FROM THE STATES: Fla. public schools evangelism/missions news; Former Ark. inmate takes CWJC scholarship award
Public school partnerships offer unique opportunities
By Nicole Kalil/Florida Baptist Witness
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (BP) -- As churches continue to seek out new ways to connect with and impact their communities, many are discovering an overlooked mission field right in their own backyards.
It's their neighborhood public school.
As students all over the state have been heading back to school during the past few weeks, Florida Baptists have been reaching out to serve "the least of these" in ways both big and small.
"Public schools are a mission field, and this is a way we can show Christ's love to them," said Jason Mole, family pastor at First Baptist Church in Kissimmee.
Mole said that his church's work with five area schools stems from Senior Pastor Tim Wilder's vision to make a difference in the schools around them.
All five of the schools FBC Kissimmee partners with are within three miles of the church.
Mole's church likes to capitalize on the fall and Christmas seasons because they offer organic opportunities to serve students, teachers and staff.
For Christmas several years ago, FBC Kissimmee bought a gift for every student at Central Avenue Elementary School. Mole said they bought, wrapped and delivered more than 800 presents.
And to get elementary students at all the schools off to a strong start last year, the church gave away 1,000 backpacks filled with the school supplies required for each grade level.
This year, church volunteers fanned out to four of the schools to serve in whatever capacity was needed, from painting and pressure washing to putting together student packets and landscaping.
Pine Grove Baptist Church in Trenton also capitalizes on opportunities that the back-to school season brings.
Emanuel Harris, worship and children's pastor at Pine Grove, described their annual Back to School Bash and carnival that benefits students and families in Gilchrist, Dixie and Levy counties.
In its fourth year, Harris said this year's bash was the biggest so far, with an estimated 1,000 people enjoying free hot dogs and drinks, inflatable bounce houses and water slides. One of the Levy County hospice thrift stores set up a clothes closet for those in need, and 780 backpacks full of school supplies were handed out. While parents picked up clothes and school supplies, children were offered tours of a sheriff's office helicopter and fire trucks.
Pine Grove also helps feed students in need with a backpack filled with food for them to take home for the weekend.
Mike Reed, senior pastor of San Jose Baptist in Jacksonville, has made meeting the needs of nearby San Jose Elementary a priority for his congregation.
"God can't work on the campus of San Jose Elementary if the members of San Jose Baptist stay on our campus," he said.
To that end, members of San Jose Baptist, both young and old, interact with the school frequently throughout the year.
Reed said in previous years their youth ministry has gone to the school to help clean up and plant flowers. Senior adults volunteer in classrooms weekly, providing whatever support the teachers need.
Reed also encourages his members to buy a membership in the school's PTA in order to help fund them.
Teachers at San Jose Elementary are not left out of the mix. The church makes sure to bless them with breakfast or lunch on the first day of school as well as during teacher workdays.
Jeff Litton, missions engagement coordinator at the Jacksonville Baptist Association, encourages churches in his association to forge deep relationships with the schools they serve and do more than just help with supplies once a year.
"Get to know staff, teachers, students and families," he said. "You uncover needs as you get into deeper relationships."
Reed said it's important to minister to the school at critical times, like the beginning of a new school year, because it can open the door for more ministry opportunities if something traumatic happens at school or in the life of a student or faculty member.
All the churches that we spoke with for this story agree that a good relationship with the school's principal is the entry point and first priority for any church.
With a principal's busy schedule and many responsibilities, Reed said it can sometimes be hard for principals to be able to communicate what their needs are or even to entertain the idea of a relationship at all.
"If you go to a principal and they say they're not ready, give them your contact information and let them know you want to serve and help," Reed advised.
Principal Paula Smith at San Jose Elementary said in written remarks: "[The relationship] has been a huge asset for San Jose Elementary for many years and continues to provide us with many blessings! From school supplies to campus beautification and consistent volunteers and incentives, San Jose Baptist has supported our school in various aspects when or wherever there is a need!"
Harris at Pine Grove said that his church's involvement at school has given them a "respected" voice with their local school board.
Harris said part of maintaining that healthy relationship is respecting the guidelines that the district sets out for separation of church and state.
"We're very careful," he said. "We review with the school board the religious liberty guidelines and what line they don't want us to cross."
Harris said it's worth it to play by the school board's rules because they want to continue to have a voice with the public school system.
"Those who are noncompliant are not asked back and they lose the opportunity," he added.
It's an opportunity that Kevin Jones believes churches should not squander.
Jones, assistant professor of teacher education at Boyce College, Southern Seminary's undergraduate school, said that he hopes churches are seeking ways to engage with neighborhood schools.
"As Christians, we are committed to share the Gospel with all people, to pray for the lost and to serve not only one another within the body of Christ or a local church, but also unbelievers," he said.
Many churches around the state have taken advantage of the Gospel opportunities on the mission field known as the public school campus.
Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has encouraged all 160 of the schools in his district to partner with a faith based organization, which up to this point have mainly been area churches. A total of 120 of his schools already have these partnerships, and he is optimistic about more schools being positively impacted by these relationships.
"It's unquestionable that there is a strong faith-based presence in Jacksonville, and we should leverage it to do more for our children and fill in where there are gaps," he said.
Litton said at last count, there were at least 40 JBA churches with at least one school partner, and there could be even more.
"I would hope that there would be an increase in this type of involvement," Jones said.
This story appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness. Nicole Kalil writes for the Witness.
CWJC scholarship winner: Shaffer, from prison to purpose
By Lisa Falknor/Arkansas Baptist News
FORT SMITH, Ark. (BP) -- In her 32 years, Christine Shaffer has worn many labels. Pregnant at 15 and again at 17, society branded her an unwed mother. At the age of 19 -- weighing a scant 98 pounds -- "friends" called her a meth addict and drug dealer. And, at 23, the state of Arkansas marked her with another title: prisoner.
During her 366 days in prison, she committed her life to Christ.
This year, Aug. 3, Shaffer held an award representing her most recent title, an identifying marker to forward her graduate school dreams. Shaffer is the 2015 national $1,000 Faye Dove Scholarship Award winner.
"I cried a little when I found out I won," she said. "It's a big deal to be picked among everyone in the nation."
Today, she's a college graduate, a River Valley Christian Life Corps (RVCLC) weekly volunteer and mentor, a married mother of four and, finally, according to the county where she lives, someone without a record.
"Christine has gone over and above the norm," said Mary Ramsey, state coordinator for Christian Women's Job Corps/Christian Men's Job Corps who presented the award.
"She's met every goal with God's help. She came from back here, but now she's up here" Ramsey said, motioning first behind her and then above her head to demonstrate the progress Shaffer has made.
To Shaffer, in order to come from "back here" to "up here," she needed her record expunged.
When she got out of jail, no one wanted to hire a felon, she said. She said one lady at a staffing agency "laid it out for me straight." The lady laughed at her, saying, "You can't do anything with your record."
Still, Shaffer held on to Bible verses studied in the unlikeliest of places -- the prison laundry room: "I would stay up all night in jail to read the Bible and pray while I did my work-study."
"My life lesson I learned in prison is to lean on God," Shaffer said.
Among the verses she read were "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13) and "Nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37).
Getting her record expunged seemed impossible.
"The laws have changed," the judge told her. "It will take five years."
That's what led her to the RVCLC, formerly Fort Smith Christian Women's Job Corps.
"I thought I was looking for a career plan," Shaffer wrote to the national WMU Faye Dove Scholarship board, "but what I found was discipleship and love."
"The one word I always use to describe CWJC is 'discipleship,'" said Ramsey.
The program is set up based on Christ-centered mentoring.
"Without Christ and without these women mentors teaching other women to pray and to live by His Word, CWJC would not be successful," she said.
"We did Bible study every time we met," said Shaffer's mentor, Roxana King, 61. "I'd give her a goal for the week and try to help and encourage her."
"My dream is to build a home for women transitioning out of jail," Shaffer said. "I want to teach women life and parenting skills, to be an encourager, to give people hope."
"I want to teach them how to live for Jesus," she said.
Even though the judge said the expunction would take five years, with RVCLC's help, it took five months.
"I'm well on my way," Shaffer told the Aug. 3 crowd, smiling.
Shaffer plans to graduate in 2017 at an accredited Arkansas Christian college with a master's degree in mental health and family counseling.
This story appeared in the Arkansas Baptist News. Lisa Falknor is northwest correspondent for the Arkansas Baptist News.
EDITOR'S NOTE: From the States, published each Tuesday by Baptist Press, relays news and feature stories from state Baptist papers and other publications on initiatives by Baptist churches, associations and state conventions in evangelism, church planting and Great Commission outreach, including partnership missions. Reports about churches, associations and state conventions responding to the International Mission Board's call to embrace the world's 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups also are included in From the States, along with reports about church, associational and state convention initiatives in conjunction with the North American Mission Board's call to Southern Baptist churches to broaden their efforts in starting new churches and satellite campuses. The items appear in Baptist Press as originally published.