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Inner-City Outreach Shifts Gears

Since its establishment more than 30 years ago, AGORA Ministries has consistently made a difference in San Antonio’s poorest, hungriest, and most violent ZIP code, and it has done so by keeping one focus: building relationships. The pandemic hasn’t change that.

AGORA’s core ministry is reaching kids and youth through relationships before they reach the “hardness of adulthood” around age 18, according to 45-year-old Assemblies of God minister Jason A. Brooks, executive director of AGORA and U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries. He and his wife, Misti, took over AGORA in 2013 following the death of Misti’s father, U.S. missionary Edgar Ackerman.

Outreaches such as Hope Pantry, a weekly bilingual food distribution program built around a worship service and message of hope, as well as a women’s Bible study surround that core. AGORA has a commitment to working cooperatively with other ministries, churches, and nonprofit organizations in and around San Antonio’s Westside designed to reach the community’s most vulnerable: kids.

“We’re not trying to outperform any other ministry or organization,” says AGORA staff pastor Roger Audorff, 66. “We work with everyone serving on the Westside.” Audorff is a U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries, as well as the South Texas District missions director.

Through weekly children’s and youth outreach events held at the area’s government housing complexes, arts and sports camps, afterschool activities and tutoring, plus annual street camps led by missions campers, AGORA connects with nearly 2,500 children and youth each year. Staff and volunteers subsequently are able to develop more meaningful ties with about 75 of those kids through such means as serving their families, getting kids to sports practice, and showing up for games and choir concerts.

“This is a fatherless generation and area,” says Brooks. “Discipleship comes through relationship. These kids become part of us. It’s not just about them showing up for programs.”

The summer of 2020 was on track to be AGORA’s biggest on record in terms of the number of missions campers registered, and therefore, the number of outreach programs planned.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced AGORA’s leadership to make a course change. Summer missions camps and outreaches, and even normal school year activities, all fell by the wayside. But at the same time, community needs, especially regarding education and food, grew more acute.

Under normal circumstances, AGORA offers afterschool tutoring to at-risk students, and volunteers always are available to help out with homework. In the wake of school closures and the introduction of virtual learning at home, AGORA staff members learned that only 70 percent of the families in the service area had access to the online materials, only 30 percent of students from those families regularly logged in, and just half of that group finished assignments.

“We serve the poorest and most uneducated population in the city,” says Brooks. “In some cases, there is one computer in the household and five kids.”

AGORA pivoted to meet the needs. Through a grant from City Education Partners, AGORA staffers began delivering, collecting, and grading printed educational packets to students. The grant also allowed staff members to enter students’ progress into a database that tracks every subject and determines whether pupils are staying on grade level. Money is available to provide incentives for packet completion for both students (toys) and parents (gift cards).

In spite of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, Brooks says personal relationships have continued to thrive because of the program.

“Our staff and volunteers have been delivering these packets,” he says. “Moms have invited them to dinner to say thanks, and our staff in turn has been able to share Christ with the whole family.”

When the pandemic widened the gap between San Antonio’s Westside community and food security, AGORA filled that need, too. The number of people showing up to Hope Pantry tripled, and cars lined up for food stretched for five blocks, according to Brooks.

As the need for food increased, the community network responded. AGORA called on the relationships it has with other ministries and nonprofits in the area to keep filling stomachs.

“People hear about the needs and they turn out, they give, they show up,” says Audorff.

Because regular worship services can’t be held, Hope Pantry is currently a drive-through setup. But Audorff still stands in the street as 160 cars are loaded with boxes of bread, produce, and nonperishables. From a distance, he greets and prays with familiar and new faces, tells jokes, and catches up with the individuals AGORA has served for years.

“We’re being real and that doesn’t happen overnight,” Audorff says. “It takes time and caring.” He notes that agora is a Greek word that translates into marketplace or gathering place in English.

“We are about going where the people are, being active in the community, getting to know these families, and meeting their needs,” says Brooks.