Bible lessons at the lunch bell
A little-known public school program allows Christians to teach to the Book
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IT’S A MAGICAL TIME at Lincoln Elementary School when the school bell rings for lunch. The moment the clock strikes noon, the whole campus shakes alive with noises and activities. Hallways choke with kids rushing to get in line at the cafeteria. Outdoors, little bodies run, tripping and spilling milk. And every Thursday at lunchtime, about 40 students walk past the games to sit in three stuffy vehicles and listen to church volunteers talk about Jesus—and it’s all wholly legal.
This nationwide program, known as “released time education,” allows public school students to attend privately sponsored religious classes during school time. Each time volunteer Joann Ogburn watches these kids—many from unchurched families—return week after week to her released time class, she marvels: “They really don’t have to—it’s voluntary! It’s just so rewarding to see God’s Spirit moving in these children’s hearts.”
Many call released time the “best unknown secret” to bringing Christianity back into the public school system. It began in Indiana in 1914 and has since spread to many other states. Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled public schools cannot endorse any religion or try to convert students during class, it upheld the constitutionality of released time in 1952—with certain limits: Released time classes cannot take place on public school property or involve public school teachers or public funds. School officials can also choose not to accommodate a released time p-rogram, and most states require parental permission for students to attend classes.
According to The Fellowship of Christian Released Time Ministries, about 250,000 students from kindergarten to high school participate in more than 1,000 released time programs across the nation today. Most are Christian, but some Jewish-, Mormon-, and Muslim-run programs also exist. Even in liberal California, about 310 schools in 16 school districts have endorsed released time. A committee in California is currently working with state legislators to create a bipartisan bill that would allow public high-school students in California to receive academic credit for attending released time classes during school hours.
Typically, local churches propose, sponsor, and operate released time programs. Lincoln Elementary School is just one of many schools in the Santa Ana Unified School District that local megachurch Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa oversees. While some children have the benefit of Christian school or homeschooling, two churchwomen—Janie McLaughlin and Olga Hunt—wanted to help public school attenders in a city that has one of the highest rates of crime, domestic violence calls, and teen births in the entire state. (Santa Ana also has the highest rate of poverty in Orange County and the highest percentage of residents without U.S. citizenship.)
IN 2000, McLaughlin and Hunt made hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hung out at the local park, feeding both sandwiches and Bible stories to hungry students after school. McLaughlin talked to the children, while Hunt ministered to their mothers in Spanish. That two-woman outreach soon expanded into a released time ministry with a pastor, two full-time staff members, and 30 regular volunteers who now keep released time classes and Bible clubs running at 15 elementary and middle schools and four high schools in the district.
That means every Thursday morning a volunteer named John drives 80 miles from his home in Hemet to Santa Ana to pick up the church trailer and tow it over to Lincoln Elementary. Parked in front of that trailer is another released time trailer and bus—three separate classes in all. At lunchtime, students march up to their grade-assigned trailer and squeeze into tiny plastic seats, balancing red lunch trays and black paperback Bibles on their laps. On the particular Thursday I visited, odors of the day’s lunch menu—fried chicken drumstick, ripe banana, and a pale, unidentifiable carby blob—saturated the tight space, while a generator-powered air conditioner groaned and feebly blew cool air.
“We have a wonderful story today,” began Ogburn, who teaches the fourth-graders. “Yay!” some kids cried, while others licked their greasy fingers before flipping open their Bibles to Genesis 37, the chapter on Joseph’s dream and his brothers’ betrayal. Several already had their hands raised, eager to read the verses out loud. The lucky chosen ones read with loud, clear voices, bravely stumbling through unfamiliar words such as “tunic” and “cistern.”
Throughout the class, Ogburn made the children repeat the main theme of Joseph’s story: “God is working a wonderful plan in our lives, even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it.” At the end of the lesson, little Jonathan volunteered to pray: “Thank you, God, for our lives, because You have plans for us. Amen!” Then just in time, the bell rang again, calling the children back to school. One by one they passed their completed homework to Ogburn, picked a lollipop from her stash of candy, and hopped off the bus saying, “Gracias, señora” and “Thank you, Miss Joann.” One boy lifted his palms up high and cried out, “I’m blessed!” before jumping out, and Ogburn chuckled after him, “Yes, you are!”
Ogburn, who has been teaching released time classes for more than four years, remembers her own schooling days in the 1960s South: Fridays always involved Bible stories with props and pictures, and prayers accompanied the daily Pledge of Allegiance. Now that religion has been segregated from public education, Ogburn sees released time as “one way to bridge that gap” and bring Biblical knowledge and values back into public schools: “It’s so important that these kids get the truth and grace of God early on. I have this yearning to tell them the truth, so that God’s Word will shape them as they grow up.”
‘It’s so important that these kids get the truth and grace of God early on. I have this yearning to tell them the truth, so that God’s Word will shape them as they grow up.’
As a new volunteer for the program, Ogburn used to fret about the time: She had only 30 minutes each week to impart Biblical knowledge and passion to her students, so she sometimes felt flustered when they raised their hands and talked about things that didn’t pertain to her lesson. But soon she realized her class was more than a curriculum—it was a safe space for kids to share something about their life. And they had much to say: One boy talked about his cousin who’d recently died. Another girl mentioned that her family’s computer had been stolen but her parents had no money to replace it. Ogburn now uses those moments to invite the kids to bow their heads and pray for their classmate.
Tommy Cota, the pastor who oversees Calvary Chapel’s released time ministry in Santa Ana, calls the program the best way for churches to get involved in their local communities. For many Santa Ana residents who are immigrants, the school is the one-stop community center to which they turn in times of need. Oftentimes, Cota said, the school office will ask him and his church for help and support for these families, particularly during moments of tragedy. When an elementary student witnessed his father getting shot dead in front of his house, the school called Cota, who visited the family members and prayed for them.
Cota first joined the released time ministry in 2003 as a volunteer driver by mistake. Then a student at Calvary Chapel’s school of ministry, he had responded to a “Drivers Needed” notice at the church bulletin board, mistaking it for a paid job. When he found out it was a volunteer position for released time, he begrudgingly decided to stick with it for only two months. On his first day as volunteer, he drove the trailer out to an elementary school, and the moment he stepped out, a group of kids with big smiles surrounded him. They peppered him with questions about Jesus and heaven, proudly recited their Bible verses of the week, and showed him their completed homework. As Cota gazed at the excitement and enthusiasm on these little round faces, he decided: “You know what? I want to keep doing this.”
Two years later, Cota took over Calvary Chapel’s released time ministry as pastor. Since then, Cota has formed relationships with principals, teachers, and district administrators and board members who see evident benefits of the program. Principals dealing with difficult students sometimes strongly recommend they join released time classes (with approval from parents), knowing from observation that students who regularly attend are likely to improve in both behavior and academic performance. Calvary Chapel’s program has grown organically as principals and teachers spread the word to colleagues at other schools.
THANKS TO HIS CONNECTIONS with school officials and the positive results of released time, Cota has also opened Bible clubs at four junior high and high schools in Santa Ana, focusing on schools whose students attended released time classes when they were younger. These legal Bible clubs are not part of the released time program, but are an intentional way of continuing the established relationship with program students as they grow into teenagers and young adults.
Every Tuesday at noon, Cota breezes into the hallways of Valley High School carrying a giant red bag. From that bag wafts a pungent aroma every American teenager instantly recognizes: pizza. “Here’s when the power of the pepperoni kicks in,” Cota jokes. And powerful it is: As Cota walks with his pizza delivery bag swinging, young lovebirds entwined hand-and-neck finally disentangle to turn and stare. Teenagers fooling around or gossiping by the lockers stop to sniff the pepperoni-laced air.
Those grease-stained boxes of pepperoni pizzas stop at classroom 413, where a group of about 20 students gathers to study the Bible. Cota says some students pop into the room just to score free pizza. When that happens, he says he tries to add a short gospel presentation to his teaching—and some students profess faith in Christ.
For one recent class, Cota spoke about 2 Corinthians 5, explaining it line by line, verse by verse, sometimes using his own testimony as a former gangbanging drug addict and ex-convict to illustrate a point. “Who here is afraid of death?” he asked, and the students raised their hands. Cota tapped his open Bible: “Look what it says here: We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have an eternal house in heaven. Meanwhile we groan, because earth is not our home. When I was in prison for six years, every day I woke up and groaned because I wanted to go back home, the same way we as Christians groan at the consequences of our sins and long to be home.”
Cota encourages students to jot down questions onto a piece of paper and drop them into a sealed Costco box. At the end of his talk, he reads out the questions and answers each one. Some questions grapple with theological issues: “Why is it that God can’t just heal all who are suffering?” “Does God punish us?” “How do I truly know that God exists?” Others deal with moral issues: “If God made marijuana, why is it bad?” “Why doesn’t God want us to have sex with our boyfriends?” “Is masturbation a sin?” At the end of the recent class, students came up to Cota and gave him hugs. One girl told him, “Thank you for what you shared today. I feel like I’m going to cry right now because I feel like God is speaking directly to my heart.”
Cota continues interacting with the Bible club students outside of school, mainly through social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook, and students send messages to him with personal questions or prayer requests. Three times a year, he and his wife Diana invite about 20 of these high-school students into their home, where they host a barbecue party and introduce them to church and youth group leaders.
Since Cota planted Hope Alive Church in Santa Ana in 2014, his church members now include former released time students, some who are married with kids, and family of former students, including their parents. “We the church are part of the community now, not just a program or club during lunch hour, but engaged seven days a week,” Cota said. “And it’s all the result and fruit of released time education.”
Because he also lives in Santa Ana, Cota often bumps into former students at parks and supermarkets—and many tell him they’ve never forgotten the love of Jesus they once learned at released time classes and Bible clubs. When those encounters happen, Cota once again remembers that God’s work never ceases: “The biggest thing I learned through all this is to never underestimate the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
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