By Rebekah Thornhill
From backpacks to blessings, throughout the Metropolitan New York Synod, teachers, administrators, students, and parents are all finding ways to mark and prepare for the new school year.
Christ’s Lutheran Church in Woodstock, NY is one of the many congregations that ask school children to bring their backpacks to church to be blessed before the year starts. Five years ago, they started with simple online resources and paired it with raising money for a partner school in Kenya. This year, they are offering anti-bullying awareness and training for parents, guardians, and grandparents with the blessing.
Christ’s began providing anti-bullying initiatives after teachers in the congregations started to suggest it, seeing the value in reinforcing how God created us and advocating for how we treat one another. "When you name something or address it like this," says Pastor Sonja Maclary, "it opens the conversation. The positive effect is simply that people are talking about it."
They have found a similar effect as they gather to talk about issues like suicide and domestic violence. People express thanks that there is space for conversation. "The most important thing is to start talking," says Pastor Maclary.
For years Redeemer-St. John’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn hasn’t just been blessing backpacks, but sending them overseas in conjunction with Lutheran World Relief’s (LWR) programs. This year their social ministry committee worked with volunteers to prepare 89 backpacks. "We have projects every month, from sewing quilts, to preparing school kits, to gathering Christmas packages," says Pastor Khader Khalilia. "It only makes sense to ask people to support this as we gear up for school. Our congregation recognizes that education is an important part of what every child deserves. They want to support their children and all children in learning."
To the children who receive School Kits from LWR, these supplies mean the difference between getting an education or not. Public school is usually free, but in the places where LWR works, even a few required supplies, like pens and paper, may be more than many families can afford. These kits will reach places like Syria, where LWR recently distributed 6,350 school kits to families affected by the ongoing conflict.
Pastor Khalilia includes the impact of these efforts in his Sunday morning preaching. "It is powerful when we see our backpack in a student’s hand or our quilt laying in a hospital bed across the globe. It is a tangible sign of our mission in the world."
Congregations find a variety of other ways to mark the new school year. Congregations will have special liturgies for installing school and Sunday school staff or host a back-to-school worship for the school families. "The start of a new school year is a wonderful opportunity for new beginnings," says Ms. Jessica Raba, executive director of Lutheran Schools Association (LSA). "We can support families placing focus on their collective faith development. In my own family, each new school year involves new routines. After a summer of unpredictable schedules with vacation and family events, the fall is an opportunity to collect ourselves and establish a routine that keeps us sane. Starting our week with worship and Sunday school is critical." She offers this as an easy way for congregations to mark the new year, offering conversations and tips for parents to establish their weekly routines grounded in faith.
LSA has provided strategic behind-the-scenes support for teachers and administrators for nearly 40 years. Their work is centered around providing professional development, resources, and tools to strengthen the work of teachers and administrators. With about 6,500 enrolled students from preschool to grade 12 in their 57 member schools, their impact is felt far and wide in the metro New York area. This year LSA provided workshops to strengthen curriculum and partnered with the Center for Urban Education Ministries to support blended learning with digital and online materials. They also help coach teachers in having positive classroom climates and, overall, successful school years.
Some are taking a decidedly interfaith approach to the new academic year. Wagner College is a competitive, four-year private college on Staten Island that began as a Lutheran mission. Their campus has already seen the influx of students, including 423 incoming freshman. In previous years students have returned to campus with an interfaith worship service – there are 7 religious leaders on Wagner’s Campus Ministry staff from a variety of traditions. Instead, for the second year Campus Ministry hosted a Religious and Spiritual Resource Fair, to help students connect directly to religiously affiliated clubs and programs.
"We are trying to set the interfaith table at Wagner and locate our Lutheran identity within that," says Wagner Chaplain and Lutheran pastor, Martin Malzahn. "We want to find ways to connect with our heritage, but without it being at the expense of another tradition." One way that Pastor Malzahn helps students to do this is by connecting them to events throughout New York City and having conversations with students about media coverage – good and bad – from people who claim Lutheranism. "We want to find ways to live our faith at its best." This includes planning weekends of worship and activity together. Homecoming weekend, or Fall Festival, coincides with the end of Eid al-Adha, Yom Kippur, and Pope Frances’ United States visit. Pastor Malzahn sees this as an incredible opportunity to bring the Wagner community together around their faith.
"Perhaps the best way to see the impact of this ministry is by looking to the graduates from Wagner," says Pastor Malzahn. From the 2015 class, there are two graduates studying at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, one studying at Princeton Divinity School, and a student who is heading to Jerusalem/West Bank as a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Young Adult in Global Mission program. Still studying at Wagner are students aspiring towards public ministry in the ELCA. As a church, we are engaged on multiple levels in life-long and faith-filled learning.