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‘We are called to communities and not to buildings’ — Church hosts Back to School Bash in Ramseur

The threat of rain in Ramseur, North Carolina on Aug. 24 did nothing to dissuade students and their families from jumping in bounce houses in the middle of Main Street. Volunteers donning reflective vests with the sign “Haircut Day Helper” directed traffic and parking like a game of Tetris because lots were full and people weren’t leaving. This is the scene now on what began five years ago as Free Haircut Day.

Josh Kurtz, pastor at Jordan Memorial United Methodist Church, is one of the pivotal people who put this event in motion. It has picked up steam every year, and his only hope is its continued growth. This year, he asked Robin Cox to co-chair. Cox is a retired educator of about 30 years and a highly-involved community volunteer who upped the ante by getting sponsorships from businesses who wanted to contribute financially but who couldn’t be present the day of the event.

When we spoke to Cox, she expanded on how Free Haircut Day is “economically liberating.” She says: “They [parents] don’t have to tell their child no because of money,” that the community has rallied together.

Free Haircut Day is a misleading title, because the day has now evolved into a community event of giving. Students get free book bags, school supplies, hot dogs, books, snow cones, and clothing — the list goes on. With over 40 vendors lining the street, community organizations offer free consultations, give away swag, and maybe most importantly, make face-to-face connections with those who they intend on serving.

Vendor at Free Haircut Day 2019. Courtesy of Jordan Memorial UMC.

We took some time to speak with Kurtz about how Free Haircut Day has changed over the years, and we discussed what role faith-based organizations can have in schools and community. See our conversation below, edited for length and clarity.

Parker: Can you tell me how Free Haircut Day, or the Back to School Bash as it is now referred to, began?

Kurtz: So it began with a vision from one of my co-pastors in the community that’s a United Methodist pastor named Sam Moore. Sam had this idea to basically cut kids hair as we started a school year five years ago.

Sam is one of those visionaries, and together, I think we work really well in that we were able to put some feet to the faithful vision that God had given him to make this a possibility for our community. And both he and I have always been about partnership; not only as churches working together, but churches working with nonprofits and agencies in our community. Just trying our best to connect those gaps that a lot of families and a lot of kids fall into, because communication is lacking, and it’s not that people don’t care, it’s just there’s not enough connections.

We just really wanted to bridge as many gaps as possible, and felt like this could be a day where we could get as many people on board as possible with a vision of cultivating community through our children and leaning into the gift of community through blessing kids.

We wanted to lean with that vision and say: “Who would like to love on kids in our community and families and resource them as best we can as we head into the new school year?”

Our hope in the vision that we continue to see coming to fruition is that it wouldn’t be just a one day event. But it would be an event where we kind of gather together to celebrate, but then from that celebration leads to future connections with nonprofits and agencies that are doing really great work around Randolph County and beyond, with families and with kids in mind at the heart of it all.

Parker: How has it grown in the five years since you started?

The first year it was quickly put together. We kind of cut and pasted some things because we had just been appointed to the community at the same time on July 1.

There were two barbers that day and they cut like 34-35 heads of hair. And we had a couple of school supplies to give out.

Just to give you kind of numbers, on Saturday, we gave out 738 book bags, and we cut right at 100 kids’ hair. So we had eight barbers on Saturday compared to in years past having maybe three or four total. So that’s some of the growth right there. That can be seen astronomically. And the hope is that next year, even more barbers and beauticians are on board and [there are] more book bags to give away.

Parker: How did the community learn about what was happening?

So one of the great things was a resource book that we were handed through the United Way of Randolph County that has just all different kinds of connections for kids and families. And a group of us just began making phone calls seven or eight months ago to these nonprofits, asking them if they would come to be a part of the day and to share about what what they were doing in our community so that families could kind of get a glimpse of what Randolph County has to offer face-to-face instead of just in a workbook itself.

Parker: We saw a new sign this year identifying partners for the day. How did the partners sign on?

So that’s Robin, and Robin was a big help in kind of giving us a vision for thinking about how we can have partnerships with places and with agencies in our community that might not be able to be on the ground the day of that would be a financial partnership. We [also] got a grant from our conference, so some of the book bag funds were through that, but also multiple agencies that weren’t able to be here the day of and said we want to bless this day with financial funding to make sure that the kids will get off to school on the right foot.

Parker: We’ve been to Main Street for the occasion. How did community resources such as Randolph County Partnership for Children, local law enforcement, and EMT’s hear about the event and get involved?

Just face-to-face connections with other people in our community or through that resource handbook. The new twist this year is that we’ve actually had people calling the church saying they wanted to be a part of this day.

That’s a very new narrative that we’re not used to. A lot of times it’s begging and pleading and hoping that people will come out and be a part of the day. But this year, we had multiple partners, new partners like Goodwill, and even some insurance agencies and some banks that wanted to be a part of the day just because they heard about it and wanted to partner with us in the work that that we were doing collectively in the community. So that was a nice change of events.

Parker: What role do you see faith-based institutions playing in schools?

Hopefully, as followers of Jesus, we care not only about souls, but about skin and stomachs and holistic life, mind, body, and spirit, and believe all of that works together. We have a role as a church, as a community of churches, to partner with families and children in learning and growing, and being with families in all seasons and all walks of life.

I think the church has this unique opportunity. It is what the Institute for Emerging Issues would call an anchor-based institution, of being a connection piece.  Being one of those mediators at times to bring as many people to the table as possible, and to help facilitate, where funding and stories and voices and people can connect with others. So I like to say that we’re hopefully a mediator in the work of community building and relationships specifically within our schools. That hopefully we’re on the ground, but we’re not just there. We’re also seeking to think about the deeper questions and how we can build deeper connections with nonprofits and agencies in our local schools.

Parker: If there was one thing you wanted people to know about this event, what would it be?

I just think as pastors we are called to communities and not to buildings. That’s what I love about this day. And what I would want pastors and people to know is that every community is gifted in so many unique and beautiful ways.

And one of the best ways to see those gifts is to invite people to a table or to a street, to celebrate those gifts and to find ways to best utilize those gifts.

And that’s been something I think that has been so surprising to me is to see how Main Street is full not only of people, but full of gifts and resources. And oftentimes rural communities are looked at as these places that are lacking and that are depleted, instead of places with immense and beautiful gifts. And I’m just seeing more and more the unique and beautiful gifts of our community through this day and beyond this day, because of one vision five years ago that continues to kind of cascade and build momentum.

Editor’s note: The Duke Endowment supports the work of EducationNC.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.