By Lindsay Peyton
Texas Annual Conference churches in Houston transformed into classrooms, just in time for students to go back to school. A number of elementary schools in the city opted to move online, leaving parents in a challenging situation — often having to choose between work and monitoring and helping their children learn at home. Congregations stepped up to offer a welcomed solution – providing space, technology and volunteers so studies did not have to miss a beat.
The TAC’s “Sanctuaries of Learning” program launched on Sept. 8 for students who no longer had schools to which they could return after summer break. Churches, which were vacant because of the pandemic, had just the answer – plenty of space for children to stay socially distanced and volunteers to provide support.
“It’s just a match made in heaven,” Executive Pastor Enid Henderson, at Jones Memorial UMC, said.
She explained that churches were searching for a way to continue service during the coronavirus. “COVID-19 just forced us to find new ways,” she said. “Even though the church doors are closed, the need is still there. We have to keep doing ministry.”
That means surmounting obstacles and finding creative ways to help neighbors. “It’s not always the easiest route,” Henderson said. “People don’t need easy right now. They need solutions, options and resources. We need to be on the forefront of that.”
Sanctuaries of Learning allows congregations to help close the digital divide — providing children with technology and a connection to the internet. “Now, students can be in a safe environment and be productive,” Henderson said.
At the same time, the pastor wanted to find a way to help parents, who found themselves torn between assisting their children with school and returning to their places of employment to provide for their families.
“This gives parents piece of mind,” Henderson said. “They can focus knowing their kids are at a safe space.”
Jones Memorial UMC is one of 16 United Methodist churches to become Sanctuaries of Learning. Houston’s Trinity UMC is also participating.
The 155-year old church has long been a hub for the community – and a champion for education, senior pastor Rev. Ed Jones said. Becoming a sanctuary of learning simply made sense for the congregation.
“Nobody knows the exact solution right now, but that’s the nuance of the church,” he said. “We walk in faith.”
He also believes that problems are simply opportunities for a new vision. “We need to see how we can be a part of the solution,” Jones said.
Volunteers at his congregation are prepared to accommodate about 75 children. There are eight classrooms ready to go. The church’s fellowship hall and even sanctuary are on standby to offer additional space, if needed.
Already, Jones has received calls from numerous individuals who want to volunteer. “We have assets in terms of people and buildings that can be used,” he said.
The coronavirus has resulted in a number of unexpected firsts, Jones added.
“Who could have told you that you would not be able to go to church — or that more people would be a Sunday school classes even though they couldn’t go to church?” he asked. “Who could have told you that more people would be in Bible studies than before or that they’d be worshiping online?”
And who could have foretold that churches would become makeshift schools for virtual schools?
Jones said that now is also a good time to address the other pandemic – institutional racism. He explained that students of color will be served by Sanctuaries of Learning.
“This is a time when we walk together,” he said. “This is a time when we will be the church – and when we will be allies. This is the time.”
Sanctuaries of Learning is the brainchild of the Rev. Jill Daniel, who serves as director of the We Love All God’s Children initiative. She was already at work building childhood development centers throughout the TAC, when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Schools, churches and educational programs all shut down at once, and Daniel worried about the outcome. She was also concerned about students who depend on school meals for nourishment – and elementary students missing the lessons so critical to their development.
“We know the statistics related to children who aren’t reading at their levels by third grade – they are 80 percent more likely to drop out,” she said. “It sets them up for failure in life. We know that fostering a love of learning at an early age is so important.”
Daniel developed the Sanctuaries of Learning program to provide a safe and stimulating environment for children, while their parents were away at work. In addition to watching virtual lessons, participating churches provide enrichment activities in the afternoon. Some sites even offer extended care for parents who have to work late.
Daniel identified partners, like the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation, to join in the effort. Dr. Elijah Stansell, District Superintendent for the Central South District, also voiced his interest in participating.
Connecting with HISD interim superintendent Grenita Lathan was an important next step. HISD agreed to deliver breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks to each participating church. In addition, the district offered special equipment, staff to supervise children and a security officer, if necessary.
The school district will also provide a Wi-Fi signal, so students at the church can easily connect via computer with their teachers at school. Schools identify students who are at need of the service, which is offered five days a week.
“We’re working with at-risk students — students who face a real need to be in a safe, healthy environment,” Daniel said. “If we can find a way, during this time, to get them into a virtual classroom, to do something that’s exciting and wonderful and gets their hearts pumping about education, then we should.”
She also said that this is a fulfilling way for churches to answer a call to serve, to be more connectional and extend radical hospitality to their neighborhoods.
“When you’re generous with heart, time and service, people are drawn to that,” she said. “This is such a unique opportunity for us to be the church. This is what we’re called to do, to love our neighbor.”
Pastor Ed Jones agreed. He explained that service is key for churches now.
“Because of COVID-19, we have a renewed focus,” he said. “You strip away everything else. The only thing you can do to be the church is to be outwardly focused. We can’t gather in the building. You need to be boots on the ground.”
Jones also stressed the importance of early childhood development. Fostering a love of learning can reduce the school to prison pipeline and reduce the amount of students dropping out in the first place.
“If we allow this pandemic to make that pipeline bigger, shame on us,” he said. “We have to do everything we can to ensure that one class, one lecture, one key element can be a building block for someone’s trajectory for life. If we can ensure that one lesson is taught, we’ve done our job.”