For the past 20 years, volunteers at St. Paul, Lindsay have been teaching local kids about Jesus in an unusual partnership with a nearby elementary school.
The King Albert School program began at Easter in 1998, an initiative of parishioners Ethel Morris and Susan Sindrey. “There was this need and interest in trying to reach out to the local children in the school that’s almost behind St. Paul’s,” says the Rev. Warren Leibovitch, the current incumbent. “King Albert School is for the most part considered an inner-city school. Over 60 per cent of the school is on assistance of some kind, and a lot of the children come from families with difficult situations.”
Since then, St. Paul’s has run the program twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. At lunchtime on two days in a row, volunteers from the church walk a group of children the few blocks from their school to the church. Though organized by St. Paul’s, the school supports the program by coordinating permission slips and providing educational assistants to join the kids. “It’s seen as a positive for the children in terms of learning, interaction and stimulation,” says Mr. Leibovitch. “They get to have some fun and get an hour and a half away from school.”
In recent years, so many kids have signed up that they’ve been split into two groups, one for grades 1-3 and one for grades 4-6. Activities each year include crafts, storytelling, music and conversation. “There’s always something to take home, and there’s always a nutritious meal provided if kids don’t have a lunch,” says Mr. Leibovitch.
At Christmas, the highlight for the older kids is the pageant, complete with costumes and carols. “They choose what they want to be, if they want to be one of the wise men or Mary or Joseph – that’s usually a battle – and there are a couple of narrators usually dressed as angels,” he says. The Easter program is similar: there are seasonal crafts, everyone hears the Easter story, and the older kids learn how to make palm crosses. The programs have been running on a three-year cycle of different activities because of the number of kids who come back year after year.
The initiative has recently taken on an ecumenical aspect. Since Easter 2017, St. Paul’s has partnered with The Centre Community Church, a new church plant reaching out to less fortunate families in Lindsay. Pastor Mike Kleinhuis and volunteers from that community help provide leadership and music during the two days. The program is also supported by the local ministerial of churches.
As many religious institutions worry about their declining influence in secular society, Mr. Leibovitch says the St. Paul’s community is well aware of how unique this partnership between church and public school is and says he actively encourages the relationship. “I’ve been very clear to say we have to keep doing this. If we ever miss one season, we could lose that continuity,” he says. “The challenge has always been when a principal changes. You always hope the new principal will be brought on board. So far we’ve been lucky.”
Since arriving at St. Paul’s in 2008, Mr. Leibovitch says he has heard only positive feedback about the program. “Some of these parents have very little connection with church or have had a 30-year gap of ever being near a church,” he says. “The neat thing is the kids go back and share what they learned, so the parents are also learning.”
The program can also help families form a lasting connection with the church. “Every time we bump into one of the boys or girls out there in the community, they’ll remember seeing us,” says Mr. Leibovitch. He credits the Christmas and Easter activities with making St. Paul’s more accessible to local kids. “It’s not a scary place, it’s not just that big building near the school, but a place they can feel comfortable coming into.” Some of the older kids have even dropped in on the church’s youth group to see what it’s about.
As the program comes up on its 20th anniversary, Mr. Leibovitch says he’s grateful for the many dedicated volunteers who have given their time and energy over the years. “We know there’s a seed that’s been planted, that’s the most heart-warming part. We’re planting seeds, and we just don’t know how it will bear fruit in the future. As Christians that’s what we’re called to do,” he says. “I’m hoping it continues for many, many years.”
I had a sort of conversion experience