Jazz Cathcart knows the burden that weighs down low-income children. He grew up in a single-parent home on government assistance. He understands that reconciling the stereotypes and negative influences with a positive, healthy identity takes time. Time is always on his mind.
“You only get 24 hours in a day,” Jazz jokes, breathlessly. Jazz works with at-risk children in Asheville, a cause to which he is dedicated: He is the Program Director for the “I Have a Dream” Foundation (IHAD), which provides educational support to a population of low-income children from the Pisgah View Housing Project. He oversees programming, communicates with universities about scholarships, and in the afternoons he helps the middle schoolers with their homework. Outside of the main program, he collaborates with a social worker to mentor at-risk high school students; he teaches vocational skills to African American males in Asheville High School’s “Aspire” program; and he does similar work with ninth and tenth graders in the city-sponsored “Prime” program.
And this is not all. Jazz is also a pastor-in-training and one of the lead ministers of the children’s program at Highland Church, which meets at Asheville’s Orange Peel. Through the church, he also joined an acting troupe that performed a professional, Asheville-style rendition of Godspell. On top of all that, Jazz is about 80 percent finished with a hip-hop album. “The Lord put into my heart to come to Asheville and be a part of the church downtown and serve the demographics here,” Jazz says demurely.
Jazz’s life is about working for reconciliation. He gets excited about it. When he talks about the kids or the church, his massive shoulders roll and his huge hands gesture in the air. But, in his line of work, reconciliation can seem like a big, abstract word; it implies that the work will soon be finished. He has to be careful. On the ground, day in and day out, it is more productive to think of the word as an action that continues and takes time. Three years ago, he left a salaried position as the a director of Gastonia’s Central YMCA to work for Highland Church. But, they couldn’t pay him yet. So, while volunteering at the church, he continued to work with kids. He interviewed and got a position at the Asheville YMCA as the Outreach Director where he work with at-risk youth across the city. Jazz says, “I felt like the Lord was also calling me here to ‘I Have a Dream.’”
Jazz sees his position with IHAD as putting him “on the front lines of the mission field.” His coworkers at IHAD—the vast majority of them are not Christians—see his involvement with the church as a positive thing for the children. It involves them in their community, in the arts, and in music.
“I Have a Dream” is a secular organization, but Jazz’s IHAD profile page uses quite a bit of faith-based vocabulary. Jazz says, “I have to be who I am, a Christian, but I walk with sensitivity trying to be fair, not imposing, but gentle.” Reconciling is about finding common ground. Jazz and the Foundation may have different ideological positions, but they work together for a common purpose. This common ground gives Jazz an opportunity to break the stereotypes about Christians and for his coworkers to see the positive impact faith can have on the kids. “The sponsors of our program say, hey, Jesus Christ worked for you—it would be wrong for us to tell you not to talk about him,” Jazz explains.
When he was three, his mother was facing very difficult circumstances, and asked for help from social services and placed him and his sister in foster care. They were living in a low-income, high-crime community in Belmont, NC, and their situation was desperate. “She did her best. For a lot of reasons she felt like this was the best option, and I was taken in by the pastor of a church in Gastonia.” The foster family changed the lives of his entire family.
When he was four, his mother moved in with him and his foster family. By the time he was in first grade, his mother was able to get on her feet, and Jazz went back to living with her, and back to government assistance. Jazz recounts: “I know what it is like to wonder how God will provide the next meal.” But this time life was not so bleak. They remained under the wing of the foster family and the church. Jazz had a new faith and a new narrative that allowed him and his mother to see beyond the cultural stereotypes that their living situation implied, expanding the number of paths that his life could take.
“The future is not a priority when the family is just struggling for survival,” Jazz says, talking about the group of kids at the Pisgah View Apartments. One of the best shots these kids have for a better future is an education, which is the goal of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.
The “I Have a Dream” movement began in 1981 as an impromptu challenge by a New York City businessman to a group of Harlem sixth graders. Seventy five percent of these students were expected to drop out of school, so Eugene Lang made a radical proposition. He offered to pay the entire college tuition for every student in that class who finished high school. The Foundation began in 1986 after 93 percent of those students graduated. The Asheville Project is one of 70 current programs. To date, there have been over 180 IHAD projects in 64 cities serving over 14,000 children. “We want to serve deeply rather than spread ourselves out too thin,” Jazz explains. IHAD chooses specific cohorts of children to sponsor. All IHAD facilities are on-site, where the students live, providing them a meeting place, after-school activities, access to computers, and open doors to mentoring adults. All IHAD students who graduate from high school are guaranteed scholarship assistance for college.
But, getting the students to focus on their education takes time. Jazz believes that part of providing the long-term support for the children’s education is to “destroy the negative stereotypes” that shape how the children view themselves. “The stereotypes become poor kids’ identities, and it’s hard for kids to distinguish between what society identifies them as and the identity that the Lord has given them,” Jazz explains. “The longevity of the program gives us the chance to shape how they see themselves, how they see life.”
Creating the conditions for success is about breaking the cycle. Jazz preaches, “Each person has a unique potential, a unique capacity to develop into an organic, handcrafted expression of God.”
“Influence, influence, influence,” Jazz repeats. Influence takes time and he knows it. He has been there. It is an odd sort of feeling, he explains, being at Pisgah View every day because “it feels right to be back at home, in a sense. I know how people think; I know the oppression, prejudice, and anger that people feel.” At the same time, he also feels like an outsider; he is trying to help those kids realize a new life.
Growing up in a housing project is a fact that doesn’t change, but it takes time for it not to define the students. Creating a common ground between a desperate past and a bright future is difficult to negotiate. As an insider and an outsider, Jazz is a bridge for the children. Jazz muses: “It’s almost like a picture of the incarnation, how the Lord became flesh, to bear our afflictions, he knows.”