A global evangelical group that strives to place young missionaries in public schools has sparked concern among some Vancouver teachers who fear the Pais Project volunteers in their school are trying to convert students.
Pais apprentices have been working in University Hill secondary for months, offering individual tutoring and English-language assistance during the day and coaching sports teams after hours. According to their Face-book postings, they're also "taking advantage of every opportunity to build up strong relationships with these students [and] to share God's unconditional love with them."
Another Pais team has been helping students prepare for a theatrical production at South Delta secondary school.
School officials insist Pais members are not preaching, which would violate a B.C. School Act requirement that public schools be strictly secular. "They are simply volunteers who happen to also be religious," district communications manager Kurt Heinrich said.
"This has been supported by classroom teachers who've worked with the volunteers and have not witnessed any problems with their behaviour."
But a theologian said the assumption that these young evangelicals are not proselytizing is naive. "If they are not attempting to convert, they would be unfaithful to their mandate," said Donald Grayston, an Anglican priest who taught religious studies in the Humanities Department at Simon Fraser University until his retirement. "It's absolutely clear that they are missionaries."
Some UHill teachers who have barred the three Pais volunteers from their classrooms say they're worried about the way they've been socializing with students in school hall-ways and, in some cases, off school grounds. Red flags went up last month when they were spotted at a coffee shop with students, and the matter was raised at a staff meeting.
Rob Bordon, a longtime teacher and staff representative, said he discussed teachers' concerns with principal Alex Grant after that meeting.
"We're not anti-religion," Bordon stressed in an inter-view. "Our concern is if a specific group has an agenda ... [and] is targeting kids who are vulnerable for specific reasons and potentially proselytizing.
"We didn't say they're trying to convert kids. But if I was a parent, I would want to know who are these people, do they have an agenda, what is their agenda and should they be in the school?"
PRAYING FOR OPEN HEARTS
After hearing about the concern, the Pais team issued an appeal for prayers to open the teachers' hearts.
Teacher Peter Hill was unmoved. "I don't think any-one should be trying to convert students in a public school," he told The Vancouver Sun. "Our students are a captive audience - they can't get away from these people now as they are in the school at least three days a week."
Robin Frohnmayer, who over-sees the Vancouver and Delta teams, said Pais has partnered with several Metro Vancouver schools over the past seven years. "In those seven years, we have realized the huge need that schools have, and our dream would be to inspire more people to become aware of the huge amount of workload our teachers and principals are faced with," he told The Sun in an email. "We love that the schools have allowed us to help them."
Pais volunteers are well aware of the rules against preaching in schools and "there has never been an incident where that trust was broken," he added, and forwarded a letter of reference from a teacher in North Vancouver's Seycove secondary who said the group worked in his school for five years and demonstrated a commitment to "giving back to a larger community rather than proselytizing."
Founded by Paul Gibbs in England in 1992, Pais is a Christian youth movement that tries to build bridges between churches and public schools by working with students aged 11-18. Its motto is "missionaries making missionaries" and its philosophy is summed up in four words: spread, spot, stay and send. "Spread the message, spot the people of peace, stay with them, investing and empowering them, send them out."
Pais, a Greek word loosely translated as "a servant of God," recruits apprentices, trains them and dispatches them to churches and schools in more than half a dozen countries. Two of the three UHill volunteers are from Ger-many and gained access to the school through a youth pastor at nearby University Chapel. The school district said it has "an ongoing and positive relationship" with the evangelical church that includes using its recreation facility when the west-side school needs extra space.
While the Pais Project concentrates on youth and schools, the Pais Collective works with churches and the Pais Venture focuses on businesses and enterprise. The Pais website said it hopes to expand onto every continent in order to "spark the movement."
"Being a part of Pais is much more than simply being an apprentice who takes the message of Jesus into schools," said a posting on one of the Pais Canada Facebook pages. "It's about being a part of a movement - a movement who [sic] are passionate to see young people reached in schools. We need you to play your part in this movement!"
According to information filed with the Canada Revenue Agency, Pais had 16 full-time volunteers as of June 2011. Its revenues included $11,000 in charitable donations from within Canada and $13,000 in donations from outside the country.
STARTED IN 2004
Pais began operating in Canada in 2004, mostly visiting schools in Metro Vancouver and Calgary. Its Facebook and Twitter pages suggest its primary attention this year is on three schools: UHill, Delta senior secondary and South-pointe Academy, an independent school in Delta.
At the start of the school year, Pais was pumped about getting its volunteers into University Hill. "The school has welcomed them in with arms wide open. Luke, Linnea and Bianka have been able to build up great partnerships with numerous teachers," a Facebook post said.
Similar success was reported for the Tsawwassen team. "Amazing news: we talked with the principle [sic] of SDSS again and we are allowed to work in the school now. God answers prayers! Please pray for teachers to open their class-rooms for us."
But according to the Delta school district, the principal at South Delta secondary (SDSS) wouldn't let them speak to students. "Public schools are strictly secular and operate on non-sectarian principles, therefore no teachings of religious doctrine are permitted," said communications manager Deneka Michaud. "This is why Pais was not allowed to enter the school to formally address students."
They are, however, working with students to prepare for a Sound of Music production later this month. Grayston said that also provides a venue for proselytizing. "They work through friendships," he said, and teenagers are vulnerable to anyone who shows an interest in them.
Pais is one of two evangelical Christian organizations working in Vancouver public schools. Several volunteers from the Young Life ministry have worked as sports coaches at Kitsilano and Point Grey secondary schools in the past and two are still coaching at Kits.
"After three years of coaching and interactions with over a hundred students, there has been only one concern reported to the principal in the fall of 2011," district spokesman Heinrich said. "Our principal met with the volunteer in question and reinforced our requirement that there be no religious recruiting in any inter-actions with students."
The main Young Life coach is Dustin Klassen, who is affiliated with a neighbourhood church. The church website describes Young Life as "a relationally driven ministry that focuses on loving teenagers in their world and encouraging them to know Christ.
"Dustin builds friendships with students at Kitsilano high school through coaching soccer, coordinating weekly social events and running a Bible study group. His passion is connecting with teens in their everyday surroundings to share Christ's love with them," it states.
During the last couple of weeks, the Pais westside team - Bianka Stix and Linnea Weise from Germany and Luke Ratzlaff from Chilliwack - have been on a roller-coaster ride, said a Facebook posting. "We have seen God open many doors for us in University Hill secondary, but it now appears that a number of teachers are trying to close them.
"They have an issue with the fact that we are Christians and would like to see us out of the school. Praise God that both of the principals are supporting us and see the good we do in UHill. Please be praying for us and that God's will would be done. Since the doors are still open, our team is really excited about the opportunity we have to volunteer with the Theatre program at UHill and the number of students who are being reached through the program.
"God's ways are higher than ours and we believe he has great plans for this school."