Last June Rev. Sheila Bouie-Sledge left Annual Conference Session inspired by the urging of Conference leaders for local churches to partner with neighboring schools. She was newly appointed to North Park United Methodist Church in St. Louis, and Earl Nance Senior elementary school is essentially in the church’s backyard. The neighborhood faces challenges with poverty and crime, and a school-church partnership seemed like a natural fit.
Where to start was a challenging question, though. Another church already had a reading mentoring program in place with the school. Bouie-Sledge was discussing this with friend one evening at Panera when she noticed sitting behind them was a young child playing chess with an adult. As the adult started to pack up to leave, she approached him with the idea of starting a chess program at the church. He replied that he was part of the chess federation and teaches chess as part of the St. Louis public school curriculum. He was immediately excited about that prospect of getting a program started as a partnership between the school and church.
Bouie-Sledge’s next step was recruitment. She initially tried handing out fliers as people were picking up their children from school, but it seemed like a rushed time and she didn’t think it people were paying much attention. Next she tried being part of the school’s open house. She had a chess set set up at her table, which attracted attention and resulted in the sign up of several interested participants. The chess club was off and running.
The club meets on Mondays and Wednesdays after school. The church received a New Places for New People grant from Congregational Excellence to help fund this new missional community. At the conclusion of each class, there is pizza and snacks. There were four people at the first meeting in October. By early December they had 21 players – 15 students and six adults.
Instructor Eric Payne runs the class with extremely strict discipline, demanding focus and attention of the students at all times. Although he is very demanding, he also presents himself as being equally caring about the students and extremely passionate about chess, so his rigid rules are well received by the entire class.
Bouie-Sledge goes to Nance Elementary to escort some students from the school to the church, and others are brought over by their parents or grandparents. Since they are at the church early, the students go to work arranging the tables and chairs and setting up the room for the class.
Payne isn’t just teaching the students how to play chess, he is training them so they will reach a level that they will be competitive in chess tournaments. He started the class by going through each piece one-by-one, thoroughly teaching the movements. During a recent class in early December, he was teaching the final piece, the knight.
“The knight is the trickiest, most complex piece. Some people call them horseys. I like to call them my pets,” Payne said. “The knight makes you think three, four or five moves ahead.”
Payne jumped into a drill with the students setting up their two knights against an opposing row of pawns, to get the feel for how they can move and attack. Once he was satisfied the students had a good understanding of the power of knights movements, the class set up the board with the full set to play.
The play is formal. Each game begins with “Good luck” and a handshake. Each game ends with “Good game” and a handshake.
The class is very intergenerational, with ages ranging from preschool to senior citizens. Family members play each other and others in the class as they rotate around the room. Lyndi and Kaylyn Jones are sisters, and North Park is their grandmother’s church. They’ve enjoyed learning the game, facing off against each other and others in the class.
“It’s better than just looking at my phone,” Lyndi Jones said. Wilma Childes attends with her great-grandson Devon, age 5. She also learned about the program at the open house at school. She thinks chess has been interesting for both of them. “It is teaching him how to focus,” she said.
Harold Griffin Jr. lives near North Park UMC and learned about the chess program at the schools open house. He now has his three sons, including his preschooler, going to the chess club every Monday and Wednesday, and he plays with them at home.
“Chess teaches you how to think,” Griffin said. “It helps you relax and teaches you strategy. You have to make your next move your best move.”
Although not involved with the church before, Griffin is now starting to attend worship there. Terri Williams is learning chess along with her grandchildren, and loving it.
“It teaches discipline, and how to think strategically,” she said. “It’s also been a fun way to get to know new people. I look forward to coming back each week.”