Creative Commons License fusion-of-horizons
Creative Commons License fusion-of-horizons
Bekah S. McNeel

The Faith Convening is an ecumenical group that has been meeting for three years. It started under the leadership of the SAMMinistries‘ spiritual service director. Across the city, several Faith Convening groups met with the goal of bringing together community partners to address various social issues, with the SAMMinistries’ spiritual service director participating.

Kercida McClain, director of Christian Education for Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, and the powerhouse engine and leader of the Monte Vista Faith Convening, took the inspiration of these groups and was off and running.

Once a month the group continues to gather in what Rev. Kelly Allen, pastor of University Presbyterian Church called, “A network of support and encouragement.”

Temple Beth-El at 211 Belknap Place.
Temple Beth-El at 211 Belknap Place.

The January meeting was held at Temple Beth-El, and began with a Jewish blessing and a liturgical Christian prayer. Like any good meeting of church-goers it began with a hearty meal and conversation. Community organizations, elementary schools, churches, neighborhood associations, colleges and the temple itself were officially represented including City Year, Trinity University, University Presbyterian Church, Cotton Elementary School, Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association, Christ Episcopal Church and more. Mixed among them were neighborhood residents, some of whom have kids and some who do not.

During the meetings, the goal is for those in attendance to discuss the needs and resources in their communities. They present information about projects they are undertaking, challenges they have seen, and solutions that might benefit others in the room.

Some, like Methodist Healthcare Ministries, send representation to spread the news of their existence. Churches leaders learn of opportunities to deploy volunteers for reading and mentoring programs. It’s clear by the end of the night that everyone has something to offer, and every needs something.

“It’s important that we not just see our community as the people with the assets and the people who receive those assets,” said Allen.

Too often, when schools and churches stick to their brick and mortar domains, problems go unsolved when the answer is just across the street. In an area like Monte Vista, there’s no shortage of donors, volunteers, after school programs and creativity. They just need help connecting.

“Within the neighborhood we have what we need. We just need to make sure we’re sharing it,” said McClain.

At first, according to McClain, the schools were tentative of the churches’ sincerity and ability to follow through. For the first year, the Faith Convening had to earn their trusts through no-strings-attached giving. When McClain found out that kids in the neighborhood schools were chronically without clean or complete uniforms, she jumped on the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment.

McClain and her team provided 900 uniforms to the area schools.

A closet full of new uniforms for Twain Middle School.
A closet full of new uniforms for Twain Middle School.

And as with most acts of giving, those who contributed gained a deeper understanding of  their calling to the kids of their church neighborhood. Many of the congregants of the Monte Vista and Beacon Hill churches do not actually live in the area. They drive into the their longtime church from the suburbs or other midtown enclaves. One of the goals of Faith Convening is to provide avenues for people to see the church’s neighbors as their neighbors and form a deeper bond with the mission of the churches.

“Everybody is beginning to understand that they have two neighborhoods,” McClain said.

Other communities might not have the reserves that the Monte Vista area enjoys, but they still have ways to show local schools that they are on their team. Whether it’s showing up for the school play, being a reading buddy, or volunteering to help with a school supply drive, communities across the city have found ways to “show up” for their local schools.

Faith Convening communicates that it loves the kids, but it doesn’t forget those in the background of education either. Each school represented at the meeting went home with a care package full of custodial supplies for those in charge of maintaining the school grounds.

Kercida McClain
Kercida McClain

They are thinking broadly about a campus, just like they are thinking broadly about their mission.

When you think of “the Church in society,” a lot of images probably come to mind. Some flattering, some not so flattering. One thing that probably does not spring to mind is the effort to support and engage public schools.

This bothered McClain. She looked back in church history. When Sunday School began in 18th century England, it was not only a forum for religious education, but an outreach effort to teach working children how to read and write, since there was no avenue for them to attend school during the week.

Like much of the church’s historical business, Sunday School was a social program. They were taking Christ seriously when he said to care for the poor and serve others (Matthew 25:40).

Today, while children are not without access to basic education, there are still many of real and pressing needs in our communities. Many of these come to light within the walls of the school.

Members of Monte Vista's Faith Convening making a uniform drop-off at Cotton Elementary.
Members of Monte Vista’s Faith Convening making a uniform drop-off at Cotton Elementary.

“The reason the church should (be engaged with public school) is because this is who we are,” said McClain.

Churches were once hubs for community activity, and places where those in need could go for holisitic support. With the advent of the contemporary American cullture wars, that role was diminished. Many churches disengaged from complex and murky areas where doctrine and social justice seem to be in conflict.

Public education is one such area.

Pluralism, sex education, evolution, and prayer made the school a battleground. Where it has stayed engaged, the church has often seemed more concerned with staking their claim than the huge opportunity to truly bless their communities.

In many cases, however, churches simply turned inward, focused on their own programming.

“When the Church stopped focusing on what we can do outside of our walls, we failed,” said McClain.

In Monte Vista, McClain and others are trying to change that.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey, and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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*Featured image  fusion-of-horizons

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.