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The Redeemer’s School: ‘We can see enough’

Last October, Robert McKay, 86, died. You probably don’t know the name, but you do know his work. Back in the ‘60s, he designed the first Taco Bell restaurant, giving it the iconic south-of-the border look we all spot a mile away. McKay eventually left his architectural firm to join founder Glen Bell in building a burrito empire. Both men made their fortunes.

McKay’s obituary in The Wall Street Journal mentioned one of his philanthropic efforts by name — The Redeemer’s School in Jackson. So how did a California architect and businessman come to support a small Christian school in the deep South?

The answer lies in Jackson’s Broadmoor neighborhood, a cookie-cutter cluster of homes originally built to welcome returning GIs. Today, the area has a median household income that’s 52 percent lower than the national average and a crime rate that’s 86 percent higher than the national average.

For more than a decade, members of Redeemer Church have worked to revitalize the Broadmoor 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. And then something interesting happened. Bob McKay entered the picture.

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

“They were talking about life and spiritual things, and Bob had done some research,” he says. “They were wondering what he and his wife could do to help poor people in Mississippi, so he asked Paula if she had any connections.”

The travel agent called her aunt, the aunt called her pastor, and on it went until someone mentioned Redeemer Church. It was Lanier’s wife Sherry who received the first direct contact from the McKays.

“I came in and she said, ‘You better sit down for this one,’” Lanier laughs. 

The Redeemer’s School opened in 2014, offering a Christian education and environment to children of diverse economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. Head of School DeSean Dyson explains: “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.”

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

“He saw that the public-school alternative in Broadmoor wasn’t working,” recalls Lanier. Only 13 percent of students at nearby Boyd Elementary score at or above proficiency levels on standardized math and language assessments.

The McKays’ financial support also meant Redeemer could subsidize tuition for the 80 percent of families that qualify. Parents pay just $300 of the nearly $12,000 annual tuition.

Lanier says McKay’s humility as a businessman was connected to his support of the school. “We asked him how he grew his business, and he said, ‘If I’m the smartest guy at the table, I need to find a new table.’”

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. That’s when Dyson personally greets every kid at the door.

The McKays’ long view of philanthropic success impressed Lanier. “A lot of times it’s the idea of a quick fix. Let’s invest in something that we can strap our name on, and we can say ‘look what we did.’ But raising a child is not instant.”

The relationship continued even after McKay received a cancer diagnosis.

“Bob told me that the greatest blessing in his life had been the school, and the best investment in his life had been the school,” Lanier says. When he conducted Bob’s funeral in California, he told the gathered crowd what the McKays had done to make a difference in Mississippi.

According to Lanier, one of the last things Bob said to him was that God was going to raise up some leaders out of Redeemer that could change Mississippi:

“He goes, ‘You know, would it be so bad if maybe we could get a supreme court justice out of this deal?’ I said, why don’t we pray towards that? That God would lift up a supreme court judge out of this school.’”

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

“I know, but we can see enough.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.