Chess Club: This Too is the Work of the Church
By Rev. John Merk
Annette Winn Elementary School (AWES) is located across the street from the church I serve, Lithia Springs UMC. The school was named after a beloved principal and long-time member of the church. Currently, AWES is a Title I school serving 435 kids, of which 85 percent are on free or reduced meals. Many, if not most, of the students would be considered disadvantaged. The school is blessed, however, by caring staff and volunteers.
Lithia Springs UMC regularly contributes to the school’s weekend backpack food program. Several members serve as mentors to at-risk children. I have mentored several students myself, but the last two moved and I was looking for a way to get involved again.
My sister, Judi, passed away in 2016. She was a teacher who began several chess clubs. So, I thought it would be good for the students, and a great way to honor my sister, to begin a chess club at AWES. Dr. Sherrita Abell, the school principal, was very enthusiastic. Sign-up sheets went out in September. I purchased enough chess sets to accommodate about 10 students and waited.
Amazingly, 50 students signed up, and of those 40 have remained in the club. Only 4 students had any prior experience. The club is split into two groups; Ms. Sacheen Cassy coaches the 2nd and 3rd graders, while I coach the 4th and 5th graders. The game of chess can improve critical thinking skills, and boost self-esteem, which will help these students in their academic careers and beyond. They learn that winning and losing are both temporary, but you can learn a lot from your losses. We also reinforce the importance of self-control and sportsmanship.
At first glance, however, my kids are some of the rowdiest chess players south of Lincoln Park, NYC! Vocal and passionate, the noise level of their play has brought the Principal and AP over several times. A few players have been ejected…from CHESS! But they have remained faithful, and eager to learn. Some have attention and/or social issues, but they have each found their way into my heart. They’re “my kids” during club time, and any other time I encounter them. And to them, I’m Pastor Merk.
“Pastor Merk, can he move his knight like that?”
“Pastor Merk, how can it be a tie if I have more pieces than she does?”
“Pastor Merk, can you come play chess with me at lunch tomorrow?”
Some may question if this is actually church work at all. True, we don’t spend time pondering theological questions; I haven’t been asked yet. However, I have put an arm around a child whose uncle had recently died, and was acting out. I’ve reassured a smart young man that I and several others believed that he could be successful, despite many challenges. I suggested that a boy who was taunting one of my kids play a game of chess against her; he quickly, and wisely, declined. I’ve mourned when students have had to move due to a variety of reasons I never had to experience growing up. Some of these moves were for the better, but I still miss them.
This started out as a chess club, but sometimes I’m more their pastor than their coach. And the prayer group at Lithia Springs UMC regularly prays for them. So, yes, this too is the work of the Church.
I see what we’re doing as planting a seed, that someone else may water and another harvest, with some chess thrown in. My hope is that these young people will find it easier to go to the Church when they’re ready, because someone from the Church once cared enough to go to them.
Their present circumstances are challenging, and their future has yet to be written. For a few moments, though, on Thursday afternoons life is as bright as the eyes and joyful as the smile of the student who shouts out, “Pastor Merk, I won!”
Rev. John Merk serves as pastor of Lithia Springs UMC. Contact him at email@example.com.