Chuck Dunning joined the staff at Canaan Baptist Church, Bessemer, in 2013 as a children’s minister with a heart for local schools. So when folks said he wouldn’t get a foot in the door at Bessemer’s Greenwood Elementary School, Dunning began to pray for a solution.
Canaan member Deborah Hatchett was also praying. As a Greenwood teacher, she had witnessed how quickly school funding for improvements could run out. And while Dunning prayed for an open door, Hatchett prayed for a church partner to come alongside the school and offer support.
“Teachers spend a lot of their own money,” Hatchett said. “We stay after school to try and help bridge the gap for our students. A partnership where church members can come in and volunteer is a big help.”
That kind of partnership seemed like a natural fit for Canaan Baptist.
“Our church has a journey — loving God, sharing life, serving others and showing Jesus to the world,” Dunning said. “Part of our showing Jesus to the world is to reach out to our community.”
‘God had the plan’
With that idea in mind, Dunning soon approached then-principal Deborah Billups and asked how the church could serve and pray for her and the school. “I had to hear [Billups’] heart,” he said.
During their conversation, Dunning discovered that Billups also had been praying God would open the door for someone to come and encourage the school’s faculty.
From there, “God just opened up the doors. … God had the plan from day one,” Dunning said.
After that initial meeting, Billups opened the school to volunteers from Canaan Baptist, who served by prayer walking the campus and hosting back-to-school lunches, prayer times and Bible studies with teachers and other staff members. Canaan volunteers have served in even more ways as the partnership has grown over the past four years.
Today, Greenwood has a different principal, Angela Bedgood, who welcomes Canaan Baptist’s help and support as well.
“The community partnership allows us to do those things that we can’t do otherwise with the government funds we receive, like celebrating our teachers,” said Bedgood.
Canaan Baptist partners also provided encouragement and prayers for the school during an especially challenging time for Greenwood, when the school was in danger of closing due, in part, to declining enrollment. Canaan members even attended community meetings and advocated to keep school open.
That ongoing support, Bedgood said, has helped Greenwood teachers and families realize their value within the community.
“When students know that the community members are aware of the needs of the local school, that helps them to see into this thing we call community,” Bedgood said. “When we are dealing with families that are going through difficult times, that partnership lets us refer those families to the church for prayer or other support.”
To foster the partnership, Dunning works at Greenwood as a substitute teacher, a service which creates opportunities to high-five students and talk to teachers. As teachers realized they could talk to him, many started seeking him out for prayer, he said.
Prior to COVID-19, church volunteers served alongside parents at workdays: cleaning, painting and helping with yardwork. Canaan members led games on field day, manned book fairs and spoke at Veterans Day programs at the school. The church often donated appreciation gifts for teachers and supplied classroom volunteers.
The school’s on-campus visitors have been limited by pandemic-related restrictions, and Greenwood has only recently resumed regular in-person classes. Dunning said Canaan Baptist members continue to pray for the school and to help wherever possible.
And the little things the church provides — like appreciation gifts and birthday cupcakes —make all the difference, Bedgood said.
“Things can get so stressful and overwhelming that we feel like we are on an island by ourselves and that no one understands. Having a community partner gives us that shoulder, if you would, to lean on for those small things we’re not able to do,” she added.
Canaan young adults, senior adults and even the homebound participate in the partnership as volunteers and prayer warriors and through financial gifts.
“We just try to be the hands and feet of Jesus to our school,” Dunning said.
Another example of that: Many parents of Greenwood students have experienced hardships because of the pandemic, Bedgood said. When students returned after COVID-19 closures, she wanted to help families by providing school supplies. Before she even made the request, Bedgood said Canaan members had already asked how they could help.
“[The partnership] is a blanket of support,” Bedgood said. “It tells us that there are people in the community who really do care, and they are really interested in what’s going on in the school.”
What has that “blanket of support” meant to Bedgood personally? Greenwood is her first experience as a principal. She attributes her success there to the welcome and support she received from Dunning, his wife, Jame’, and other Canaan members.
“They are my light,” Bedgood said. “[Dunning] is a shoulder I can lean on whether there’s a need for the school or a personal need. The open arms and support just mean so much. The genuine partnership is very assuring.”
For Hatchett, who prayed faithfully for a church partner, it was worth the wait.
“It was just in God’s timing and because of Brother Chuck’s personality,” Hatchett said. “And it’s been a great partnership.”
How to start a church-school partnership in your community
Looking for ways to support your local school? Consider these tips for starting a church-school partnership:
- Pray before you plan. Ask God to reveal the needs and how your group can offer support.
- Let administrators know you are available to serve. Don’t begin with an agenda or expectations. Ask how you can help them personally and be available to meet needs on their terms.
- Develop relationships with faculty and staff. Build on existing relationships with church members who work at the school.
- Show God’s love with actions, not just words. Consider becoming a substitute teacher. Offer treats, appreciation gifts, supplies and workers for school events. Volunteer to sit with students so teachers can participate in appreciation activities.