My mother served as the principal of two different public schools I attended.
Most of the time it was not an issue. In seventh grade, however, I did learn that it is especially awkward being called to the principal’s office when your mom is the one who is waiting for you behind the desk.
Despite that dark time, I have always had a desire to connect with and serve local schools in my ministry.
Whether personally or as a congregation, I have long believed that schools and churches have much to offer each other in mutually beneficial ways that bless the church, school and greater community.
I have seen firsthand in my mom, and in countless other educators I have known, the passion and sacrifice that teachers make to lead and serve their students.
My prayer has always been for God to open organic and sustainable ways that our church could make a difference in our local schools. Last fall, God began to answer those prayers.
In September, our church hired a new associate minister with a passion for local mission work.
Through her connections, we were able to meet with a public school employee who specifically serves the homeless students and their families in our area. Our meeting was simply an opportunity to find ways to help.
After sharing about the need and issues that arise for these students and their families, she mentioned that one of our two local middle schools did not have a backpack buddy program.
She had begun a backpack buddy program at the other middle school previously, but she always grieved that the whims of school districts dictated whether or not hungry middle school students were able to participate in this program.
Backpack buddies provide food-insecure children, the ones who rely on free and reduced cost meals at school as their primary source of nutrition, with meals to carry home in backpacks for weekends.
We presented this suggestion to our church. They warmly welcomed the opportunity.
Several months after the launch of this program, we met with the public school employee again.
She mentioned that with the addition of our new program, there were only two schools left in the area that did not have backpack buddies.
We felt led to take on those schools as well. We knew, however, that we were reaching the end of what we were able to do with only our church’s resources.
This led us to connect with our county food bank, which allows us to supplement for free what our congregation donates.
We are now able serve three schools and more than 30 students each week, ensuring that they are able to eat more consistently when school is not meeting.
Through this program, we then began dreaming about how else we could be a blessing to the schools.
Step by step, God was opening doors and expanding opportunities for us to serve.
Our church decided to sponsor a kindness club at the middle school where our backpack buddy program existed. This club began a few weeks ago, in the middle of the spring semester.
With little fanfare and no precedence of a club of this type, we were hoping at least a few kids would show up, but we did not know if any would come. We were so pleased to see a dozen middle school students join us.
When we asked why they came, the answers varied greatly. The one answer that stuck out to me, though, was a thoughtful student who said, “Middle school is hard, and I think if we were kinder to each other it would be easier.”
Even more impressive, these students brought energy and excitement behind finding ways to spread kindness in their schools.
What was initially scheduled to be monthly meetings of the kindness club was quickly changed to every other week so that the ideas and plans of these participants had time to develop and grow.
With the safety of all students and the threat of school violence back in the national discussion, we are working to continue to nurture and develop our partnerships with our local schools.
We face difficult challenges as a culture. Serious issues are being dismissed in immature and flippant ways.
Churches have an opportunity to be salt and light amid the mess. We can be the voice of kindness and creativity to find ways to bless the students and staff for the glory of God and the good of our community.
Jesus was continually standing outside the polarization and easy answers of his day; he invites us to do the same now.
Step by step, God has opened doors for our church to walk with these students and so many more in our area.
Our prayer is that they will know the love of Christ through our example, our service and our kindness.
Patrick DeVane serves as senior pastor of College Parkway Baptist Church in Arnold, Maryland.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on public education. Previous articles in the series are:
OK’s Students Deserve More Than Lawmakers’ Crumbs by Brad Moore
Celebrating the Hard but Glorious Work of Teaching by Steve Straessle
It’s Time for Christians to Stand Up for Public Schools by Anika T. Whitfield
Christians for Public Education by Mitch Randall
4 Ways Your Church Can Support Public Education by Michael Ruffin
Ministering in Our Schools Prepares Kids for Future by Suzii Paynter
Right Side of History: Removing Barriers to Education by Colin Harris
Why Privatizing Public Schools Threatens Education by Diane Ravitch
Pastors’ Group Supports Strong Education for All Kids by Charles Foster Johnson