Gwendetta Albright’s 50-plus years of faithful Awana service at a church in Chicago has changed lives in hundreds of families

Gwendetta Albright grew up on the west side of Chicago. She trusted Christ for salvation at a summer camp at age 13. She then started serving as Gwendetta Albright leads the Awana program at Roseland Bible Church in Chicagoan Awana leader two years later in 1958.

She hasn’t stopped since.

“I love Awana and know how effective it is,” Gwendetta said. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you retire from Awana?’ Why in the world would I want to do that? I want to be here and keep serving.”

Prepared to serve
Dick and Audrey St. Marie played an important role in Gwendetta’s younger years. Audrey attended the North Side Gospel Center, the Chicago church where Awana was founded by Art Rorheim and Lance Latham. Audrey got to know Gwendetta through Awana and trained and mentored her in ministry skills and other areas of life.

“I met James Albright and after we had been dating a while, James asked Dick if he could marry me,” Gwendetta explained. “They were like parents to me. Dick married us at our church.”

Gwendetta married James in 1968. They have three daughters. A fourth daughter was stillborn at birth.

In 1977, James became pastor of Roseland Bible Church on Chicago’s south side. They soon started Awana and this year celebrated 32 years of Awana programs at their church.

Overcoming challenges of inner-city ministry
Roseland Bible Church ministers to about 40 kids in Cubbies (preschool) through Trek (middle school) each Tuesday night. Most of the children and teens who participate in Awana live with their grandparents and their single mom. Fathers are not an active part, or even present, in a majority of the families.

The church is located south of downtown Chicago on 111th Street.

“A few years ago, there was some gang activity,” said Gwendetta, who oversees Awana at Roseland. “It was between kids north of 111th versus kids south of 111th.”

Gwendetta and her leadership team formulated a detailed discipline policy to avoid any serious issues among the kids attending Awana. Parents and kids know upfront what kind of behavior is expected and the consequences for bad behavior. She knows from experience the importance of creating a safe environment.

“I was the seventh youngest of eight children in my family and grew up on the west side of Chicago,” said Gwendetta, now a retired elementary school teacher. “I never wanted to go to Awana growing up because my four older brothers would come home from club and tell me how the west side boys had beaten up the north side boys. It scared me to hear those kinds of stories.”

The role of Awana in the Albright family
Despite challenges that made it difficult for Gwendetta to participate in Awana, she knew how it could benefit her own children. All three of her daughters attended Awana throughout their childhood. Her 31-year-old daughter, Joanna, lives in Branson, Missouri and serves in Awana at her church. Richelle, a physical therapist who lives in Chicago, now serves at Roseland with her mom and dad and is in her 10th year as a Sparks (kindergarten to second-grade) leader. Her children also participate. Roseland Bible Church has run the weekly Awana children's ministry program since 1972

“I know that many of the verses my daughters learned in Awana have come back to them at important times in their lives,” Gwendetta said. “Even my brother-in-law who attended Awana and went astray a few years with an alcohol addiction found verses he had memorized as a child come back to him to help him overcome his addiction.”

 

‘Be transformed’
The Awana leaders at Roseland chose Romans 12:2 as their theme verse for the year: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.

One Tuesday night, Richelle taught the Trek middle-school girls about the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5. She challenged the girls by asking, “Do people see a difference in how you live your life? Do they see any fruit?” She wants these girls to be transformed in their character and attitudes so they can positively influence their families and peers and stand firm in their faith amidst difficult circumstances.

The leaders wear black T-shirts depicting a transformer and the theme verse. It’s their prayer that kids would be transformed by the love of Christ and live according to God’s plan. They also model how Scripture memory can transform hearts and minds. Each week, leaders recite a verse. They’re currently memorizing Psalm 78 through Awana TruthScripts, a Bible memory programs for congregations.

Growing up and giving back
Ray is a Trek leader who grew up attending Awana at Roseland.

“Awana equipped me in many ways,” Ray said. “The Bible verses have stayed with me throughout my life.”

Another leader, Vernette, is an Awana veteran who desires to see kids’ lives transformed by Christ’s offer of forgiveness and eternal life. She has served in Awana for 34 years—ever since her daughter was a Sparkie. Each week, she brings her granddaughter to learn more about God and His Word.

Gwendetta’s sister, Judy Adams, is a retired school principal who now teaches at Chicago State University and serves in Awana. Her three kids participated in Awana and now her grandchildren attend Awana at Roseland.

God has worked in the lives of thousands of children and youth through the ministry of Awana at Roseland. He has used Gwendetta and James as faithful servants in the local church.


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