By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
KNOXVILLE — Mention the names Dean Taylor and Jay Sanders, along with a few others, and watch the face of Shannon Washam light up.
Taylor and Sanders are just two of several young men and women who have accepted Christ and have been mentored by Washam, director of Western Heights Baptist Center, a ministry of Knox County Association of Baptists, which also receives funding through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions.
“They are homegrown leaders,” Washam says when talking about the young people who professed faith in Christ at the Baptist Center and who are now giving back to their community by serving at Western Heights this summer.
Washam, who has been at Western Heights for about 10 years, noted the ministry of the Baptist Center has evolved based on needs over its 80-year history in the middle of the Western Heights community of Knoxville.
A decision was made to intentionally help improve the education of children in Western Heights. “We realized that the impact we were having on the children would be more if we had them every day,” Washam recalled.
The Baptist Center began offering programs for after school. Now, the center has the kids about 14 hours each week and they have Bible studies and receive tutoring, Washam said.
“Ten years ago we had no kids inviting us to their graduation. This fall, we will have five of our former children attending college,” he said, adding that he expects the number of former students attending college to reach 25 in two to three years.
And while he is proud of that, it’s not what he likes to “brag” about.
“They are going out (to college) as disciples of Christ. If you have an education and don’t know the Lord you are not that much different from anyone else in the world,” he said.
As an example, Washam held up a photo collage given to him by Marquel Williams who began attending the Baptist Center when he was 6 years old. “Today he is 16 years old, he has a vision for his future with plans to go to college, and he’s a Christian, Washam said.
“Because we are able to be here on a long-term basis we can make a difference,” Washam affirmed.
Jalen “Jay” Sanders is a living testimony of the ministry of the Baptist Center.
Sanders moved into the community at the age of 10 and began going to the Baptist Center.
Sanders made a decision to accept Christ when he was 16 years old. “Being at the Baptist Center allowed me to see people who had Jesus in their hearts and I saw something in them that I wanted in me,” he said. He is especially grateful for the impact that Washam and Natalie Myers, assistant director, have had on his life. “They showed me that there is no way to heaven than through Jesus Christ. I don’t see myself finding Jesus without the Baptist Center.”
Sanders, who is now a student at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, is grateful for the Baptist Center ministry.
“If I had not been coming to the Baptist Center I probably would have been doing something I should not have been doing,” Sanders acknowledged. “The Baptist Center turned my life around.”
He is candid about the community where he lives. “It’s hard to be a Christian in this neighborhood. You can step off your front porch and literally be in the midst of something you don’t want to be involved in — prostitution, drugs, gangs. There is so much stuff going on in this neighborhood,” he said.
“It’s an every day job trying to disciple the people in Western Heights,” he added.
Taylor agreed. There are not a lot of Christians here, he noted.
“Anything can happen here (in Western Heights). You can be shot or mugged. You have to be alert,” stressed Taylor, who became involved in the Baptist Center when he was in the fifth grade and is now on the football team at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City.
Taylor credits the Baptist Center for giving him hope and a way out of the circumstances in which he found himself growing up. He accepted Christ as a result of the Baptist Center ministry when he was in the ninth grade.
“Without the Baptist Center I would not be the man I am today” he stressed.
He noted the Baptist Center provided him counseling and tutoring during those middle and high school years and he credits Washam for pointing him to Carson-Newman and helping him through the college process.
Both young men are sincere about wanting to give back to the center because of the help and love they received during their formative years.
Sanders has not forgotten his roots. He volunteers at the center and has been working there this summer ministering to the children who are in the neighborhood where he still resides.
Myers said she saw the potential in Sanders early on when he was still in high school. “To see the heart he has for these kids and to see his compassion grow has been truly amazing,” she said.
Taylor noted that giving back is a part of life. “Once you receive so much and have been blessed by God you have no option but to give back,” he said.
Both Sanders and Taylor know the children at the Baptist Center relate to them because they know they are products of the neighborhood who have gone on to make something out of their lives.
“The kids here know I play college football and that I grew up here,” Taylor said. “I think I give them a sense of hope.”
Washam is like a proud father when he speaks of Taylor, Sanders, and all the young people who have made professions of faith through the center’s ministry.
And, in a sense, Washam is indeed a father figure to many of the teenagers, particularly the boys who do not have a father active in their life.
Washam said just recently that one of the guys came over to their house one evening to spend some time. While there he looked at Washam and said, “I need to shave.”
Washam found him a razor and some shaving cream and basically taught him how to shave. When he was finished he looked at Washam and said, “My mom could not have taught me that.”
The young men appreciate the mentoring provided to them by Washam.
“Shannon means a lot to me,” said Elijah Clark who accepted Christ at the center when he was in the eighth grade. He will be entering college this fall as a freshman at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
“There is no person in my life like Shannon,” he said, noting that whenever he feels “down and out” he knows he can turn to Shannon for counsel and advice.
And, like Taylor and Sanders, Elijah wants to give back to the center. “They gave me a new life. I gave my life to Christ because of the Baptist Center,” he said.
Washam is grateful for the relationships he has developed over the years with those who have come through the ministry. “They are not clients. They are our friends and have become brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Washam noted that Western Heights Baptist Center sits on top of a hill in the community. The steeple on top of the center is a message to the community, he stressed.
“We want this community to know the center is not just a social ministry. It’s a place where you can come to know the transforming power of Jesus Christ,” Washam said.