Students benefit from churches partnering with local school
by Lindsay Peyton
Elkhart UMC is only a one-minute drive from the intermediate school, which is sandwiched between the middle school and the Elkhart ISD’s office. It’s not unusual for students to volunteer at the church — or for Pastor Carmen Rickel to respond to a teacher’s prayer request. Working together for the greater good is simply how it’s done, Rickel explained.
The congregation is part of the United Church Charities, also known as the United Churches of Elkhart. The group includes Pastors Jason Hoffman of First Baptist Church, David Franklin at First Congregational Methodist Church, Randy Blanton of Faith Family Church and Ricky Johnson of Washington Chapel.
“We are all involved in the school in our own way,” Rickel said. She serves as president of the United Churches.
The organization operates a number of service projects throughout the year, including a monthly food pantry, Thanksgiving celebration, National Night Out for first responders and a luncheon for school staff held each fall. United Churches of Elkhart recently started a partnership with Feeding America, which provides goods from the Dollar Store to the community.
The group offers combined VBS and Bible studies, as well as an annual Revival. Last year, members traveled together to Mt. Rushmore and are now planning a trip to Niagara Falls.
In 2020, Elkhart schools Superintendent Lamont Smith inspired the churches to start a weekly devotional. Together, the congregations provide a streaming message on Facebook called, “Elkhart Our Town,” which airs at 11:15 a.m. each Wednesday.
The idea for the session came when Smith and church leaders were discussing race relations. “How do we stay on top of this?” they asked.
“We looked to the Superintendent,” Rickel said. “And we asked, what do you suggest?”
He proposed a discussion between church and community leaders, filled with hope and offering motivation, as well as updates on the schools. “We pick a topic and a place to meet,” Rickel said. “That’s the extent of our planning.”
The online segments show the unity of the United Church Charities and the schools. But there is even more going on behind-the-scenes.
For instance, when athletic director Luke Goode heard that Elkhart UMC needed help with Christmas decorations, he suggested, “I’ll bring the junior high over. We can just walk across the street and do it.”
For the annual National Night Out hosted by United Church Charities, junior high students help set everything up. Then, high schoolers come after the event to break it all down.
Students arrive by the busload to volunteer with the congregations’ food pantry, held at the First Baptist Church of Elkhart. For the annual Christmas food distribution, the schools collect canned goods, which are added to boxes of flour, sugar, potatoes, eggs and a chicken.
The Christmas boxes are largely made possible through donations made by teachers, Rickel added. They purchase a “jeans pass” to dress down in December, which acts as a fundraiser for the holiday drive.
“Everything we do, it’s all by donation,” Rickel said. “It all comes from the kids at school, their teachers and each church brings items. We all go above and beyond.”
Last Christmas, Luke brought over the school athletes to sort the food in the morning. “They get it done in no time at all,” Rickel said. “And they’re always asking, what can we do next?”
Their coaches were also there helping. In the afternoon, high school students arrived to help distribute the boxes. “They just jumped in and did it,” Rickel said.
The pastor explained that United Church Charities was established in Elkhart more than 50 years ago. The ecumenical organization unites congregations in worship, missions and outreach. And it also offers an opportunity to support each other.
Rickel said that by joining together, the churches encourage and support faith development in new ways and engage in outreach that would not be possible if each congregation acted on its own.
“It’s about being good stewards of our resources,” the pastor explained. “You’re wasting resources if you’re not working together.”
Rickel recalled when she first moved to Elkhart and learned about the way congregations journeyed together. She had never witnessed anything like it before – and the partnership has only blossomed during her six years in town.
“It isn’t normal,” Rickel said. “And I hope I never get over this feeling of awe.”
In the future, the United Churches of Elkhart are brainstorming how to provide afterschool care and tutoring. Rickel explained, “When we started the food pantry, we had nothing. We just knew there was a need. Now the need is to help our kids. And that’s our vision. It has to be a community-wide effort.”
Rickel added that the churches have a heart for the schools – and the school district also cares about the congregations and their outreach projects. “We’re a community – with a spiritual background,” she said.
In Elkhart, the pastors care for each other. Church members join together for stronger service.
And that makes more seem possible, Rickel said. “We don’t have any major road blocks,” she said.
It’s an example that everyone can learn from – how to circumvent barriers and create a stronger community together, Rickel explained. For other congregations interested in this type of ecumenical collaboration, she suggests starting by asking, “Are you about building the Kingdom – or about building your church?”
“That’s really what it’s all about,” she said, “Can we get over what makes each denomination different and just focus on what’s important?”