Reconciliation Ground: Ministry in Public Schools | Sojourners

Reconciliation Ground: Ministry in Public Schools

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Cheryl stands in a modest but clean kitchen beside a long plastic table lined with mixing bowls, cereal, raisins, pretzels, and M&Ms. In front of her, a room full of bright faces eye the candy and snacks greedily, their fingers twitching to get started.

“Okay, kids,” Cheryl announces. “January is healthy snack month and I’m going to teach you to make your very own healthy snacks.”

Cheryl is lovely. Her eyes, flecked with laughter, are framed by a brown bob that cups gently around her warm smile.

She directs the children as they line up at the table, each taking a clear plastic bag and scooping in one cup of Cheerios, one-fourth cup of pretzels, one-fourth cup of raisins, and so on. The room is a blur of energy, the kind of throbbing, barely controlled chaos that only children can muster. They bop around the table, some with hair braided into cornrows, others with joyful poofs of curls squeezed into pigtails.

This is just one of the many programs run by Seven Baskets, a faith-based community development corporation envisioned and birthed by Cheryl and her husband, Jeff. The goal of Seven Baskets, as articulated by their mission statement, is to “transform Ohio’s urban centers by developing dynamic relationships with neighborhood schools and becoming involved in the community.”

[Read: Jesus Is in the Neighborhood]

Cheryl and Jeff Mansell came to this project late in their careers. God laid on a vision on Jeff’s heart for church planting in urban areas, and gave Jeff the name for a new kind of ministry that would partner with local neighborhoods and cultivate the kind of trust and respect where churches could naturally grow. The name was Seven Baskets.

“It comes from Mark 8 when Jesus fed the 4,000 and seven baskets were left over,” Cheryl explained to me during a national conference for Christian community development.

Jeff and Cheryl took this name as a promise that there would always be enough resources — not just for the ministry, but for them personally and for any one else coming alongside the work.

Today, Seven Baskets is primarily focused on ministry to the community surrounding Leawood Elementary School, a forgotten neighborhood in the mid-east section of Columbus, Ohio.

“Our way into the community has been through setting up a tutoring and after school program in the school,” Jeff explained.

In 2012, Jeff turned in his resignation as District Superintendent and became the Executive Director of Seven Baskets. Like his wife, Jeff is gentle in manner and voice, his smile is warm and engaging, and he stands about a foot above most in the room.

Even as they’ve witnessed their humble efforts start to transform the atmosphere at Leawood Elementary School and the surrounding neighborhood, Jeff and Cheryl have perhaps been most surprised at the way in which Seven Baskets has opened a ministry to teachers.

“This is an opportune time for churches to support teachers,” Jeff said. “It is so easy to do and it doesn’t cost anything.”

And it’s true — teaching in under-resourced and underprivileged areas across the country has become somewhat of a mission of its own. Teachers bear the brunt of so much pressure — including changing federal policies and a broken education system — all while trying to deliver quality learning to children who often come to school hungry, broken, and scared.

The couple has found that part of their calling in these schools is not just to the children, but also to the teachers who serve those children. Cheryl has taken to performing regular acts of kindness for the teachers — showing up in the teachers’ lounge with a plate of cookies, or stopping by the main office to give a hug to the administrator in charge of discipline.

“I tell her, ‘I’m sure you’ve had a rough day today. Can I give you a hug?’ I just never knew it would make such a difference. [They] feel so supported,” said Cheryl.

The couple also runs programs that regularly gather clothing items, food, and school supplies for the teachers who then distribute the items to the children. Seven Baskets has branched out beyond the school property and bought a dilapidated house next to the school and refurbished it, turning it into a community house.

It is in this small, one story building where Cheryl leads her “Leader in Me” cooking class and teaches the kids to make everything from healthy snacks to a full bacon and eggs breakfast. Along the way she imparts lessons about leadership: how to work together, be proactive, and set goals.

The ministry and vision of Seven Baskets is catching on around Columbus. A small Wesleyan church of 30 members was inspired by the work the Mansells are doing, and has partnered with Oakland Park Elementary school using the Seven Baskets strategy.

“We have to create a sustainable model,” said Jeff.

“We recognize our limits. We don’t oversell what we can offer, but what we can do, we follow up on and give 100 percent.”

It’s this kind of seasoned judgment and self-awareness that can only come after years of service. And Jeff and Cheryl hope to see more and more of this kind of multiplication happen.

The principal at Oakland Park Elementary was excited to have the help and support of the little Wesleyan congregation across the street. He told his wife, a teacher assistant at Leawood, “We have our very own Seven Baskets now!”