The Good News
A ‘blue collar’ city of about 200,000, third largest city in the State, known for its railroads, deep water shipping, forestry businesses, small manufacturing industry, and a large recent immigrant population.
In this context a few pastors began meeting for prayer once a week. Over about two, years leaders from nearly 40 churches became involved. The pastors’ meetings were marked by confession, honest sharing of needs, prayer for each other, and prayer for the city. There was a strong, growing sense of trust and value in the relationships.
As they prayed and talked, the pastors increasingly said, we need to be thinking together about our city — about ways we and our churches could serve and spiritually reach the city. We need to share the people in our churches what we’ve learned together over these two years about restored relationships, trust, and a common vision. Teams of pastors were formed to call on the leadership of every primary sector of the city: schools, police, health services, legal system, business, city and regional government, etc. Each team was given the same simple set of questions to ask which centered around one idea: if you could identify the greatest single, most important or influential issue we face in the city — possibly the most challenging or one that you feel is or will have greatest impact on our future — what would that issue be?
The teams compared the information they were getting. After two months of intensive discussions it seemed to be clear that because of the high immigrant population and lower income status of many, the young people — children — were the greatest challenge. The serious problems were reflected in many ways; in the schools, crime and violence, health problems, poor school completion rates, and unemployment for those who did complete secondary school.
As the local schools seemed to be the focal point for many of the issues, the pastors visited the administration of the city’s public school district to explore how the churches and their people might help. They indicated that they represented nearly 40 churches of all denominations in the community and that they had thousands of committed people they felt would be eager to help in the schools. The pastors had learned that the schools had experienced serious budget cuts, were having problems keeping good teachers, and that the students were often not performing well standard tests.
The school administration responded, “We are a state institution. You know the law regarding separation of church and state. We can’t be involved with the church. So, while we appreciate your interest, we will have to say no to your offers.” Greatly disappointed and quite discouraged, the pastors spent the next few weeks praying and talking about alternatives. At one meeting a pastor indicated, “I have heard that a new Associate Director the State’s Department of Education is a believer. Possibly we could talk with him about ideas.” All the pastors agreed that talking with the new leader was a good idea and identified a small team of pastors to make the visit.
The Education Department leader listened to the pastors share their concern for their city and how they had taken time to listen to key leadership in all sectors of the city regarding its needs. He heard about the local education department’s reaction to the churches offer for help. He indicated to the pastors, “One of my responsibilities is dealing with schools in our State that are in trouble — failing in their mission. Out of hundreds of schools in the State we have about 25-26 that are doing poorly. Six of them are in your city.” He asked the pastors, “Are you serious? Will you make a long-term commitment to genuinely help in these schools? I can make it possible for you to be able to access these schools. But, will I be embarrassed by your action — or thankful?”
Given permission, the pastors put together teams to quietly call on the leadership in each of the school — listening carefully regarding the greatest needs and problems. When the pastor’s teams compared notes they found that, among the schools, two of the greatest problems were 1) tutoring or help for immigrant and low-income families due to their limited knowledge of the language 2) orientation for immigrant parents who did not know the regulations of the educational system, how to enroll their children, how to get medical help available in the community, etc.
Soon the churches formed tutorial assistance teams for each of the schools. Each team was made up of members of the churches — men and women with varied background who volunteered their time. Each believed that in doing this service they were witnessing to the love and power of Jesus. Positive reports began to come back from students, teachers, and school leaders. But, as the teams worked with students they found many other issues such as health, nutrition, need for clothing and school supplies, and a serious lack of understanding of many parents of how to support their children’s education. Some children were arriving at school late; some had had no food before arriving at the school; some had not had their required medical vaccinations; and a number were inadequately clothed.
As a next step the churches organized 1) orientation for parents — how to enroll children both in school and community programs that would be helpful; how to prepare your child for school and continue to provide on-going support so the children could do well rather than fail. 2) Nutrition and “parenting” classes helping parents realize the importance of food for both healthy bodies as well as healthy minds; discipline that is both loving and effective; and how the parents could actually help or be involved at the schools — learning more about the educational system while, at the same time, helping in practical ways. Some of the parents asked who these people were and why were they doing these things for them, their children, and the schools. Were they being paid by the government — or someone else? When they found that they were volunteers from local churches, with no pay but only love for God and desire to serve, they didn’t understand but were impressed. Some actually visited nearby churches. Volunteer lay people from the churches, the pastors, the school leadership as well as regular teachers were all thankful and appreciated the progress being made.
As they worked with the students the volunteers from the churches found that many of the children didn’t have basic resources to get their school supplies, get their health exams, or day to day clothing. As a result, the second year of the program a “Back To School Festival” was developed by the churches and the lay teams. Over 20 local businesses donated basic school supplies — pencils, pen, erasers, note paper, etc. Over 1200 bags of supplies were organized. Held on the grounds of a sports field associated with the schools, on the day of the Festival several thousand people showed up — parents, relatives, and children. Police and fire departments set up displays of equipment and simple educational programs about what each did. A health clinic did basic health exams, particularly for the younger children. Nearby military bases brought specialized equipment which the students could ‘explore.’ Throughout the day, food was donated by restaurants and local grocery stores. And, a special exhibit offered the Bible in several languages — free. Over 1,000 were given away in that one day. And, as reports were compiled and stories told, it was clear that, beyond the visible service or, “cup of cold water” in Jesus’ name, many students came to Christ as did many parents — a significant number actually taking up regular attendance and participation in the local chuches.
From the initial group of nearly 40 pastors, a working committee, a kind of ‘facilitation team’ had emerged made up of lay people and two pastors. This facilitation team guided the increasingly diverse elements of the initiative.
The initiative continued for 3-4 years. Students’ examination grades steadily improved; more teachers stayed with the schools rather than leaving; and the administration of the local school district which had rejected the churches’ initial offer of help came to the group and asked, “We have been impressed by what you have done. Could we open our talks again?” Clearly God was on the move.
The Bad News
From the beginning, the whole initiative was challenging. It took a great deal of vision, time, and human resources but that the actual financial cost was modest because so much time and physical resources were donated. But as experience has shown, effectiveness over the long term takes extraordinary commitment. There needs to be continuity of vision and leadership. In the case of this initiative, many of the original participants, pastors and lay people, moved to new jobs, moved to other locations, or had other priorities emerge in their lives. So, without strong commitment driven by a compelling vision and equally strong leadership, within five years the initiative slowly died.
- What could have been done to keep the initiative going — to actually strengthen its spiritual ministry and Kingdom impact?
- What could have been learned in this initiative that could have been applied to other key areas of need in the city?
- What did the churches learn about the power of working together in partnership — the ability to do together something that would never be possible by a single group?