School partnership with church has children reading
By Lindsay Peyton
What does it take to be a good neighbor? Answering that question became a mission for members at St. Marks UMC in Houston. The quest eventually led the church to Clemente Martinez Elementary.
Rev. Katie Eichler, associate pastor for children, youth and families, explained that I-45 often stands as a physical barrier between St. Mark’s and the community it serves. “This highway is a clear divider between us and our neighbors,” she said. “The people on one side of I-45 aren’t in our pews. Not just that, but we don’t know them. And we grieve that.”
Over time, the desire to reach out to residents on the other side of the highway grew. After some praying, St. Mark’s began to venture out – and the Holy Spirit went to work.
St. Mark’s UMC began working with nonprofit FAM Houston (Fondren Assistance Ministries) on this neighboring effort. “Congregations are rooted in a place,” FAM founder Pastor the Rev. Hannah Terry said. “They’ve got a story and a commitment to the soil. At the heart of a congregation’s life and story of faith, there’s the question that keeps folks up at night: how do we make a real difference in the world, how do we make a real difference right here, right now?”
FAM Houston comes alongside churches to help them take an active role with their neighbors. St. Mark’s is one of the organization’s partners.
Passionate partnership with schools
Terry explained that FAM has worked with St. Mark’s in developing leaders and ministry teams as the church explores its zip code. In the past few years, in particular, the church’s has devoted much of its energy on helping area schools.
“There are a lot of educators at St. Mark’s and a lot of people passionate about education,” Terry said. “They were asking how they could be more involved in education ministry.”
The effort started with bringing cookies at the beginning of the school year to as many campuses as possible. It soon became apparent that there was a drastic difference between schools, depending on location. Eichler explained.
“If you draw a square mile around St. Mark’s, and the exact square on the other side of I-45, the demographics would be totally flipped in every single way,” she said.
Travis Elementary, near the church, is one of the best schools, Eichler explained. Across the major thoroughfare, however, stood Clemente Martinez Elementary, an under-resourced campus with an F-rating. “The experience you get as a student is vastly different,” she said.
St. Mark’s had long wanted to work with the school, but Eichler said there were starts and stops. Finally, the church was invited to be a part of a meeting.
From empty shelves to 7,000 books
Church members, who met in the school’s library for the first time, were surprised to be greeted with empty shelves. “It was shocking,” Eichler recalled. “There were almost no books. It had not been in use for many years.”
“That day was a day that St. Mark’s, a church full of readers, began to see literacy as a justice issue,” she added. “They understand what happens when kids don’t have access to books.”
The church decided to make helping the library its focus. “The story is long about how we went from there to where we are today,” Eichler said. “And it is not without trouble, frustration and a pandemic thrown into it.”
First, there was repainting and remodeling to do, furniture to buy. Terry said that teachers, school administrators and church members worked side-by-side to transform the space. “It was all hands on deck,” she explained.
Church members held book drives – and now there are 7,700 titles on the library shelves. They also volunteered to work at the library twice a week, guiding and reading with students.
During COVID-19, the effort continued, just in a new form, Eichler explained. “We partnered with Scholastic so we could send books home,” she said. “When students went back to school, our volunteers would box books for the classrooms.”
Library back in business
Now that in-person classes are back in session, the library is also back in business. “We’re back full-steam with kids going to library,” Eichler said.
St. Mark’s members Mimi Wozniak and Kate Wong both became involved in the library project. “Every child should have access to all resources,” Wozniak said. “We want to be able to give that.”
Wong said that the rewards of the work is realized in many ways, including when volunteers can serve as role models for their own children. “They see what it is like to be a good neighbor. What do you do? Who are you? What defines you?” she said. “Then they will go on to do the same things in their lives. That’s a powerful way of living your life – and who God wants us to be.”
Working with the school also helps St. Mark’s and its members better connect to the community.
“The definition of rooted is that it’s stronger,” Wong said. “It doesn’t blow away as easily.”
Eichler explained that much more work can done to help students at Clemente Martinez. “This is not a story about how a church turned a school around – because that has not happened by any means,” she said. “But that does not mean that this isn’t a story of transformation.”
There was a physical change, with fresh paint, new books. “And it’s also so much more,” Eichler said.
Communities come together
It’s a story of how two communities that were once completely separate and now have grown to care deeply for one another. For example, when one of the teachers passed last year, St. Mark’s was one of the school’s first calls to pray for the grieving staff.
When St. Mark’s caught on fire in 2019, Martinez opened their doors for the congregation to gather on Sundays in their cafeteria. “They did everything to make worship happen for us,” Eichler said. “They came with us and worshipped with us.”
The bond continues to blossom. “I’ve seen it transform our lives too,” Eichler said.
“There’s always a great need. You don’t have to dig that deep to find it. No matter where you live, that’s true. And when we share the love of God, we are transformed too.”