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Catch & release

"Catch & release" Continued...

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

Five years later, she calls the arrangement "an outstanding relationship" and adds: "I can't tell anymore where we leave off and they pick up." That's partly because the church members volunteer for other projects: helping with the school's fall festival, making gift bags for teachers, and helping with literacy week. "When we need some extra hands, they're the first ones to show up," says Black.

Vincent says "adopting" the school has allowed the church to serve the community while "showing love to people in tangible ways on the road to giving them the gospel." He adds: "There's nothing in our community that unites as many homes as a school, and if God gives you a door there, it's a huge door."

That's a door that dozens of churches are finding, according to Kenneth Breivik, executive director of School Ministries, a nonprofit organization that helps local groups organize Released Time programs. Breivik estimates as many as 500,000 public-school students nationwide participate in some form of Released Time, though Breivik's organization works mostly with about a dozen programs in South Carolina. (The organization is also helping groups in Ohio and Florida.)

Breivik says his group operates from a Christian and evangelistic perspective: "This is really to help expose students to the opportunity to have a personal relationship with God." For those wondering about the legality, he points to a 1952 Supreme Court decision that explicitly allows such programs. (Other religious groups-including Jews and Catholics-have separately started their own programs, too.)

It's a wide-open opportunity for churches to craft their own programs and curriculum, he says. Some groups have used materials like Charles Colson's How Now Shall We Live? Others have created their own courses.

Breivik admits it does take "some muscle" to start a program, and his organization helps groups understand the process of requesting permission from local school boards, developing a program, and abiding by state laws. (For example, programs must take place off-campus and entail no school funding. Some high schools have additional requirements.)

For volunteers in one district of nearby Spartanburg County, the muscling began 10 years ago when a middle school in Boiling Springs and one in Chesnee began offering Released Time programs. Ailena Geddes, director of the Spartanburg District 2 Released Time Program, says those efforts blossomed: 300 students participate in Boiling Springs and another 145 are enrolled at the middle school in Clemmons.

A smaller group met for the first year (2008-2009) at Chesnee High School, where one morning class included devotions with a local youth pastor who talked about the cost of following Christ. Teacher Marie Montieth distributed Post-it notes for prayer requests before 11 students played a Bible-review game.

After class, Ella Mae Colbert, a long-time volunteer at the middle school program in Chesnee, talked about the changes she's seen in students over the years. She's seen plenty: Colbert is 93.

The spry senior citizen serves as a substitute teacher at the middle school, and she volunteers every week for a full day of Released Time. "My business is kind of snooping around, trying to keep order," she quips. The retired elementary school teacher says students today know less about the Bible but talk more freely about their problems: "They'll tell you they're hurting on the inside."

Colbert says she's thankful that Released Time exposes students to the Bible and to Christians who care about them, and she hopes the program expands. "I've noticed that young people are troubled, and they don't really know why," she says. "And whoever gets to them first, that's what they take to."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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