Schools, churches walk a fine line between witnessing and volunteering

The Everett Herald, Washington/March 8, 2009

Marysville - A Marysville mom was shocked recently when she discovered a youth group leader had used MySpace to offer her 11-year-old daughter a ride to church. The youth group leader, 19, who apparently met the girl while volunteering at Totem Middle School in Marysville, is one of many church leaders who spend time in public schools throughout Snohomish County.

Rianne Olver didn't expect her daughter to be chatting with church representatives during lunch at public school.

It's much more common than she might have ever guessed.

Turning Point Church in Marysville is among the scores of churches across the nation that send volunteers into public schools. These groups must walk the line, trying to share God's love without advocating their religion.

Schools, particularly those in areas that aren't wealthy, struggle to find enough volunteers to keep things running smoothly. Lunch monitors, crossing guards, teacher's helpers and others are all needed.

In Marysville, some say Turning Point has taken advantage of that need and crossed over from community service to proselytizing.

"Clearly this church was using the public school as a mission field; interfering with parental rights to decide what - if any - religious education their children will get," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This is a terrible example of how not to form a partnership between a religious organization and a public school."

Church at school

Turning Point interns began volunteering at Totem Middle School a year ago, after students there walked out of class to protest lax discipline. School officials were glad to have the young adults serve as informal student mentors and to coordinate games and activities once a week during lunch, said Gail Miller, Marysville School District's assistant superintendent.

"We can't deny them a role as a volunteer group simply because they're from a church," Miller said.

She never heard any complaints about the Turning Point volunteers until late February, she said, when Olver called about the message a church member left on her daughter's MySpace page.

In the message, an intern invited Olver's daughter to a church youth group meeting. She promised free espresso and offered to give her a ride.

"Hang out with cool people," it read. "Plus you are really cool so it would just make it that much cooler. Are you going to be there?"

Olver said she would have been angry regardless of what the message said, but she was especially upset that it was an unsolicited invitation to a Turning Point youth group.

"The fact that it's a religious group talking to my daughter, pushing their beliefs on my daughter, disturbs me even more," she said.

Taking action

Olver's complaint led Turning Point leaders to pull their volunteers out of Marysville schools, while the district investigates the situation.

District leaders are scheduled to meet with interns and other Turning Point youth leaders this week for a training session on how to appropriately interact with students, said Mike Villamor, Turning Point's senior pastor.

"We want to give Marysville the opportunity to know the love of God, and we believe we can do that within the authority that's put in place over us," he said. "If we need to adjust our methods, then we're OK with that."

Church controversy

Some parents say the church targets teenagers to lure them into volunteering as Turning Point interns or enrolling in a collegelike program run by the church.

That unaccredited three-year program, the School of Ministry Arts, is taught primarily by church pastors. Tuition costs about $3,500 per year.

Sue Schneider said her daughter was 17 and nearly finished with high school and working at a local restaurant when a youth leader from Turning Point, who also worked at the restaurant, invited her to church. Within months, Schneider said, her daughter decided to give up a university scholarship to attend the School of Ministry Arts.

"Going to college was all she talked about," Schneider said, "until she met this kid at the restaurant."

Schneider is a Christian and believes in the Bible. She also wanted her daughter to use her scholarship to get a university education.

When she confronted pastors at the church, she said, they told her to let her daughter make her own decisions.

"In her heart, she believes she's doing what's right," she said.

The School of Ministry Arts is designed for people who want to become pastors or otherwise be involved in church leadership, and for people who want to learn the Bible before they pursue other education, Villamor said.

Church leaders don't encourage teenagers to defy their parents, he said.

"At the same time, we recognize the freedom of young adults to make their own decisions," the pastor said.

Villamor encourages skeptics to consider all the volunteer work his church has done in the community. Villamor and his staff lead more than a dozen churches each year in Marysville's Summer Jubilee, an event that has drawn more than 10,000 people to receive free school supplies, hear music and play games.

Church members have also worked to landscape city parks.

"We welcome their involvement," said Doug Buell, Marysville's city spokesman.

New technology

The church has yet to hear back from the school district on whether the MySpace message between a Turning Point youth leader and a student was against the rules. It's common for youth leaders to use online tools to connect with students, Villamor said.

"Facebook, MySpace, that's what they exist for," Villamor said. "Wicked, vile bands use those to invite kids to dangerous environments."

So why can't a church use those tools for good, he said.

It's unrealistic to ask youth pastors and other youth leaders to refrain from contacting students via online portals, said Jeff Knight, pastor of The Rock Church in Monroe. That's the way their generation communicates.

"Given all the other communities in the blogosphere, I would have a hard time saying, 'Hey, a youth pastor shouldn't create an online community,'" he said.

His church makes every effort to contact parents if their child attends church events or texts, e-mails or chats with a youth leader, Knight said. The church does not encourage children to attend against a parent's wishes, he said.

Faithful volunteers

Youth leaders at The Rock Church used to volunteer during lunchtime at Monroe High School, but the school "isn't open to that any longer," Knight said.

Monroe School District spokeswoman Rosemary O'Neil said she doesn't know what happened between the school and the church. Volunteers visit the school to keep an eye on students, but they are encouraged to use the time to get exercise by power-walking through the campus "and be an extra set of eyes."

"It's not at all about interaction with the students," she said. "It's simply for safety and security on campus."

Church volunteers have been a fixture at public schools across the country for decades.

In Everett, First Presbyterian Church has adopted Garfield Elementary. Church members host reading nights, mentor students through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization and organize a homework club.

Other Everett schools have established relationships with various churches in the past and are grateful for the volunteers, said Lauren Hadley, the Everett School District's partnership coordinator.

Brooks Rice, a pastor at New Life Foursquare, has volunteered for "walk-abouts" at Cascade High School in Everett, where he roamed the school campus to keep an eye on students. He currently teaches an after-school ceramics class as a volunteer.

Rice said he doesn't volunteer in order to get kids to attend New Life. If they do, that's a bonus, he said, but his main purpose is to be a role model.

"I want to be someone who cares about public schools," he said. "Even if I wasn't a pastor, I believe I would still go to schools to serve."

Legal standing

Courts have ruled that religious volunteers are welcome in public schools, as long as members of other groups also can help out.

Like teachers, administrators and custodians, volunteers shouldn't elaborate on their faith in public schools, to avoid breaching the First Amendment, said Richard Fossey, professor of education law at the University of North Texas.

"You should definitely avoid getting into religious discussions," he said. "I'm a professor. If someone said, 'Dr. Fossey, what religious group do you belong to?' I'd probably tell them, but I wouldn't use that conversation as an opportunity to express my religious beliefs or to try to persuade someone of my religious beliefs. That would be inappropriate and it would be a violation of the First Amendment."

At Marysville schools, volunteers aren't allowed to discuss religion unless they're asked about it.

Even then, volunteers should keep their answers brief, Miller said.

Fossey agrees with the school district's decision to investigate and consider allowing Turning Point volunteers back in after some retraining about boundaries.

Still, having church members chatting with students at lunch can be risky, said Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"It is possible to do this without violating any student's or parent's rights," he said. "But it is very dicey to try to do."

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