The Tree of Life School

Diversity is something that never seems to happen naturally. Because of our fallen nature, we tend to gravitate to people, places, and things that are like us. That way, we remain comfortable and in control. Everything makes sense in our limited minds.

Diversity is something that is a work of the Holy Spirit. Diversity actually allows greater levels of freedom and views our differences as strength. In order to obtain diversity, we must work for it.

About ten years ago, the Holy Spirit laid a burden on me and my wife’s hearts to raise our kids in a more diverse environment. Somehow, we knew that we were missing out, because in every community where we were involved, everyone was very much like us. Something had to change. We knew we would move into a bigger house someday as our family increased and we said to God we would move anywhere he wanted us to.

Seven years ago, at a Christian Educators Association convention in Milwaukee, I attended a presentation called “Hallways of Grace.” I remember that it was exceptional. The presenter challenged us in many ways. At some point, the presentation somehow faded out and I heard God say, “I want a Christian school in the inner city of Kalamazoo … and I want it to be affordable to anyone.” Things came back into focus and I was simply awestruck at what had just happened. I wondered if anybody else heard what I had heard, since I really had not experienced anything like it before. I told two of my colleagues and my wife. After that, I didn’t tell anyone for about five years. I was excited and terrified at the same time, and I had no idea where to even start.

About six years ago, we moved into the Edison neighborhood of Kalamazoo. It’s the most diverse neighborhood in the region, ethnically, socio-economically, and religiously. God answered our prayer. We were scared at first when we moved there, but we have learned so much about ourselves, about people, and about other cultures and traditions.

About two years ago, the burden on my heart for the school was growing and I sensed that the Lord was dropping some big hints that I needed to do something. I shared the vision with two more people, who became the two other chords in a strand of three. We went to pray one morning about this school idea and they both heard God say that I was being disobedient. It was the encouragement I needed, and that was the day that I “made my heart public.” I sent an e-mail and a letter to everyone I knew, telling them about this vision from God. I knew at that point that if this was not a vision from God, it would soon die.

As I began to tell people, I realized that I needed an action team or board to help this vision become more formal and get it moving toward reality. I was also convicted at this point that every “voice” in the neighborhood should be represented in the planning for the school. So, we intentionally sought out people from different walks of life including rich, poor, black, white, Hispanic, male, and female. God gave us a good mix of people and that became very helpful. I learned that if you want diversity, you have to be intentional and strive for diversity at every level of the organization. It is incredibly difficult, as I’ve learned from experience, to be part of an organization that lacks diversity at its core and then expects to achieve it overnight.

Four months ago, we opened the doors to Tree of Life School. We have thirteen students in K–3, two teachers, one principal, and a hundred-thousand-dollar budget. The parent tuition almost covers the rent and utilities. The rest we have been relying on the Lord to provide through the generosity of the body of believers.

Since we have opened, the blessings have been rich and abundant! We have had students and parents committing their lives to Christ. People who had left the faith are coming back and are being baptized. Students are learning so much about God and his amazing creation. We have fifteen minutes of worship every morning, and kids are singing worship songs around the clock and everywhere they go. They are learning how to be responsible citizens in the kingdom! The parents are thrilled at the changes they see in their kids.

Another amazing blessing is how we are challenged as followers of Christ each and every day. Although we are helping and serving students and families, we are also being called to rethink what we consider important as followers of Christ. We find every day that some things that we think are important really are not.

The challenges are much like those faced by any Christian school, including lack of money and a desire to enroll more students. There are also many families in our community with great spiritual, social, financial, and educational needs. Our school may run from 9–4 p.m., but we fill needs around the clock. We help people find new apartments or move into new places to live; we finance small necessary items; we help find babysitting services, and on and on. Where there is a need, we try to fill it, during school hours or at any other time. But every single time that we have had a need, God has provided. And, often God’s provision was more than what we needed.

The hardest thing for me has been that I am no expert in any of the areas that God is calling me. I have no administrative degree and no fundraising skills or experience. I am trained in secondary, not elementary education. Why is God calling me to do this? I do not know, but I have been told that God doesn’t call the equipped, but equips the called.

Prayer, communication, and marketing are probably the three greatest elements that began this journey. Foremost continues to be constant dialogue with the Lord and being submissive to him. We have a huge prayer base with people regularly praying over this vision. Once we had that established, we then moved to creating vision, mission, and philosophy. We came up with a logo and a tri-fold brochure. The brochure was key because we handed it out to all of our partners, parents, and donors. We also send out several e-mail and Facebook updates once a month. In all of this, we are pushing for and striving for diversity. We want this school to be representative of the neighborhood, which is the most diverse in Kalamazoo County. We have diverse people on the board, diverse churches backing us, diverse people passing out fliers, and diversity is specifically mentioned in our mission statement.

We have discovered that if your heart is genuine and love is your highest aim, people will receive you. And we have been welcomed by most people. People are hungry for the Word. They know that something different is needed here.

There are also many stereotypes to overcome in people’s minds. Many people we approach believe that Christian education is unaffordable, or far from the neighborhood, or lacking in diversity. One night I approached a woman on the porch, telling her about the new Christian school. I watched her face start to contort. She said, “Christian school!?!? There’s nobody around here who can afford a Christian school!” I then said, “Not even 5 percent of your income, regardless the number of kids?” Her face and demeanor changed. “Really?” And the more I talked about the school—how it was going to be in the neighborhood and that we embrace all cultures—she actually became excited. Cost is a major factor, but we’re going on a different model of schooling where a majority of our costs are met through the body of Christ supporting us. Our supporters are saying, “Yes. We will stand with you so that more people can experience Christ-centered education than before.”

If you are considering a project similar to ours, there are many things to remember, but there is one that is critical: You have to build solid, meaningful relationships with people and show them in very tangible ways that you are willing to keep building those relationships. Jesus spent six days a week walking, talking, eating, healing, and living with people. We have to do the same. A fancy tri-fold brochure or newspaper ad is helpful, but it will never be enough. You have to go and seek people out. Do not expect them to come to you. This will never happen without a struggle and great sacrifice.