For Abraham and Sarah, we all too often jump straight to the story of Isaac, forgetting how shocking a child was to this couple that had completely come to accept their barrenness. Children are both a blessing and a miracle as they give us vitality. However, for many of our congregations the thought of ministering to children has become a distant hope in their barrenness as they, like Abraham and Sarah, age past the time of child rearing.
Our first thought of regaining children within the congregation is logically toward attracting young families, while still anxious about outdated hopes of gilded ages past when people (and money) were plentiful.
For the First Church of Fairborn, Ohio, a middle class, white collar, suburban congregation of Dayton, the past had taught them that ministry started with young families. Yet, as the demographics of the town changed (homeowners in town became home renters, and church members started coming from places other than this onetime premier suburb) the likelihood of younger members went the way of many churches. Children grew up and moved away, new children did not come, the area changed, and the church remained, much older now without critical mass for children’s ministry. First Church, anxious by the insecurity of its barren pews, prayed God would bring them children again. Their deepest hopes mimicked that of Abraham and Sarah desiring what they did not have and saddened by thoughts of those they knew were unlikely to return.
Like Abraham and Sarah, God answered their prayers in a different way than convention would suggest.
The church sits on the north end of Maple Street and on the south end of Maple Street is a school with the distinction of being the largest primary school in five states with more than 1,600 students. Budget difficulties and consolidations have brought all of the city’s kindergarten through third graders under one roof. More than half of the students live in households with an income low enough to qualify them for subsidized breakfast and lunch. The material need of these children is great as well as their filial need of stable hands for their care.
For a congregation of grandparents, and a community of children needing grandparents, the match was, shall we say, made in heaven. As some of the church members volunteered in the school’s reading programs, they became aware of the needs of this elementary community. They learned that it takes way too long for the nurse to reach an injured child on the playground, go back to the clinic for equipment and then back to the child through the one and a half miles of hallways set end to end. The church pooled its money and bought the school a golf cart. This life-giving resource also became a lifeline for a child with spinal bifida to travel through the school to activities previously unreachable.
The gift of the golf cart was only the beginning. To help the understaffed school, the church members formed a “Helping Hands” ministry taking new youngsters from the buses to their classes at the start of the day and from class to the bus at the end of the day for the first two weeks of school as children learned their routes. Church members donated medical supplies for the under-stocked school clinic. One church member contacted a local hairdresser who donated a barber’s chair and free haircuts for children who needed this service. The city provided only one librarian for its four schools, so the members became librarians. In finding that many of the children did not have proper clothing, the members of the church donated clothes and opened a small “boutique” in the school giving children adequate apparel.
As the church met these needs, others became apparent. Many students got sick because they did not have blankets to keep them warm at night. Getting material donated from a local business, the church made blankets. The church donated money to bring a traveling science exhibit from Columbus for the whole third grade’s edification. They also helped to fund a trip to a local university for the second graders to see a live theater production. Surprisingly by God’s grace, all of these things and more have happened within the last twelve months.
First Church asked God for children and God gave children. Only God gave them children from outside of the typical models of young families and bustling Sunday School classrooms. Instead, God brought this church into community with children who were not their own and needed to be found outside of its building. This partnership along Maple Street in Fairborn is an answer to prayer, yet an answer that was within God’s will and God’s time. God is blessing the primary school students and their families through this ministry and the older congregation as well giving them new energy and meaningful purpose in this service. Like Abraham and Sarah, the aged church received children from God and in transforming the school they are changing the future by God’s blessing.
Thomas L. Harmon says he is the proud 28-year-old pastor of this older congregation (First Church of Fairborn, Ohio) and is constantly overwhelmed by members’ “energy, gifts of service, and acts of love.”