Oakmont Baptist Church in Greenville, North Carolina, began a tutoring program for neighborhood children some years ago.
This led to volunteers teaching, tutoring and sharing the message of how to live for Christ.
Then the pandemic hit.
In spring 2020, as infection numbers continued to climb, we closed our doors and shuttered our tutoring spaces. This was a sad, disappointing time, but a few tutors continued to contact their children.
As we entered the fall of 2020, we tried again to open the doors to the tutoring room. Just as with adults, many of the children became depressed and lost interest in coming to the church, but we would not give up.
Tutors walked to nearby apartments and urged children to, “Come with me. … We will read and play a game.”
Email and flyers provided a way to communicate our continued love and prayers for the children. Online Bible story time was created and emailed to families able to connect with the internet.
For Christmas 2020, every apartment in our neighborhood received face masks and hand sanitizer along with Christmas greetings from the church.
As the pandemic continued to rage, schools made plans to provide virtual learning to every child in our local school system. This opened the door for a new type of ministry for our neighborhood children.
But how could we do this during lockdowns and closed doors?
We set up a very stringent environment for the tutoring sessions, requiring strong protocols to protect children, tutors and church staff. Thanks to support staff and Jimmie Hughes, Oakmont’s director of missions, we provided careful sanitizing between the twice-daily tutoring sessions.
Widely spaced tables, masks and clear face shields were available for everyone, at all times. When entering the tutoring room, children were reminded to use the 90% ethyl alcohol hand sanitizer that was available.
Study kits were created for every individual child. Notebooks, pencils, coloring pencils, scissors, stickers, simple reading books – everything you can think of for a child to learn, all without touching supplies belonging to another person.
Because each child used a school-issued laptop computer to complete school assignments, our tutors mastered new skills for using the technology.
Each adult was carefully matched to one individual child for homework. This led to deeper, more meaningful relationships between the children and their tutors.
Just as in “normal times,” parents had a strong influence on a child’s participation. Children who had lost desire to engage in tutoring would respond more favorably when prompted by a parent.
This opened our eyes to the ongoing need to build relationships with the entire family, not just the children we tutored.
Hughes formed a strong and sustainable partnership with the neighborhood schools attended by the children.
Classroom teachers were encouraged in their professional work, and they reciprocated with suggestions for tutoring homework. This was especially important as we witnessed the trauma and stress educators faced trying to design and deliver virtual classes and instruction.
As we worked to assist children and their parents, we partnered with East Carolina University’s (ECU’s) Spanish speaking students to join our tutoring team. This opened the door for ministry to college students along with neighborhood children.
“It is beyond rewarding to be able to help the children grow in their studies,” said Elizabeth Chan, an undergraduate student studying both biology and foreign languages at ECU.
“From just one year of tutoring, I have seen students become more comfortable with speaking English, learning their numbers and letters and, most importantly, gain confidence in their own abilities,” she said. “Tutoring … helps alleviate the stress parents face with teaching their children but also instills confidence in the students.”
We discovered online language translation apps worked well to keep connection between the church and families. Because children learned to use communications programs such as Zoom, additional tutoring could be scheduled with a child in their apartment.
Use of this technology provided an unexpected advantage as we could communicate without masks.
During Zoom calls, we could “share the screen” to view reading and math software as well as display eBooks from the North Carolina State Library.
From one house to another, the tutor could listen to a child read aloud from the eBook displayed on the Zoom screen.
Sometimes, the children were listless and tired from long days working on their computers. But on good days, children were eager to read aloud or follow the steps for a math problem.
We didn’t always see improvement in report cards, but the personal blessings that resulted from any small gains in the reading and math skills were immeasurable.
We believe we have followed the Spirit’s prompting to serve families in our neighborhood and that this was worth all the effort.
Most importantly, we know children see Christ in us as we are faithful to serve in the ways he has called us.
For those children who receive no religious instruction in the home, they are learning basic lessons about obeying God and the meaning of Christlike love.
During a pandemic, as we strive to serve others, we know this is who we are; this is the church.
Editor’s note: Throughout the summer, articles will be published from faith leaders reflecting on the pandemic ministry adjustments they enacted, looking ahead to the future or both. If you’d like to submit a column for consideration, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Associate professor emerita in education East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. At Oakmont Baptist Church, she has served as deacon, choir member and on the Sunday School Council. Having served on mission teams to Moldova, Brazil, Belize and Nicaragua, Brown has a special love for tutoring immigrant children living in her community.