The Be|Undivided Story: Rooted in Church-School Partnership

What would it look like if 300,000 churches in our nation were serving all 100,000 of our public schools? Could that possibly change the educational outcomes of millions of the nation’s children? Could that break down walls that traditionally divide us socially and economically? Could that inspire entire communities to rally around their schools and their children, turning the page on the story of their lives, and, in turn, the lives of their children?

We are daring to think the answer to those questions is…yes!

Our own story started five years ago when SouthLake church, located in suburban Portland, Oregon, was invited to conduct a “day of service” at the most under-resourced high school in urban Portland.

Roosevelt High School had long since become a metaphor for Failure—with a capital “F”. Dropout rates were high, test scores low, sports teams were bad—the school was considered simply the worst in Portland and there was a pervading sense and stigma of defeat.

As Lead Pastor of SouthLake, that initial service day was, in my mind, an opportunity for gospel demonstration beyond proclamation—or, perhaps, better said—“proclamation through demonstration”. It was time to put loving deeds to our faith.

My hope was that 200—maybe as many as 300—people would be willing to sacrifice a sunny Saturday (a rarity in the Pacific Northwest) to serve underserved kids and their school. Beyond all expectations, over 1,000 people (nearly half of our church) showed up to wash windows, paint hallways, rake leaves, shovel bark, and otherwise clean up and beautify the campus.

Looking back, something happened that “service day” that served to change us as a community forever. Born that day was an unlikely partnership of mutual affection and trust between SouthLake and Roosevelt. School officials continued inviting us in to help meet the needs and fill the gaps that would allow them to concentrate more fully on meeting their educational goals.

We came simply asking the Jesus question—“what do you want me to do for you?”(Matt. 20:32 NIV). The resulting support came in many forms:

  • a clothes closet of high quality clothing
  • a food pantry for under-nourished students
  • a school sweatshirt program providing winter warmth and, unexpectedly, a uniformed student body promoting equality and school spirit
  • volunteers for multiple extra-curricular activities
  • coaching support
  • mentoring
  • support for teen moms and dads

Soon school administrators, recognizing the benefits of this unique community partnership, invited SouthLake to provide an on-site staff coordinator—paid by the church—to facilitate volunteer resources and expanded community partnerships. Our Outreach Director’s office relocated to the school, from where she could more effectively coordinate support.

As momentum increased, other partners came on board—Nike among them. New uniforms were provided along with a million-dollar investment to build a state-of-the-art football stadium complete with grandstands and artificial turf. Portland’s second-largest construction company also decided to become part of the story. By providing the primary resources and inspiration to other partners, a world-class track was built around the football field. It’s one of the finest in the track-crazed state of Oregon.

Best of all, after five years of deepening this remarkable church-school partnership, student test scores are significantly higher, graduation rates have soared, and sports teams have gone from winless to the playoffs. Kids are increasingly inspired as the surrounding community becomes more and more engaged. The Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, in recognizing the impact and potential of church-school partnerships, has now requested a partnership after the SouthLake-Roosevelt model for “every school in the district”.

In short, Roosevelt High School, five years ago on a short-list of schools designated for closure, is now being celebrated as a model for school reform and achievement.

At some point as this incredible story was unfolding, we realized the significance of what we were involved in. What if we weren’t just one church that happened to be serving one school? What if we were potentially, inadvertently, helping to build a model for church-school partnerships nation-wide? Maybe others could learn from the failures and successes of our church-school partnership, and those of others already doing this work? The vision for Be|Undivided—a vision to inspire and equip churches to serve and partner with public schools—was born.

I ask the question again: What would it look like if 300,000 churches were serving 100,000 schools?

Imagine what could happen in every city of our nation if people of faith came out of our urban and suburban centers of retreat, and engaged the real-life needs of society, represented in our children and their schools? Just maybe, we could become catalysts for cultural change in our lifetime. Real cultural change through, of all institutions, God’s church.

Kip Jacob Lead Pastor, SouthLake Church

Executive Director, Be|Undivided