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Jubilee at St. James

Small church thrives after unused education wing taken on by local faith-based school

By Jessica Connor

COLUMBIA—Once upon a time, church leaders of St. James United Methodist Church had a dream: they would one day house a thriving kindergarten or preschool ministry for the children of the community.

They built for the dream, creating a large educational wing in their newly built 500-member church. But that dream never took off. Like a lot of churches in the 1960s, St. James soon began to decline. Today, the church is active but small, with about 25 members attending each Sunday, most of them elderly.

Fast forward to 2014, and thanks to a new partnership between St. James and Jubilee Academy, the church is finally able to see its dream come true. Jubilee, a faith-based school that guides kids out of generational poverty, is now sharing space at the church, and the newfound relationship is transforming the church in ways it never dreamed possible.

It s just been a win-win and a wonderful thing for the church and school,  said St. James pastor the Rev. Lex McDonald, calling the partnership providential.  It gives us use for our space, … we now have children around our church that we didn t have, plus we get to support the work of Jubilee, which has a really good mission. 

Since they moved to St. James in November, Jubilee director and founder Sandee Hensley has been intentional about building relationships between the school and the church, drawing closer to the people and breaking boundaries between generations. They often worship at St. James, and many St. James members are now volunteering with Jubilee, reading to the children and visiting just to show they care.

The congregation here is elderly, and I m not sure they ve had much experience with inner-city kiddos, but it has been a wonderful thing,  Hensley said, noting how welcoming and kind St. James members have been, more so than in other spaces her school ministry has occupied. The ˜we want you is something we haven t experienced before. 

Jubilee does school a little differently from most. The Christian academy goes beyond traditional learning, embracing each family holistically. The academic aspect of the school is Montessori-based, fostering a lifelong love of creative, hands-on learning. But more than that, they operate as a large family, together tackling the good, the bad and everything in between.

For example, Hensley said, most of the children come from generational poverty or other challenging family situations, and some have violent and sometimes frightening home lives.

Not all, but a lot have disruptive behavior at home ”dad pulling a gun or knife, or parents having a fight, and the first thing we do each morning is pray all together,  Hensley said.

Anyone in Richland One Schools can apply for the academy, which costs $100/month, but it s not for everyone. Kids must wear uniforms, attend school year-round and embrace a Bible-based program. There are mandatory parent meetings once a month.

It s a lifestyle, not just a school,  Hensley said. We re raising children. And mamas. And families. They re trying to completely remove themselves from generational poverty. 

And at St. James, they finally have enough space to spread their wings and achieve some of the educational visions they had only imagined. In the spacious classrooms, they now have room to do the music, arts and crafts they crave.

The space is ideal,  Hensley said. We re able to relax and breathe, and the classrooms are phenomenal. ¦ We d love to be here a long, long, long time. 

The students agree.

Cleaning up the kitchen after serving lunch ”all the older kids have jobs, like chores in a family ”Amaya Williams, 14, gestures widely at the large space around her: We were so cramped in the building we were at before, and now we can spread out. 

Aaron Steele, 12, said the extra space has been so much better for the kids: We can play more, learn more, do more. 

Bill Metzger, chair of Jubilee Academy board of directors, is a member of Shandon UMC, Columbia. It was Metzger s friendship with McDonald that led to the partnership, and he said witnessing the successful partnership of a diverse educational ministry with a small church like St. James makes him proud to be United Methodist.

It seemed like a perfect fit to put them together, and the church has welcomed Jubilee with open arms and embraced Jubilee,  Metzger said. You ve got 90-something-year-old members coming in and reading stories to kids, and it has been neat to see the generational interaction, and I think it s been good for the kids. Particularly when you re coming out of a generational poverty kind of welfare-based system, they need stability, they need love, they need warmth, and they re getting that from St. James, both in terms of the facility and the members. 

McDonald said it s been wonderful to see that interaction himself; many of his members are so eager to embrace the diverse school.

One of our members is 91 years old, a great lady, a fireball, energetic, and comes and volunteers at the school and reads to the children,  McDonald said, noting other members help the school in other capacities.

He said sharing the space not only helps the church with building maintenance costs, but it also opens new doors for revitalization and youth.

And for Hensley, who views her school as one big family, they ve folded St. James right in as part of that family.

We hope it will bring life for everyone,  she said.

For more on Jubilee: www.jubileeacademysc.com or 803-787-3009.

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