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Gainesville’s River Cross church invests in challenged public school
 

By Barbara Denman

December 16, 2013

 

James Silvers lowers his lanky six-foot-two frame into a kid-sized chair in Mrs. Chappell’s class quickly engaging third-grader Donteau in the day’s lesson. Asking probing questions about the content, in just a brief time he helps the youngster absorb the meaning of his assignment.

A member of River Cross Church in Gainesville, Silvers is involved in the church’s seven-year partnership with the school system’s Business Partner Program, that ministers to students, faculty and administrators at Gainesville’s Lake Forrest Elementary School.

“For me, this is a joy,” said the local businessman who takes time away from his work at Nationwide Insurance to tutor the children on a regular basis.

“I love being with the kids and hanging out with them. I love to see excitement on their faces when we go into the classroom. I’m able to see how meaningful our work is to them.”

Lake Forrest Elementary School, labeled as an “F” school based on its Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests (FCAT) score, has “challenges,” said Principal Diane Hill, explaining that 96 percent of the primarily the African-American student body qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; which may be their only meal all day.

A high percentage is involved in the school’s exceptional student educational (ESE) program, requiring specialized instruction. Many live in a home where their grandparents are guardians and lack basic school supplies. As such, the school has difficulty drawing volunteers from its community. 

River Cross Pastor David Patterson believes that is where the church can step up to invest in the next generation, children who struggle in this needy community, located on the other side of town from the church’s Haile Plantation location.   

At the beginning of each school year, the church collects money to buy school supplies which helped 120 students this year. Not only do members volunteer to spend time in the classrooms as tutors, they sponsor, coordinate and chaperone field trips. 

Church members serve on the School Advisory Committee, giving input into decision making and operations of the school. At Christmas food and gifts are collected for both the child and a special person in their lives. Healthy snacks are distributed during FCAT testing week and appreciation gifts are given to teachers at the end of the year in recognition of the sacrifices they make. 

As a result, several of the teachers have visited and participated in church activities, including Principal Hill.

“It’s been such an asset having River Cross as our partners,” said the principal. While other groups are involved at the school, the church is “consistent and continual and that means a lot to our kids, our staff and our environment.”

The church is able to have access to the school, the principal said, because “their purpose is here to help children and staff.”

The church, she added, is making “a huge difference because they reach out in so many areas. If you mention River Cross, you can see from the look on my teacher’s faces that they are appreciated.”

River Cross became involved in the ministry because Patterson believes as more Christian families leave public schools, “the darker the schools become spiritually. We felt the burden to be a light in that darkness and see how God can lead us to impact students, families, and staff.”

“The people in our church are hungry to give back to kids, and invest in their lives. Over the years, we have been able to help with more and more needs. And there is joy in that,” the pastor said.

Giving comes naturally to Patterson. The former successful engineer/businessman was caught up in chasing the American dream and did not see any relevance to church, he said. Later in life, after discovering he was on the wrong path, he felt called to ministry. Quitting their jobs and selling their house, he and his wife, Jan, moved back to Gainesville, where they had previously lived, to plant the church on the west side eight years ago.

With the mantra, “Leading people to think eternally and act presently,” he said the church’s ministry to the school is, first and foremost, the right thing to do. It’s living out our mantra.” It is also a way to demonstrate the church’s relevance to the unchurched who probably have similar life questions that he once had.

In planting River Cross, now with nearly 300 in attendance, Patterson partnered with the Florida Baptist Convention, receiving church planting assistance, and working under the tutelage of church planter strategist Nevi Townsend, who died last year. 

He was coached and mentored in this new role, he said, by Bob Bumgarner, lead strategist of the Convention’s Church Health group. Now Patterson leads conferences for other church planters and churches interested in the school ministry.

Bumgarner calls the pastor “a spiritual entrepreneur, not afraid to reverse engineer ministry. He doesn't just start with, how can we get them to come to a gathering? He asks how can we meaningfully be where they already are?” 

“David is a true missionary church planter. He is not in love with his church model. He is in love with the people of Gainesville.”
 

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