Investing in Mississippi students

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Wednesday, March 14th. Good morning, I’m Kent Covington.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Last October, Robert McKay died at age 86. He designed the first Taco Bell restaurant, giving it the iconic south-of-the border look. He later joined founder Glen Bell in building a burrito empire. Both men made their fortunes.

COVINGTON: McKay’s obituaries noted one of his philanthropic efforts by name: The Redeemer’s School in Jackson, Mississippi. We wondered how this California architect and businessman came to support a small Christian school in a poor neighborhood in the nation’s poorest state.

REICHARD: So we sent WORLD Radio reporter Kim Henderson to Jackson to piece together this puzzle.

AUDIO: Taco Bell vintage jingle

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: The Broadmoor neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, was once home to returning World War II soldiers. Today, the area has a median household income that’s 52 percent lower than the national average. The neighborhood’s crime rate is 86 percent higher than the national average.

For more than a decade, members of Redeemer Church have worked to revitalize the area. They buy and renovate homes. Oversee a community garden. Offer job skills training. The church even dreamed of starting a Christian school but didn’t have funds to do it.

AUDIO: Sound from school

And then something interesting happened. A man named Bob McKay entered the picture. He was a wealthy Californian with an interest in justice and mercy issues.

 Redeemer assistant pastor Steve Lanier tells the story, which began with the McKays’ travel agent, Paula.  

AUDIO: And they were talking about life and spiritual things . . .Bob had done some research and said that Mississippi is one of the, actually the poorest state in the Union and said, “What can we do to help poor people in Mississippi? Do you know anybody that’s working with the poor?”

The travel agent called her aunt, and the aunt called her pastor, and on it went until someone mentioned Sherry Lanier at Redeemer Church. The aunt called her.

AUDIO: She talked to my wife and said hey, there’s somebody that’s really interested in working with under resourced people in Mississippi. So she told us about his connections with Taco Bell and she said really, this guy’s for real and wants to talk to somebody. Is it ok if we have your phone number? So my wife said absolutely.

Sherry Lanier received the first direct contact when Steve was out looking at properties in the neighborhood.

AUDIO: And she said you better sit down for this one, ‘cause we got a really strange phone call…  

Redeemer’s School opened in 2014 with three classes.

AUDIO: Sound of classroom

The school offers a Christian education and environment to children of diverse economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. Head of School DeSean Dyson, explains:

AUDIO: We’re seeking to raise indigenous leaders in the community that aren’t only equipped to do good works, but have hearts to do so sacrificially. We’re also very community oriented. We place a lot of value on relationships.  

At first, Bob McKay didn’t share the biblical faith of Redeemer church or school. But he supported the vision.

AUDIO: Sound of history lesson

He saw that the public school alternative wasn’t working. Only 13 percent of students at nearby Boyd Elementary score at or above proficiency levels on standardized math and language assessments. At Redeemer, math, reading, and the arts are important.

AUDIO: Sound of phonics lessons

The McKay’s financial support also means that Redeemer can subsidize tuition for the 80 percent of families that qualify. Parents pay just $300 of the nearly $12,000 annual tuition.

Pastor Steve Lanier says McKay’s humility as a businessman was connected to his support of the school.

AUDIO: We said to him, what are some of the practices of business, how did you grow your businesses?” And he said, um, “If I’m the smartest guy at the table, I need to find a new table.” …He was humble enough to recognize that there are other guys and ladies out there who are more qualified and capable than I am.

McKay recognized and empowered those with expertise, like DeSean Dyson, Redeemer’s Head of School.

When the McKays visited the school for the first time, they made sure they arrived in time for opening assembly so they could meet the students. Dyson explains.

AUDIO: They came early in the morning because one of the things they’d heard about is every morning I personally greet every kid at the door, so they got to stand in line with me and give handshakes to all of our students and get to greet them and talk to them.  

The McKays’ had a long view of philanthropic success. That impressed Steve Lanier.

AUDIO: See, a lot of times it’s the idea of a quick fix. Let’s invest in something that can strap our name on, or we can say ‘Look what we did’ like instant, but raising up a child is not instant.

The relationship continued even after McKay received a cancer diagnosis.

AUDIO: Bob just said the greatest blessing in my life has been that school and the best investment in my life has been that school.  

Steve conducted Bob’s funeral in California. He told the gathered crowd what the McKays had done to make a difference in Mississippi.

AUDIO: One of the last things Bob said to me he said–  I said, “You know. Bob, God is going to raise up some leaders out of this school that can change their state.” And he goes, “You know, would it be so bad if maybe we could get a supreme court justice out of this deal?” And I said, “You know, why don’t we pray towards that? That God would lift up a supreme court judge out of this school.”

Steve Lanier told McKay that the two of them might not live to see all that God might do through the school. McKay’s response.

AUDIO: I know, but we can see enough.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Jackson, Mississippi.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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