Today I’m beginning a series on “Getting To Know Your Community.” In this first post, I’ll share what I learned about my community by spending some time with the principal of my local elementary school.
School name: Mars Elementary
Principal: Mike Shembarger
First of all, I’ll share that principals are somewhat hard to get a hold of. I had previously tried to see him twice, but each time the appointment was cancelled because some unforeseen event made him unavailable. Clearly, they are very busy people. The day that I walked in for our appointment, he was actually stationed at the front desk where the secretary usually is. He invited me to come behind the desk and pull up a chair where we began chatting and our journey really began.
It was a fascinating experience. Mr. Shembarger, the principal, referred to himself as a “townie.” This is someone that’s truly local and has been around all his life. He had been principal at that school for almost twenty years and had lived in this community for all but six years of his life. And those six years weren’t lived very far away: he taught in another district about thirty minutes away during that time. He even did his education degree at Andrews University, the university in the community of Berrien Springs, Michigan.
He shared all this with me in the beginning as an introduction. It seemed that he wanted me to understand that what he was about to share came from someone who actually did have perspective and did know what he was talking about. He then proceeded to give me an interesting local history dating back to the 70’s.
The first thing he shared is that the community was drastically different in those times. Like I referenced above, Berrien Springs is most influenced and affected by Andrews University, a Seventh-day Adventist institution. He said that in the 70’s, only about ten percent of the kids in his school were Adventist. “Those were times,” he said, “in which Adventists and community folk didn’t mix much.” There was a general distrust of each other during those times. He said that now the percentage is at about thirty to forty percent Adventist kids in the elementary school and that there’s a certain feeling of openness now.
One of the biggest ways that Andrews University has affected the community is with the makeup of the people. The community used to be about ninety-five percent white, but that has now changed drastically. Now, about forty percent of the kids are minorities. In fact, Mars Elementary has the largest number of ESL (English as a Second Language) kids in the entire county. In case you didn’t know, Andrews University is one of the most diverse universities in the country. The U.S. News College Rankings places Andrews at number two. There are students here from just about every country on the planet. As a result, the children of these international students end up being a part of Mars elementary and being a part of the ESL program. Specifically, twenty-five percent of the students are involved in the ESL program.
“So what difference does this diversity make,” I asked. “How does it affect your school?”
He said that, because of the diversity, the school ends up gobbling up more of the financial resources of the county. More of the kids are in ESL programs, which costs money. More of the kids are in the free and reduced lunch program. It has also caused fights because the kids don’t understand each other.
I had a notebook with me and I was taking notes as fast as he could talk. He seemed quite happy to share, excited that an Adventist pastor was taking an interest in his school and in the community. He said that this conversation would have never taken place in the 70’s, not because he wouldn’t have welcomed it, but because of the sentiment amongst the Adventist culture of the time.
“Ok, Mr. Shembarger,” I continued, “You shared some great background and history, but what do you think are the absolute greatest needs that this community faces?
He said that outside of the diversity-related issues, the biggest issue in the community is one related to generational poverty. Essentially, this is a poor community (outside of those associated with the university) in which education is not important. Three generations will live together in one mobile home. Parents are not engaged in the education of their children. If he really needs the parents to come out to a meeting he needs to make sure to advertise that they will have food.
“So are there certain kinds of seminars or ways that our church could partner with you guys?” I asked.
“We have families that are hurting that don’t know how to help their kids. They could use parenting seminars. Finance seminars. They need lots of help,” he responded.
I was astounded by the perspective that he shared. Would it have been possible to get this information from some demographic tool? Not in this nuanced way. At the end of the day, there’s no better way to get to know your community than by meeting some of the leaders who have been there a long time.
As a missionary and pastor, my job is to see what God is up to in the community. How has he shaped the community and how can we, as a church, help to connect with them. Our methods, then, will not come from some book that we read about, but from what is actually taking place. Every community will be different. The needs will be different and so the strategies will be different.