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Photo Courtesy of Abbey Jackson

Abbey Jackson (left) and Ena Boldern flank recent Teen Center graduate Karen Bravo of Omaha, Nebraska.

Photo Courtesy of St. Andrew's United Methodist Church

Grateful students from Dover (Florida) Elementary School thank volunteers from St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Brandon, Florida.

Photo Courtesy of St. Andrew's United Methodist Church.

Nancy Plate, a volunteer from St. Andrew's United Methodist Church, reads to young students at Dover (Florida) Elementary School.

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A Procession of Hopefulness

By Vince Isner
July-August 2015

Church-school partnerships

The view from the pastor's study at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska, might be the envy of many clergy. There is no stunning cityscape, pastoral farmland or tree-lined street. It is a neighborhood locked in a pocket of poverty created by the effect of a major freeway slicing through the city.

Yet, every afternoon at 3:15, the Rev. Chad Anglemyer looks from his vantage point upon what he calls "a procession of hopefulness." He sees 50 or more students making their way across a busy street from nearby Burke High School straight to the doors of St. Luke's Teen Center. The ministry provides a safe, nourishing space for teens who might otherwise have no place to go during the late afternoon hours.

MEET KAREN BRAVO

When Burke High School student Karen Bravo first stepped into the St. Luke United Methodist Church Teen Center in Omaha, Nebraska, as a freshman, she was surprised – and suspicious.

"I grew up with a mother and four half-siblings," she explains. "I had to do almost all of the caregiving. My mother taught me that people were never to be trusted but to be used. She never allowed me to watch TV, have friends or go out, not even to the doctor. I learned from her that if someone was nice, they wanted something from me. I always kept to myself and didn't trust anyone. Lots of times, I had so many chores that I would miss the school bus and walk two miles to get the city bus to get to school two hours late."

Then Bravo heard about Teen Center and met director Abbey Jackson. "Everyone was so nice," she says. "They actually listened to me. I slowly learned to trust them. When Abbey learned how isolated I was and how hard it was to get to where I needed to be, she picked me up herself to take me to school and arranged for others to help me get to where I needed to be."

Over time, Bravo began to trust her friends and mentors at the Teen Center. "They were so kind, and there were so many resources. I began to receive tutoring and became involved with the college-prep program. There were warm meals, study time and recreation time. Whatever I needed I could find at the Teen Center," she says.

Bravo began to see herself, not through the distorted lens of a dysfunctional home life, but with the clear, uncluttered vision of who she was and who she wished to become.

This year, Bravo graduated with honors and received a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Nebraska. "I plan to become a forensic psychologist and counselor," she says, "so I can help other Latin-American kids. I know firsthand how hard it is for kids to be in the court system, especially where there is child neglect and abuse. I want to help them find a better way."

Abbey Jackson, director, explains how what began as an after-school tutoring program 10 years ago is today a vital ministry that has served more than 2,000 students and has helped Burke achieve a 90 percent graduation rate, something unheard of in other economically challenged neighborhoods.

"Early on," she recalls, "we provided tutoring and a safe place for students, but every year, we figure out the obstacles our students are facing and add more programming."

Today Teen Center provides one-on-one tutoring by as many as 10 of the school's teachers, a recreation program, warm meals, books, supplies, computers and other tech resources, and a robust college-prep initiative developed with the U.S. Department of Education. The ministry extends to the students' families. For many, the Teen Center is their first place to address issues from food insecurity to navigating the labyrinth of obtaining college financial aid. As many as 150 students participate each year. Yet, for all the resources it offers, both teens and adults are quick to cite the ministry's most valuable asset – the safe, loving and encouraging relationships forged between students, staff and volunteers.

Burke principal Deborah Frison agrees. "You know, it takes a village, and the village of St. Luke's, while I'm sure it's a ministry for them, also directly benefits our school. The time invested by students is a gain rather than a loss because I know St. Luke's is assuring a safe environment and solid mentoring with adults who are fully committed to working with them."

Asked about success stories, she recalls one student, Karen Bravo, who overcame crushing obstacles at home to graduate with honors and earn a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Nebraska.

Anglemyer calls the program "a ministry of presence."

"We are not about teaching Scripture or doctrine there, but we seek to live out our faith and believe that the presence of Christ can be felt in the relationships that are being formed."

Emphasizing the ‘three Ps'

The Teen Center is one of more than 100 church-school partnerships in the Great Plains Conference, which covers Kansas and Nebraska. The Rev. Evelyn Fisher, director of congregational excellence, emphasizes that conference participation ranges from mini-grants to leadership training events, during which she challenges every church to participate in at least one of three ways:

  • Prayer: praying for public schools and teachers
  • Program: establishing direct partnerships with public schools
  • Policy-level engagement: contacting state legislators and members of Congress to support funding for public education.

Church/school partnerships offer opportunities to become involved in all three avenues of ministry, each of which plays an important role in addressing United Methodism's long-held commitment to public education as outlined in Paragraph 164.e of the Social Principles: "We believe that every person has the right to education. We also believe that the responsibility for education of the young rests with the family, faith communities, and the government. ..."

Annual conference offices are often good places for churches to begin seeking creative solutions for developing church-school partnerships. Staff can provide information and training as well as networking with conference and national boards and agencies.

Yet, there is no substitute for face-to-face connection at the local level. As Anglemyer says, "If you have a church across from a high school, make sure that the pastor is meeting with the principal of that high school because there are built-in opportunities to grow a vibrant ministry."

Called to creative service

In Florida, as in many other agricultural regions, public education must address the multiple needs of migrant children, even when resources are already stretched to the limit. At Dover (Florida) Elementary School, migrant children often arrive late in the semester – sometimes as late as November. This adds to a host of barriers to learning – language, systemic poverty, family instability, lack of nutrition and healthcare and cultural stigma – and creates a challenge that can be overwhelming for students and teachers.

St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Brandon, Florida, saw a creative solution, taking tutors to teachers. Every week, Nancy Plate, mission ministry coordinator, and her team of volunteer tutors make the 10-mile trek to Dover. There they read one-on-one to the students whom teachers say need them the most. Children delight in knowing they have their very own tutors who love to read – and to love the children. Most volunteers are first-time tutors. "You don't have to have a college degree to love on children," Plate says. The program is now in its 10th year.

Surrounding the school on three sides are acres of strawberry fields tended by the students' parents and older siblings – a graphic reminder that ministry with children involves ministry with their families. St. Andrew's tutoring ministry now includes food and clothing drives for families, a blanket Sunday (most children sleep on floors with a single blanket) and advocacy to address systemic immigration issues at the political level.

Other notable partnerships

  • In her 33 years as a recovery-room nurse, Meredith Keep saw firsthand how seat belts saved lives. When funds for the local high school's driver education program were slashed, she led the congregation of Elm Creek (Nebraska) United Methodist Church to raise funds to provide every teenager with a scholarship to attend driver education classes. As many as 15 students complete the training each year.
  • During football and basketball seasons, a lively, post-game ministry at First United Methodist Church of Lyons, Kansas, helps divert energies from cruising to choosing among a variety of activities in a welcoming, safe environment. Church volunteers provide snacks and keep things running smoothly. Kari Troyer, Christian education director, says other churches and community groups are starting to pitch in.
  • Reelfoot Rural Ministries, a Memphis Conference project, provides school supplies for impoverished families in northwest Tennessee and Fulton County, Kentucky. With one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the nation, neither schools nor parents can afford basic supplies, says Donna Chism, the program's financial director. Reelfoot Rural Ministries has served 72 families in a single day, and the need is growing. "Last year 612 families were served through our program," Chism says. She cites the uneven recovery from the 2008 recession as a major reason for the worsening poverty in the region. Local churches also offer supplies, funds and volunteers. The ministries also include children, senior and community services; food distribution; furniture; a thrift store; childcare; and medical and dental services.

The Wesleyan tradition embraces a living faith engaging both the head and the heart. Establishing links between schools and churches allows United Methodists to bless and empower both children and churches.

Vince Isner is a writer, media producer and founder of "Power ToolsTM for Fathers," who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. He has served with United Methodist Communications and the General Board of Church and Society and is founding director of Faithful  America.

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