Houses of worship mobilize for back-to-school time

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY — On a recent weekend, Pamela Jennings brought her 7-year-old granddaughter, Amara, and 4-year-old grandson, Trend, to People’s Church, an evangelical congregation. But though Jennings is a Christian, the family didn’t come for worship.

Instead, they were drawn by the church’s Day of Hope — an annual Saturday event where volunteers give away 3,200 backpacks filled with school supplies and offer free services such as medical exams and haircuts.

“It’s just awesome because some people really can’t afford to get school supplies or get a haircut,” Jennings said. “This is a real blessing for a lot of people.”

From the National Council of Jewish Women in Southfield, Mich., to the Islamic Center of Northridge, Calif., religious groups nationwide organize back-to-school events in the late summer and early fall to serve needy families.

Christy Watson, communications director for the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said she has noticed a definite uptick in engagement between houses of worship and public schools throughout Oklahoma. Since much of the activity occurs at the grassroots level, though, it’s difficult to quantify, Watson said.

Houses of worship and schools “are both places people turn to and gather at in times of celebration and need,” she said. “So it makes a lot of sense that they would join forces to serve their communities.”

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association gives an annual award for outstanding community partners, and each year, school districts nominate faith groups, Watson said.

Emmaus Baptist Church, in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, has received the award. The Southern Baptist congregation not only buys school supplies and provides mentors for students, Watson noted. It also served as a temporary school location for an entire year after a tornado devastated the community.

“I don’t have any baseline data, so I’m reluctant to claim there is a trend of any sort,” said Lallie Lloyd, director of All Our Children, a national network that promotes church-school partnerships as a way to address social justice. “However, our organization was formed because we noticed that these ministries were emerging.”

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Religion News Service is a national wire service whose media partners include The Associated Press, USA Today and the Washington Post.