by Lois M. Engfehr
Modern-day miracle. That’s what many people say about Unity Lutheran Christian Elementary School in East St. Louis, Ill.
On Aug. 17, 2009, the seven-year-old school opened the doors of its new facility with 115 students in prekindergarten through sixth grade. While many inner-city churches and schools have closed their doors in recent years, Unity School is growing, a hopeful presence in a community that has seen tough times.
Today, East St. Louis, Unity’s home and a once-prosperous industrial city across the Mississippi from St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, confronts problems familiar to many urban communities: the loss of industries that supported it, a declining population and tax base, poverty, and high unemployment.
Enter Unity School (unityesl.org), just one of a handful in the LCMS sponsored by a district.
“We struggled for several years, trying to find a way to help our congregation in East St. Louis,” recalls Rev. Herbert C. Mueller Jr., president of the Southern Illinois District. “We also recognized there was a population of at least 30,000 we were not really reaching at all. We asked ourselves, ‘What is one of the greatest strengths of the LCMS?’ The answer: Our system of Christian education! Why not play to a strength God has given us and use it to reach out with the Gospel? We brainstormed. We prayed—and still pray. We did a Genesis Project. The Spirit kept on opening doors, and here we are.”
Founded in 2003 and formerly located in Unity Lutheran Church, Unity School moved into a vacant public-school building this past summer because it needs space to keep up with enrollment, explains Principal Paul Miller. He remembers when Unity was so crowded that one of the classes had to be held in the church balcony.
“With this building, we will be taking the school to a new level,” Miller says. “It’s a ‘real’ school building, and I am incredibly excited.”
The move did not happen overnight. For three years, Unity’s board of directors and the East St. Louis School District board of directors negotiated, discussed alternatives, and looked for just the right place to house a growing Unity. Eventually, the school building across the street from the church became available because of declining enrollment. Then everything just fell into place, Miller explains, noting that “a lot of prayer” went into the process.
A Mission Opportunity
More than 65 percent of the school’s families do not have a regular church home. That provides a mission opportunity, and teaching children about Jesus is the most important thing done by Unity’s teachers, Miller observes.
It’s also what motivates him. “I love the kids,” he says, “and meeting their parents. This is an unusual opportunity for me to be part of a unique school. Of course, this is mission work.”
In 2003, the school began with an enrollment of 17 in prekindergarten and kindergarten. It has added a new grade each year. For 2009–10, classes are held through Grade 6. In the coming years, Unity will add Grades 7 and 8.
“There is a critical need for educational alternatives in East St. Louis,” Miller notes. “Unity fills that need. More important, there is a positive, hopeful learning environment at Unity, where students and their families feel welcome, and their needs are met. To some, the neighborhoods where the students live may seem dark and depressing, but at Unity, there is light, there is safety, there is security, there is help, and there is comfort, and all in Jesus’ name. It’s as close to a tangible presence of the Lord that I’ve ever experienced on a regular basis.”
Getting the Word Out
Last summer, Miller met with prospective students and their families after a sign was posted outside the new facility: “New Home of Unity Lutheran Christian Elementary School.” Within the first two weeks, Miller had 45 calls. He met with the prospective students and parents, gave out registration packets, and led tours of the building. The prospective students met the teachers—eight highly qualified, mission-minded educators.
Miller makes it a point to show the children a painting inside the front door of the school. Created by his son, Joe, a Chicago artist, the painting, based on Luke 18:16, depicts Jesus blessing the little children.
“With Jesus, the school has a purpose,” Miller says. “We teach the students about Jesus, as well as math, science, good behavior, etc.”
Miller acknowledges the success of the school is due to three things: (1) a good education, (2) a place for students to belong, and (3) a flexible tuition rate. All students pay tuition of $100 to $250 per month, and all students receive financial aid based on need. Almost all of the students receive free or reduced-cost school lunches through government-assistance programs.
A District Mission Project
As a mission project of the Southern Illinois District, many district congregations, schools, and organizations are involved with the school, Mueller explains. Also, hundreds of mission-minded Christians from across the country have shown their support through the school’s Belong to Jesus Scholarship Fund.
“I’m often surprised at the generosity of Christian people. We’ve even received help from people who live outside our district, in central Illinois, northern Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa,” Miller says.
Getting Unity’s new facility ready was a substantial challenge. All the ceiling tiles were replaced, 83 gallons of paint applied, several dumpsters of trash removed, and a new phone and security system installed. Youth cleared debris and weeds that had overgrown the playground.
“The school would not have been ready if it were not for the countless hours spent by the faithful volunteers of our district,” Miller says.
More than 100 volunteers from over 30 congregations showed up the Saturday before opening day to help Unity’s teachers move to the new site. A ginkgo tree was planted to symbolize new life for the school. That idea came from Harold Hughes, the project’s volunteer construction manager. Hughes, a retired civil engineer, began working with Unity’s school committee in September 2008. From mid-May onward, he spent every day at the site, making sure everything was done within time and budget constraints. “I feel like the Lord had prepared me for this project by giving me the talents, the time, and the resources needed to accomplish it,” Hughes says.
The new facility has had a positive effect. Miller reports that classes are running smoothly, with more room to operate. Also, there is a waiting list for the 2010–2011 school year. Yet, in the midst of these developments, the mission to the students remains the focus.
“Every Monday morning, while taking church attendance, I am reminded that Unity is truly a missional school,” observes fourth-grade teacher Christy Oberdeck. “Seventy-five percent of my students do not attend church. Unity is the only place they hear the Word of God. I was extremely happy when one of my students started attending Unity Church on a regular basis. I was exceedingly happy when this student and his family decided he should be baptized. God is doing mighty things at Unity!”
Colette Tisdale, Unity’s prekindergarten teacher, agrees. “My children get so excited when we are reviewing that they go home and recite Bible passages and sing songs. I even have two students who can recite all Ten Commandments,” she says.
Miller recognizes that challenges remain for the school. These include funding; improving mission efforts to include Baptism and discipling of new Christians, both students and adults; developing after-school programs to utilize space and provide more opportunities to reach out to the community; and developing the transition of eighth-grade graduates to a Christian high school.
“The school is making a difference in the children’s lives,” Miller observes. “For all of our students, this is the first time a Christian education has been an option. We thank God for providing us with that opportunity.”
“We all are faced with the pits of sin daily,” says DELTO vicar Willie P. Stallworth, who serves Unity Church. “However, many of the children who attend Unity School are faced with greater challenges than most. Unity is a strong avenue for carrying out the Great Commission. The opportunities to preach, teach, and baptize are mission opportunities for Unity Lutheran Church through Unity Lutheran Christian School. Both the church and school see this mission as an opportunity to obey Christ’s command.”
Mueller notes something else, too: The Unity project has made a difference in the district “almost like no other.” It has energized laypeople and involved them in a hands-on way.
“Many have testified to me that they have grown spiritually through this, watching God open the doors and supporting our staff,” Mueller says. “Many say they now can see in a greater way the value of what our district is doing. This project has helped our people and congregations sharpen their mission focus.”
Getting Started: What is the Genesis Project?
A resource offered by LCMS District and Congregational Services’ School Ministry Department, the Genesis Project helps LCMS congregations (and other LCMS entities) start Lutheran schools, whether early childhood, elementary, middle, or high-school programs.
The project is staffed by consultants with experience in Lutheran school administration.
The department has compiled a “top 10” list of why congregations start Lutheran schools, says Bill Cochran, District and Congregational Services executive director:
- Strengthen the congregation
- Nurture the children’s faith
- Help parents fulfill their role as Christian parents
- Strengthen their communities
- Provide a safe, caring place for children
- Help children see all of their lives from the perspective of God’s Word
- Demonstrate the high value the congregation places on children
- Enhance the public relations of the congregation
- Seek out the lost
- Fulfill the congregation’s responsibility for the Christian education of its children
For districts or congregations considering the establishment of a Lutheran school, Southern Illinois District president Herbert C. Mueller Jr. offers this encouragement: “Go to the Word of God to see what God says about teaching. Pray. Then dream big. God is not limited by our resources! He has far more available to Him than we can ever
Applications for Genesis services may be obtained from your LCMS district office.
Notes from a Principal’s Journal
Principal Paul Miller
Forgiveness Needed, Too (September 2009)
Even though the school year has just begun, our students are alreadylearning the proper way to solve their differences.
One of our new prekindergarten students, Byron, was accidentally hitby a jump rope while on the playground last week. An observant teacherreported that, instead of crying or hitting back, Byron explained to the otherstudent that “you’re supposed to say I’m sorry, and I’m supposed to say I forgive you.”
That’s the biblical guide for relationships. When we repent and ask for forgiveness, God grants mercy and the sin is forgiven, forever. The situation is not resolved until forgiveness is announced. We’re proud that our students are learning how to share the forgiveness we receive. — Paul Miller
The Little Missionary (October 2009)
One of our new third-graders is Quinton. He has easily made the transition to a new school and has fit in nicely with the rest of the students. His teacher, Mrs. Stallworth, has made him feel welcome.
Two weeks ago, Quinton’s father approached me after school with a question: “What are you doing to teach these kids the Bible?” he inquired. I tried to decipher his intent from the tone of his voice. I wasn’t quite sure.
“I want to know how you are teaching the Scriptures,” he went on. “My son comes home and tells me everything about the Bible. Even the little details. It’s amazing!”
Here’s a good opportunity, I thought to myself. I went on to explain how we meet every morning for “Belong to Jesus Time”; we follow a pattern every day which we call a liturgy; every week we have a new Bible story, a new Bible passage, and a new catechism lesson (Quinton’s father didn’t know what a catechism is). I invited Dad into my office, where I was able to share a couple of Arch® Books with him. He seemed genuinely appreciative and willing to partner in his son’s spiritual growth.
We are happy that the Holy Spirit is using our school to teach Quinton, and He is using Quinton to teach his dad.
Quinton, the little missionary! — Paul Miller
About the Author: A writer and photographer, Lois M. Engfehr is a member of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Ill. she is the editor of the Southern Illinois District News.