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Back to school means back to missions

What’s your church’s ‘level of engagement’?

by Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today 

Back to school means back to missions. PT Sept/Oct

Children going back to school can bring many mission opportunities — beyond blessing backpacks — for today’s congregations. Photo by Yobro10/Dreamstime

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — no, not Christmas, although it wouldn’t be surprising if jolly elves and holiday trees were already on retail shelves mingling with Halloween merchandise.

It’s back to school time, and for parents that means helping children sharpen their pencils and charge their laptops in preparation for the first day. For children it means adapting to new morning routines and getting back to a studying and test-taking rhythm. And for pastors, it’s that wonderful time of year to bless school backpacks.

The Blessing of the Backpacks has been a popular service for many churches, especially those with older congregations filled with empty nesters, as it gives them an opportunity to show children and their families that they care. Blessing backpacks is also meaningful to anxious parents, as sending children to school these days is not without worry. Parents’ concerns for their children’s safety in the classroom escalate with each new act of violence reported in the news. What parent wouldn’t want extra blessings for their children?

There are many ways to bless backpacks, too. Some pastors do so during a Sunday worship service while gathered around the baptismal font, reminding the Body of Christ of its promise to be part of nurturing children’s faith. While others, like Parkwood Presbyterian Church in Jenison, Michigan, use it as an opportunity for community outreach, holding it in a park on a Sunday afternoon. The Rev. Sarah Juist not only blesses backpacks, but also prayers for teachers and school staff are lifted as well.

While blessing backpacks is popular in big and small churches, it is only the start to what congregations can — and should — be doing to engage more deeply with local schools. According to Dr. Irvin Scott, a faculty member of Harvard Graduate School of Education, backpack blessings have grown over the years because they provide a relatively hassle-free, easy-to-execute outreach to families. “It’s a good first step,” said Scott, with emphasis on “first.”

Dr. Irvin Scott, a faculty member of Harvard Graduate School of Education,  identifies the “levels of engagement” of faith communities and public schools. Courtesy of the Leadership Institute of Faith and Education

Scott, who spent more than 20 years in the trenches of education, serving as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in the Boston area, is passionate about bringing faith and schools together. In 2017, a year after joining the Harvard faculty, he started an initiative to foster educational advocacy among faith communities called “L.I.F.E.” or the Leadership Institute for Faith and Education. Through his work, Scott identifies the “levels of engagement” of faith communities.

Level One, he says, includes such activities as blessing backpacks. This is the “transactional level,” he explained. “It’s where we have a church on the corner and a school up the road, and the question of how we can help arises. The child has a backpack. The pastor has a blessing. Or perhaps a child needs a backpack filled with school supplies. The church provides one,” he said. But while such transactions are important, faith communities should not stop there, says Scott.

 Building relationships

The next level congregations should be striving for is Level Two, which is “relational.”

“This is where faith communities make a commitment to spend time with children, getting to know them and understanding the kids. This is where conversations take place with the principals, hearing about the challenges children are facing. It is exactly these conversations that will provide a better understanding as to how a faith community can walk alongside the educational system,” said Scott, noting that “becoming relational means mission efforts are more targeted.”

For Paula Larson, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church of Boyne City, Michigan, being a faith community that is building relationships with school children looks like this: sitting on hard bleachers in all kinds of weather rooting for the girls’ cross country team.

When elders from the church, which has gone years without an installed pastor, became aware of how poorly attended the track meets were, they got a group together to be the girls’ cheering squad. And for the benefit of those wondering who the clapping, smiling, cheering people were that suddenly appeared, T-shirts with “Have you hugged a Presbyterian?” were worn.

Attending the girls’ cross country events got Larson thinking about how else First Presbyterian could be involved with the school. She called the school administrator to find out. When she was told that there was a need for fresh fruit at after-school sporting events, Larson answered, “We could provide that.”

“If First Presbyterian wasn’t paying for a pastor, we could at least pay for the fruit,” she said. Before hanging up, the school administrator thanked Larson with words that will forever be embedded in the lay leader’s heart: “I am so happy that you called us.”

Advocacy is the goal

As Larson and the flock at First Presbyterian illustrate how to build relationships with school children and administrators, Scott says the next level, Level Three, is the most important level: advocating for change.

“This is where faith communities work to get to the root causes of problems. It goes beyond asking what a need is and filling it. It’s where the tough question, ‘Why?’ is asked: Why do we bless backpacks? Why do children even need churches to provide them backpacks?” he said.

The Rev. Margery Rossi lives in a space where she is always asking “Why?” after learning about every need and challenge. The recently installed pastor of South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, New York, has been tirelessly working for justice for years: carrying picket signs, attending rallies and grabbing a megaphone to speak out about climate issues, gun violence and women’s rights. The pastor is also a mother who has been active in the local Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) since her oldest son was in school, working book sales and providing cookies for bake sales.

While her son is now 20, that hasn’t stopped Rossi from caring for the next generation of schoolchildren. As co-chairperson of the advocacy committee for the school district’s PTO, she became aware of a national program, the Safe Routes Partnership, which seeks to develop streets that are safe for children to walk to school — safe from ongoing traffic and safe from child sex predators.

According to a University of Michigan study, the concern about safety is the main reason that less than 13% of U.S. children walked or biked to school in 2004, compared to more than 50% who did so in 1969. The findings, which are published here, linked the decline in children walking to school to parental concerns about the speed and volume of traffic, the possibility of crime and unwelcoming paths lacking safe sidewalks and even greenery. “The greener the route, the more likely it is that children will walk,” said Byoung-Suk Kweon, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

With the goal of providing safer streets for children in one of Westchester County’s towns, Peekskill, Rossi and other concerned residents and school officials formed Safe Routes Peekskill, a coalition of the Peekskill city school district, the Peekskill PTO and Peekskill Walks.

In their initial meetings, the group made plans to visit all the schools in the district over the course of six weeks, observing the condition of roads and sidewalks, the amount of traffic and the presence or absence of stop signs and traffic lights — even taking note of landscaping and if there were questionable empty lots with overgrown grass, etc. The group then brought their findings to city officials, requesting that the needed improvements be done. This fall, the advocacy group is also launching “walking school buses” — where groups of children walk together led by an adult — as well as a Family Safety Education Day.

For Rossi, advocating in this way helps not just the children. It has helped open conversations among the parents of those children as well as those in her congregation on how to get more involved in creating change within systems.

“Safe Routes Peekskill is also training parents on how to work with city government. We teach them how to organize, write letters and interact with officials,” said Rossi, adding that the safe routes for children was also a noncontentious issue that is bringing folks together.

“We didn’t want to turn our advocacy efforts into a battleground. A safe environment for children to walk is an issue that is not partisan,” said Rossi. And getting more people who sit in the pews on Sunday mornings hearing the Gospel message to “love one another” to become more comfortable with advocacy work is a mission of Rossi’s that is getting noticed.

During her first week settling into her new office at South Presbyterian, a member dropped by to visit. The conversation turned to the work the pastor was doing with Safe Routes Peekskill.

“The member was excited about it and wondered about doing something similar in Dobbs Ferry,” said Rossi.

Hearing that makes people like Harvard’s Scott smile. “Faith communities can engage in schools in a way that does create change,” he said, adding that “levels of engagement” can also be seen through the mission and ministry of Christ himself.

“Level One is transactional. Think of Jesus seeing the hungry crowd and feeding all 5,000. Level Two is relational. Here we have the model of Jesus meeting one-on-one with others and listening to them: such as the woman at the well and the visit with Nicodemus. And Level Three, advocacy, is Jesus seeking to overturn the systems of the day,” said Scott. And it can all begin with blessing a backpack.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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