Jesus called the children over to him and said, “Let the children come to me! Don’t try to stop them. People who are like these children belong to God’s kingdom. You will never get into God’s kingdom unless you enter it like a child!” (Luke 18:16-17, CEV)
This familiar passage from Luke was the text on the Sunday in 2005 when I was convicted by my own sermon. On that Children’s Sabbath I asked, “Who’s Watching the Children?” and I sensed God’s strong call for us to do more for the children in our community. It was time to expand the church’s long and ongoing commitment to the community. We decided to begin close to home, with the public elementary school in our neighborhood, which reflects the struggles and the need in our community. More than 65% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and breakfast. Like Centennial UMC the children are diverse; more than fifty percent are children of color.
The next fall the congregation responded out of their wealth of knowledge and love, building a relationship with the school by starting an after school tutoring program. Over these past six years, every week during the school year, members of Centennial have helped children who are struggling with their homework, one-on-one. We have seen children grow and excel. Our tutoring program has also grown through the years. More than that, our relationship with the students and staff has deepened through the years. We have occasionally provided a luncheon for the teachers and have collected school supplies and backpacks for the children. Last Christmas we decided to do more. As a Christmas gift to Jesus, members of the church decided to give a $50 gift card to every staff member of the school: teachers, teacher’s aides, custodians, secretaries, after school caregivers and the principal.
Although it was our Christmas gift to Jesus, we gave the cards as New Year’s gifts to the staff members, along with a simple note of our deep appreciation for all they do for the children in our community.
The ripple effects of that gift to Jesus have been ongoing. If you had been at the school in the immediate weeks following you would have heard the sounds of God’s Kingdom celebration breaking out. When Joyce Rasmussen, the leader of our tutoring team, handed the envelopes to the principal her eyes got big. She started to tear up, saying, “Oh, my goodness! We rarely get any appreciation, even a note!” Later, the principal told us that staff people kept thanking her. She told them, “It wasn’t me, it’s from Centennial United Methodist Church.”
Our tutors say it’s even more fun to go to the school these days! When they come on campus, everyone stops them to say thank you, from the aide in the resource room, teachers who come by the tutoring classroom to express their delight and thanks, to the parent (also an aide on the playground) who was thrilled! One woman said she had been at the school 18 years and had never experienced anything like it.
Another person from Centennial recently joined the tutoring team. She said the first day she was on site every single adult she passed asked if she was from the church. They were full of thanks. They said, “It was such a wonderful surprise for all of us!” It was clear that they had been talking, celebrating.
A couple of months later a staff member from Hollywood Park Elementary delivered a beautiful bouquet of roses to the church with a handmade thank you card signed by several staff members saying how much the gift meant to them.
We hope and trust that this small gesture will have a positive impact on the children too. Just last week, we saw signs of that impact as the ripples still continue. As our tutors were setting up, before the final school bell sounded, a teacher and class of students with special needs filed into the tutoring classroom. The teacher told the tutors that is was how she and another teacher had used the gifts. The children thanked the tutors and presented a cake they made themselves. Just this week another teacher invited our tutors to come by after open house to see how she used the gift from the church. Aren’t they remarkable teachers, using those gift for their students?
We hope to find more ways to follow Jesus and partner with these wonderful people who give so much to the children in our community. It’s hard to tell who’s been having more fun: the children, the school staff, the tutors, or members of the church! Can you hear the Kingdom celebration? It seems everyone involved has been lifted by the experience. That’s just like God.