”
Cox and other school officials have the difficult task of selecting which students will be accepted to attend, and they diligently attempt to select those who need the program the most and who are most at-risk.
The school, which currently has a long waiting list, is largely supported through donations. The church also promotes an “Adopt-a-student” program for the Academy. Members of the program affirm their selected students with letters of encouragement, along with other means of support.
“We realized early on that these kids don’t need money,” said Cox. “What they need is prayer, support, and love.”
The turning point
During his first years at the church, the congregation of young Christians would meet for worship at the traditional times on Sundays and would have prayer meetings on Wednesday.
But Cox remembers one winter night when the culture of the church truly changed; the night when things got real.
“We were having prayer service on a really cold night — with no heat in the church — when a lady got up and shared a story of heartbreak regarding a little girl in the neighborhood,” Cox recalled. “And I said, with my patented answer, ‘Well, we will pray for her.’ ”
The lady who had shared the story, however, wasn’t satisfied with that response. “She looked right at me and said, ‘Pastor, we’re through praying.’ ”
She went on to say that she believed it was time for the church to take action. And she wasn’t alone. Numerous members of the congregation, some of whom were fighting poverty themselves, felt called to make a positive change in the community by establishing support ministries.
At the time, Cox wasn’t so sure it could work. “I told the congregation that it takes too much money for us to help the people in the community in the way that they were wanting to help them. But I will never forget what happened next. One of our members stood up and said to me, ‘You don’t have to tell us that we don’t have any money. We know that. And then he pointed straight up and said ‘But He does!’ ”
And that, Cox said, is what “started the whole thing.”
From there, the church began taking a more hands-on approach to serving in the community, beginning many of the programs that are still functioning today.
“We started praying ‘Lord, will you send supplies to the community?’ And oh my goodness, what He has done!”
Over the years, with the support of the Mississippi River Ministry (a ministry funded in part through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board) and numerous churches in the area, Brinkley Heights Baptist has been able to create programs such as Street Reach, which this summer has more than 2,000 children enrolled in day camps.
Brinkley Heights Baptist can serve as an example — and perhaps even an inspiration — of what can happen as a result of prayer, planning, and participation, the pastor noted.
“You want to talk about a faith-based project?” said Cox. “Well, that’s us.”