8 Great Ways to Support Schools in the Aftermath of Tragedy

How churches can help their communities press through pain

When I read reports on the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I froze. Seventeen people were taken from a school community—daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, classmates, friends, parents, staff and members of a safe place of learning. I froze out of stunned sadness, and I was also awash in my own memories of past sadness.

Thirty years ago, in 1988, I experienced a school shooting as a middle schooler. Before there was Columbine, there was Atlantic Shores: a Christian school serving the Tidewater community in Virginia. Two teachers were shot. One died.

I remember hearing shots fired and being told to crawl underneath the table. The shooting soon stopped after the troubled student entered the classroom where he was targeting his bullies. My older sister was also in this classroom. His gun jammed, and the teacher was able to apprehend him until police arrived. My sister was there, and she is still here, thank God.

Each new school shooting brings back these terrible memories. Each December, I remember that fateful day for my school community. We lost Karen Farley, a lovely teacher, mom, wife and my parents’ dear friend.

I’m struck by how God is very present in our schools. God is in our schools because He is in His people who are in our schools.

Many more people were taken from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018. Many young lives were lost, and with each school shooting, more devastated communities are searching for answers as they grapple with a new, horrific reality of life without loved ones and friends.

Within the past two weeks, as I read social media posts from people, many of them well-meaning Christians, I shifted from feeling sad to feeling gravely concerned. I read many posts that implied that because God was not “allowed” in public schools, this attack was inevitable. Some went as far to say that God is not in our schools at all, and this is what happens when He is not present.

Having personally experienced Montessori, Christian and public education as a parent of four children—including one with Down syndrome who propelled my advocacy work in public education, where I have spent the past decade understanding the marginalized populations that are served—my heart breaks when well-meaning leaders state that God is not in public schools. It is untrue, misinformed and unkind. Living in one of the least churched regions of the country, I have seen Christians in every educational environment that I have encountered.

As a Boston public school board member, policymaker and college administrator, I have visited dozens of schools and engaged countless educators, parents, students and staff, and I’m continuously struck by the number of Christians in public education. From the Christian teachers who listen to worship music before their students arrive, to the staff members who gather weekly for prayer, to the student who shares her witness through kindness to a friend who’s been bullied, to the principals who prayerfully consider how to use their school funds or how best to engage parents, to the district leaders who view the public space as a mission field, or to the many pastors who intentionally send their children to public schools so that their families can serve their communities inclusively, I’m struck by how God is very present in our schools. God is in our schools because He is in His people who are in our schools. And they need our prayer and support.

I’m reminded that Emmanuel walks with our children and the adults who serve them every single day. He provides opportunities for minds and hearts to be engaged with His love, truth and peace as teachers and staff model Christ-like humility, wisdom and excellence in their craft.

When loss happens, love must abound.

But I know that there is evil in our world. I experienced a school shooting in a Christian school where God was present. He was in our chapel services, in Bible classes, in lunchroom prayers, and in daily conversations. Yet, a shooter took life into his own hands. Evil acts were committed in a Christian school, shaking the very faith that it was built upon.

My past informs my present profession as I’m committed to ensuring student safety and leading a culture of respect toward all people. I see tension and experience dissension among members of the community, yet the commitment and call to lead is a burden of responsibility that demands prayerful attention. My hope is for those leaders who feel drawn to be a light in education to feel connected with churches who honor and support their good work.

My dear leaders and friends in ministry: You may have many, many educators and students in your congregations, and they are carrying a heavy weight these days from student trauma, budget cuts, staff shortages, social and emotional challenges, diverse learners, parent engagement, violence or emotionally distressing events like the recent tragedy.

Here’s how you can pray for them, partner with them and support them. The following are my “eight great” ways to love on the schools that God has placed in your sphere of influence as you pray, pray, pray and pray some more for these ambassadors of the faith.

1. Get to know your community’s schools.

Discover the public schools in your church’s neighborhood. Introduce your congregation to the school leaders, and identify the families in your church whose children may attend these schools. Every district has its own history and its own unique challenges. As you learn more, begin to recognize the various demographic groups and marginalized populations represented within your school district. Focus on building neighborly relationships, creating a purposeful and visible presence of support to school administrators and their teams.

2. Adopt a public school in your neighborhood and meet their tangible needs.

Get to know this “adopted” school, and provide resources, such as school supplies, snacks, winter jackets, hand sanitizer and Kleenex each season. Ask the schools for their top 10 list of supplies needed. Many teachers spend hundreds of dollars each year from their own pockets to take extra care of their classrooms or students in need. Be generous on the first day of school or on other significant days throughout the year, such as during holiday seasons; teacher appreciation days; autism, Down syndrome or cancer awareness days; professional development days; or even the 100th day of school.

3. Volunteer as a reader, public speaker, project manager or mentor.

Visit classrooms to read or to present on Career Day to show your support for their work and to explain your work. Serve as a mentor. Schools are always seeking positive role models who can be present in the lives of students and families. Find a project that the school needs to accomplish, such as building a new playground, setting up the classrooms or painting the resource room, as my church did, and assemble your congregation to meet that need.

4. Invite your teachers and students to share “mission moments” in a church service.

Just as you would hand over the microphone to global missions volunteers, ask church members who are teachers and students to talk about ways they see God at work on their local mission fields. Affirm youth in letting their light shine within their schools. Kids in particular recognize their own capacity for leadership as adults provide guidance, affirmation and support to their giftings.

5. Encourage your church members to run for the local school board.

Support members of your church who are finding public opportunities to get elected or appointed to higher office in order to make a greater impact in their school districts on graduation rates, college readiness, poverty, special education and English language learners, for example. Then come alongside them as an intercessor, as they use their gifts in the manner of biblical heroes like Daniel, Joseph, Esther and Deborah. When I was appointed to my local board, a pastor in my community invited me to speak at his church for Women’s Day. That encouraging gesture communicated support for church/school partnerships and modeled civic engagement as a church leader.

6. Forge a positive relationship with your school superintendent or principal.

Invite your school superintendent or principal to lunch or coffee or your staff meeting. Learn more about his or her vision for their schools and ask for ideas about the best ways to serve the community. One principal invited her church to reorganize the school library, and the partnership has continued for years, with older church members volunteering monthly as literacy coaches for youth. This simple gesture can make a significant impact on the relational dynamic of church/school partnerships in your city.

7. Pray for your educators.

Commit to praying for the safety and success of schools, administrators, teachers and students throughout the year. Invite your church to participate in Education Sunday or Youth Day, where you can ask teachers, administrators and students to share prayer requests and then receive prayer from their church family.

8. In times of crisis, be a familiar face.

Comfort and provide support to families and students experiencing loss. The strongest witness to an unbeliever can sometimes be the simple acts of kindness from a Christian in his or her community.

Most importantly, be kind and loving. Use discernment when considering blanket statements regarding our nation’s educational culture. When loss happens, love must abound. Recognize the tireless efforts of our educators who devote much time with little thanks to developing the minds and hearts of youth in the midst of their personal pain. Let them know that God is alive and present in their schools.

Imagine what could happen to the EFCA movement if every church and ministry leader annually adopted a school, quarterly visited a classroom or regularly prayed for a local teacher or principal? The life-giving impact on our counties and cities would be great as schools felt the love of Christ in a tangible way.

As Christian leaders, we have a tremendous opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a grief-stricken culture. And in times like this, I know I must push past the pain of personal tragedy and push forward with the power of the Holy Spirit to press into my community with love, grace and Christ-filled compassion for the hurting.

I pray you will do the same in your community. Together, we can press on!

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