Elementary Lessons on Loaves and Fish
How Bethany Covenant Church’s outreach to a local grade school inspired a community-wide movement
By Greg Applequist with Marc Papai | June 1, 2016
It all started four years ago with an email from my daughter’s kindergarten teacher at Adrian Elementary School in South Euclid, Ohio. South Euclid is an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, built as a bedroom community in the post-World War II expansion. It has undergone major social change in the last ten years, yet continues to have a strong public school commitment and sense of community.
Adrian Elementary was looking for parents who could help in the classroom. Since it seemed like a good opportunity to see what was happening in our new school, I signed up. Each Monday I taught kindergarteners how to use their scissors, read them a story, or helped them work out which number was which. Mondays soon became one of the best times of my week. Little did I know that this would be one small fish, offered to Jesus, who would multiply it beyond imagining.
The congregation at Bethany Covenant Church, where I serve as pastor, was also undergoing change. In particular, we were convicted that we should care in practical ways about our community. We wondered and prayed about how we could engage in ministry that was local, relational, and sustainable. We decided to try a “weekend of service” where we engaged with a number of different ministries in our area.
One of those areas was at Adrian Elementary School, and we contacted the principal, Mark Woodby, to see if there were ways we could help. Adrian is a kindergarten through third-grade elementary school with about 225 students, and while it is located only two miles from church, it differs in many ways from our community at Bethany. Our church is mostly white and the school is mostly African American. Our congregation is mostly middle-income, many of the families at Adrian are economically at-risk. For many Adrian students, the school-provided breakfast and lunch are not a matter of convenience but a matter of necessity.
In speaking with Dr. Woodby, we offered to help in whatever way he desired. His first suggestion was that we come in during winter break and give all the desks a deep cleaning! We willingly accepted this request, and our people took it a step further, writing notes for each teacher and praying for them as we cleaned classroom after classroom. Later that spring we provided some homemade breakfast snacks for the staff—“loaves and fish” offered to Jesus.
The following fall we collected piles of school supplies to give to the school. When Dr. Woodby asked if we would consider providing volunteer tutors, eight members from our church signed up. A tutor came to each kindergarten, first-, and second-grade class every week for at least an hour. It didn’t take long for the students to capture our hearts! Relationships were being built with teachers, trust was forming, lives were connecting in many beautiful, difficult, complicated, and painful ways. We began learning about students who didn’t have beds to sleep on, homes where violence was common, family members who were coming home from prison. Our eyes were opened to the real brokenness of our community. Jesus was beginning to change us.
Our relationship with Dr. Woodby grew and trust deepened. He invited us to read A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne. We were stunned by what we learned in this very helpful book and wanted to continue the conversation. After a Sunday worship service, twenty people from Bethany gathered with Dr. Woodby, social worker Shannon Carlson, and six teachers to discuss this book and the implications poverty was having on our community.
We learned that in reality, teachers only had three and a half or four days a week to teach their students. Due to the chaos in some of the students’ homes, weekends were difficult for kids. That means they weren’t mentally ready to learn until Monday afternoon. Likewise, by Friday afternoon many students were wondering what their weekend would look like: Who would be at home? What would they eat? These questions and situations were making it difficult for teachers to teach in ways where students could learn. Our eyes were being opened to see the real challenges our neighbors were facing.
We learned that in reality, teachers only had three and a half or four days a week to teach their students.
We continued to bring tutors to the school, but the school wanted to show us that we were in a mutual relationship. The third-grade gospel choir came and performed a holiday concert at church (with seventy-five of their family members!), and shared a light meal and a craft afterward. Later, seventeen of those third graders came to help at our spring rummage sale. Teachers came to worship with us, sharing what it meant to them to have our tutors in their building. Our tutors were discovering the joy of taking a risk, of the servant posture that is our dignity as followers of the servant King.
But the journey was not always easy for the church. Lots of focus was being given to one elementary school. Some church folk wondered if we had stopped caring for our own members. Some wondered why we weren’t more involved in other places. Some were nervous about the risks involved with stepping out to welcome new people. Issues of race and economic class lurked in the background. There were some difficult and painful conversations along the way. We sought to love one another well and to stay with the call to do justice as we understood it. Even with intentional conversations about the reasoning and potential opportunities to serve at Adrian, a number of people chose to leave our church.
But the journey was not always easy for the church. … Some church folk wondered if we had stopped caring for our own members.
As we entered our third year in partnership with the school, Shannon became the social worker for the entire district of seven schools. She had been instrumental in working with Bethany and another church to form partnerships at the elementary schools, and she wondered if these relationships could be expanded to all of the schools in the district. We invited her to a meeting of the local clergy cluster group. The other clergy were very excited to see what could possibly happen as faith communities and the school district worked together to serve our community families. In less than a year, each of the district’s seven schools had at least one church partner! Amazing things began to happen.
A Presbyterian church worked with the high school to send folks from their church to speak to students about what they do for a living. A Methodist church began an after-school program for fourth through sixth graders, where many students from the high school come to help with the younger kids. The Catholic church decided to house a clothing bank. Another Methodist church provided tutoring and special food bags during school breaks to families in need. Last fall the elementary schools had community food drives and then gave the food to that same church so that the food of our community is available to people in our community. A growing church plant developed a leadership curriculum for seventh grade boys who were starting to make some bad decisions. A UCC church began to connect high school students with police officers in healthy ways. We had a community Thanksgiving service where we collected an offering for the church that hosts the local food bank. And last Christmas all of these churches joined together to provide gifts and food to thirty-three families (118 children). Jesus has taken our meager offerings and multiplied them in ways we never dreamed were possible.
Where do we go from here? We don’t have a master plan. But we do continue to look to follow Jesus in ways that go beyond compassion and addressing immediate needs to seeking deeper change. Shannon says, “Going forward, I see continued collaboration between the school district and faith-based partners. I see students being exposed to diversity and opportunities within our community through our faith-based partners.”
The school district identifies core beliefs that include, “diversity strengthens and enriches our communities” and “education is the responsibility of the entire community.” Shannon continues, “I see us continuing to work together to demonstrate those beliefs.”
And Dr. Woodby says, “This partnership with Adrian and Bethany Covenant has been grounded in the unified focus of a congregation’s caring heart for children within the community. It still prospers and grows, and has stayed the test of time. When partnerships have a purpose and a vision that is clear, meaningful change will occur.”
We continue to pray that God will open doors for us to build ever stronger relationships with families, and allow us to change one another. It is the wisdom of God that brings healing in both directions when we enter real relationships of humility and practical love.
All of this happened because we believe God invites us to care for our neighbors. We simply said yes to the invitation and try to keep saying yes. God has certainly done more than we ever asked or imagined. All of the churches want to expand beyond working with teachers and students to engage families at deep and meaningful levels. We want to see each person in our church communities continue to take risks for the gospel, and we desire for all in our neighborhoods to be transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. Our hope is that each of us will continue to say yes when Jesus asks us for our little loaves and small fish. To God be the glory! CC