MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, February 25th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you are!
Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Helping out.
Confusion about the separation of church and state leaves many Christians feeling like their hands are tied when it comes to fruitful community service.
REICHARD: But one church determined to “seek the welfare of its city” bridged the distance to a public school across town. WORLD Senior Correspondent Kim Henderson has the story.
AUDIO: [CHANGING CLASSES]
KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: In this Hattiesburg, Mississippi, grade school students pass by a framed photograph everyday without thinking much about it. The portrait is of a smiling, gray-haired lady dressed for a different decade. Her name is Grace Christian.
BLASS: She looks like she weighs about 90 pounds. She’s the cutest little thing. I’m told she was a firecracker, and she must have been…
That’s Molly Blass. She’s a member of First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg. The same portrait of Grace Christian is also included in their church history. Blass was surprised to discover the connection.
BLASS: The school, Grace Christian Elementary, that’s for whom it was named. I grew up here. Most of us thought it was a little Christian school.
Blass discovered that Grace Christian was one of the church’s earliest members back in 1903. Her teaching extended beyond Sunday School.
BLASS: She not only taught our children, but she taught children in the public schools and had a great influence. I mean, if they named a school for her, she had to have been something…
Blass wanted to continue the tradition Miss Grace Christian started all those years ago. At 60, Blass is energetic and bright-eyed. She jokes about being in the ministry of availability, but she’s serious about church outreach.
BLASS: It’s all about, about pushing back darkness and knowing that this is not our home, but we want to shine the light of the gospel in the corners of Hattiesburg that we can.
Grace Christian School is a one-story red brick building. It’s old enough to have the kind of waxed floors that make kids’ sneakers squeak.
AUDIO: [OFFICE CHATTER]
Inside the front office, staff are used to Molly coming around. But she admits it took time to get to that point. She started in 2015.
BLASS: So I just started asking small things like, “Could we maybe come read with some of the students in their library time?”
As Molly and other volunteers from the church plugged away, the school wondered if they were in it for the long haul.
BLASS: Are we going to show up and bring coffee a time or two, and then we feel good about ourselves and move on?
The turning point came in the form of a 5K fundraiser.
BLASS: We raised about $3,500. And we just said, “What do you need that the district can’t supply?
The church bought bookshelves for the school library. They sponsored children at the book fair who couldn’t afford to make a purchase. They provided rugs and beanbags for a downtime room.
BLASS: And that’s when I think we both the administration and the church really made the connection. We trusted one another. We didn’t come in with an agenda.
Blass’s primary contact at the school is Angel Ruffin. Ruffin has served as counselor for 11 years.
RUFFIN: My job — I explain it to the kids that I am a helper. Okay. So that way they can remember if you need something, talk to Ms. Ruffin . . .
AUDIO: [KIDS COUNTING]
Grace Christian has 385 students. Ruffin sings their praises, but she says teachers still have their work cut out for them.
RUFFIN: They have so much stress to meet certain scores. You might have a child who is behind a grade level, and you have to make sure that they are reading on grade level.
For Molly Blass, time spent at Grace Christian School was eye-opening. She came to a realization: For maximum effect, they needed to focus on supporting teachers and administrators.
BLASS: They are the ones who are having lasting effects on the children.
The church helped sponsor a full time on-site tutor. They brought donuts to the teacher lounge. They stepped up when teachers needed judges for science fairs and speakers for career day.
BLASS: Our older saints really loved helping with that.
Some states give schools a letter grade based on student proficiency in reading and math. When Blass began coming to campus, Grace Christian rated a “D.”
BLASS: They are now at a “B,” which is huge. And so we just want to be their cheerleaders. We don’t want to act like we are just coming to save the day because we are not.
As school counselor, Angel Ruffin acknowledges this close relationship with a church could be problematic for some, but volunteers don’t push their beliefs.
RUFFIN: But they do act in love, I would say. You know, kindness. So that’s, that’s very valuable, and that’s what we need from our community.
In 2018, many administrators and teachers joined members of First Presbyterian for a time of prayer at the school.
BLASS: We stood in the halls and it was beautiful because I feel like that, more than anything, let them know that we really had a heart for them and for what they were doing. And it wasn’t just all about coffee and donuts.
Molly and her fellow church members, like Miss Grace Christian before them, take to heart the words of Jeremiah the prophet:
BLASS: Do all you can to seek the welfare of the city wherever God has placed you. And this is just a very small way that we can do that.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.