Across Illinois | Pastor Jason Plumer walks around the tables in his church’s fellowship hall, stopping every few seconds to talk to small groups of students eating an after-school snack of cereal or carrot sticks. His church’s after-school program, Tending the Vine, runs four afternoons a week for kids who need a place go after school dismisses in the early afternoon.
First Baptist Litchfield is one of many Illinois churches across the state that have adapted back-to-school ministry to assist families with remote learning. In Jacksonville, Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church opened their building to students from Illinois College (photo above). And Reborn Community Church is hosting remote learners in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood.
In Litchfield, as the last students walk through the doors and gather their snacks, Plumer calls the group to order and walks to a white board at the front of the room.
Students raise their hands and call out their observations about the sentence written there. It’s about Noah, and God’s provision for his family. This is “God and Grammar,” the introductory activity at First Baptist Litchfield’s after-school program for 30 kids in their community.
His church has a big building with internet access, said Plumer (pictured at right). “Why don’t we open our building up and provide a safe place for these kids to get their homework done?”
FBC Litchfield had been in talks with a local school to start a mentoring program last spring. The COVID-19 pandemic halted those plans, but the church stayed in touch, helping with a summer lunch program. When the semester started with remote and hybrid learning, the church opened its doors, hosting around 50 students and mobilizing volunteers to help with schoolwork.
School is back in session during the morning now, but the church’s Tending the Vine program has continued during the afternoon hours. The ministry serves kids who need internet access and a place to get their work done, plus volunteers who can help them stay motivated in an unusual learning environment.
After God and Grammar, students split into two groups and head upstairs for homework help. Younger kids work on reading and worksheets; next door, older students work math problems on a white board. With each group, volunteers circulate around the rooms, often pulling up a chair and peering over school-issued tablets with the students. Tending the Vine works to follow the school district’s COVID-19 prevention procedures, including social distancing, masks, and cleaning protocols.
The program is “unapologetically Christian,” Plumer said, with the goal of Tending the Vine is to give kids categories for understanding God and the gospel. “The first time I prayed over them, they just kind of looked at me funny,” the pastor said.
“We try to create a very stable, routine, uneventful place for them to come and use our internet, and get their work turned in and be successful, and hear the gospel, and really just kind of experience life.”
Opening the doors
Over the years, Jeremy Byrd’s church has built a strong relationship with the middle school across the street from their Jacksonville campus. So when students needed a place to hang out until their parents could pick them up, Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church was a natural fit. School dismisses at noon this fall, and the church opens its doors for middle schoolers waiting for a ride. Elsewhere in the building, Illinois College classes utilize the church building for meeting space.
The church’s back-to-school efforts are an extension of partnerships built before the COVID-19 pandemic. The church has established a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group at the middle school. The school and the church have shared space at different times before, when either was undergoing renovations.
During this unprecedented back-to-school season, the church has tried to listen to what schools and teachers need, Byrd said. “We just try to make ourselves available to help them.”
In past years, the church has sent a team of volunteers to a local school each month to set up a snack area for teachers. With that opportunity unavailable this year, Lincoln Avenue found other ways to help, including donating 3,000 masks to the school system. At the beginning of the school year, Lincoln Avenue students sent notes and ice cream coupons to Jacksonville teachers, letting them know they were praying for them, Byrd said. “Just to let them know that they weren’t at it alone.”
In a firehouse-turned-church building in Chicago’s Garfield Park, Pastor Jamie Thompson and Reborn Community Church help 20 kids each week with online learning. “We can’t do a huge number,” Thompson said, “because we have to keep things socially distanced and as safe as possible.”
Years ago, Reborn adopted a local school to assist students and families that were underserved and unsupported in their community. They started a tutoring program to help at-risk children, and when those kids needed a place to be during the day this fall, the church adapted its program to host remote learning four days a week.
The students who come to Reborn during the day are kids the church already knows through its tutoring and mentoring initiatives, after-school program, and trauma counseling. The church has a non-profit organization, Reborn Ministries, that Thompson describes as an “evangelistic arm that serves and loves and shares the gospel with our community.”
At the church, students can attend virtual classes and get help from adult volunteers. The church has worked with the school system to provide meals, and the program includes a Bible study component.
In Litchfield, Plumer and his church also see their current ministry as an opportunity to lay a biblical foundation, a change to bring some stability amid a lot of uncertainty.
“We mentor and we tutor and we provide that safe place for them to get their schoolwork done,” Plumer said, “and we get to share the gospel with them.”
Photo at top: Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville opened their building this fall to Illinois College students. Photo by Steve Warmowski of Warmowski Photography