by Rev. Greg Klimovitz, Associate Presbyter
For over twenty years, the education of children has been a local and international mission focus for First Presbyterian Church in Pottstown. “What part could we play in God’s dreams for the world?” Rev. Kerry Lester, Co-Pastor of First Presbyterian, recalls the mission committee asking. “We started locally and adopted the local [Barth] Elementary School and worked with the leadership there.”
Barth Elementary, located within walking distance of First Presbyterian Church, was not only where some of the congregation’s children attended, but also where a few members taught. After intentional conversations with both faculty and administration, the church and school forged a unique partnership. Guided by the mantra, one child for one hour, the saints of Pottstown committed to serving as after-school tutors, volunteers in leadership development programs, and coordinators of community gardens. Each of these areas of service was a direct response to the needs and assets of both school and church. Barbara Longstreth, chair of the mission committee, commented, “We work with not for. We work alongside.”
As their collaboration strengthened, the public school and congregation birthed the Barth Elementary Peacemaker Award. For the past 15 years, over the course of the school year, fifth grade students learn about past and present peacemakers, related attributes, and where peacemaking efforts are needed in their schools and communities. At the end of the year, students nominate a boy and girl peer to be acknowledged as Peacemaker-of-the-Year. The school and church then host a school-wide assembly, open to their families, and announce the peer-selected recipients, each presented a $100 Savings Bond. In a community where the majority of the students qualify for assisted lunches, this award both celebrates the present witness of the child and makes a small investment in their future.
“It’s an incredible use of resources,” noted Rev. Carter Lester, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church. “They’re looking at what the qualities of peacemaking are and inviting kids and families into the program.”
The intentionality of this congregation’s resourced efforts extends beyond their immediate neighbors and to impoverished communities in India. Since 2001 and through connections with the Medical Benevolence Foundation, Pottstown has embraced Reeta and Hari Rao as medical mission partners in Uttarakhand, India. Co-Directors of the Society for Nurture, Education, and Health Advancement (SNEHA), Reeta and Hari Rao work alongside underprivileged women and children in poor communities of Dehradun. SNEHA, Hindi for “God’s love,” affords those often-denied access the opportunity to attend school, participate in vocational trainings, and receive essential healthcare services. Pottstown’s partnership with SNEHA has allowed the organization to provide school supplies, textbooks, and uniforms to over 1150 students attending their academy, nutrition to malnourished children, rebuild facilities after severe flooding, leverage small businesses through entrepreneurial women, and engage in spiritual formation in an interfaith context.
This past summer, Pottstown also funded a Pennsylvania furlough for Reeta and Hari Rao. The church walked alongside the Co-Directors of SNEHA as they shared their witness and vital ministry stories not only with the faithful of First Presbyterian Church, but also prospective and current mission partners in the area. “The exposure visit to FPC Pottstown was a great eye opener for us, as we could bring back man new ideas to share here with our teachers and school children to implement in SNEHA,” said Reeta Rao. “SNEHA is working among the neediest slum community in the town…It would not be possible to educate so many children without the help and external support from churches and individuals.”
The witness of First Presbyterian Church in Pottstown reaffirms what it means to be co-workers for the gospel. As the faithful of this congregation have remained open to intentional relationships of empowerment and sustainability, God’s Spirit has extended their reach from Barth Elementary School to distressed regions of India. Even more, their commitment to the education and health care of children has proclaimed the good news of God’s love to those whom Jesus said the kingdom belongs.
As the Presbytery of Philadelphia celebrates our 300th Anniversary, we join alongside our churches and varied ministries that elevate the education of children in body, mind, and spirit. We give thanks for the varied ways our churches rally around their own local and international ministry partners who share such a bold conviction.