One Sunday each month, Lloyd-Ann McMahan and a few other volunteers sort and arrange stacks of books on tables in the narthex of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ. Members of the Bozeman, Mont., church take time to browse through them before and after services and purchase books they want for $1 each. Thanks to McMahan's efforts, there are always new books available, which she purchases from the local senior center, library book sales, and even pulls from her personal library. At the end of each year, Pilgrim UCC donates the proceeds from the book sales to a local charity, with the hopes of improving literacy throughout Bozeman and the surrounding communities.
"It doesn't matter if the book is 6 inches [thick] or if it's a little book for a child, they are all a dollar," said McMahan, chairperson of the church's book sale committee. "We are not trying to shake the earth with the bounty we get, but last month we sold $121 worth of books, which was money brought in for the project."
Over the past three years, Pilgrim UCC, which has 125 members, has raised about $1,200 from its book sales, and the church chooses a different organization to donate the money to each year. So far the proceeds have gone to Hopa Mountain, a program that invests in rural and tribal citizen leaders, the Bozeman Adult Learning Center, and, this year, Bozeman Head Start. McMahan and Karen Savage, co-chair of Pilgrim UCC's Social Justice Committee, say the group is already thinking about which organization to offer the money to next year.
"We look at the literacy component of the organization and also the need – with the rural and tribal areas, there is certainly a big need in Montana," said Savage. "The money is dedicated toward helping literacy on a local basis."
Reading is a passion for both McMahan, a former educator and reading demonstrator, and Savage, a retired teacher of adult basic literacy and English as a second language for adults and immigrants. While Bozeman, home to Montana State University, is "a town full of educators and students," it is also a destination area where tourists come to enjoy world-class ski resorts, Savage said. Because of that, many Bozeman residents are employed by the service and hospitality industry, sometimes working more than one job to make ends meet. It is this population, as well as the outlying rural and tribal communities, that could benefit from the extra emphasis on the importance of reading and literacy.
"There are people who can only manage to go to work, get their kids to school, and put enough food on the table," McMahan said. "They are not aware of the importance of just sitting down and reading with their children or having their children seeing them read. I think we are trying to make those people aware of the importance of what those children are missing."
The importance of literacy is taking center stage throughout the UCC in 2014 with the introduction of Reading Changes Lives, a one-church initiative that launched last month. Reading Changes Lives will encourage churches from across the denomination to participate first-hand in community service projects aimed at improving literacy rates among children and adults, while also raising awareness about how illiteracy directly impacts a range of social justice issues.
Many literacy advocates, including the officers of the UCC, strongly believe that the ability to read at a third-grade level allows a person to fully participate in his or her community, have better access to jobs, better support themselves and their family, and raise children with strong literacy skills. Statistics show that almost 30 million people in the U.S. read below a fifth-grade level, which means that nearly 14 percent of the adult population doesn't read well enough to fill out a job application.
"We have been sharing more frequently with the congregation how much has been raised and where the money is going, so we are raising the awareness of the entire church," Savage said. "Then we are also hoping that we can make a dent in the literacy problem that is here – that is everywhere. It's awareness, and passion, and we are going to do our part."