by Ellen Dodson
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About a week before the 2007 Thanksgiving break, our high school staff received a brief e-mail notifying us of a prayer walk scheduled for 2:30 the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Since Jessica, a church friend and our school's FCA sponsor had
told me earlier that she'd like to organize a prayer walk for parents and students, I assumed she sent the invitation. But, that morning at church when I checked with her to confirm the time of the walk, she said, "I probably won't be able to make that one." This noncommital response for an event she was sponsoring
seemed unlike Jessica, but I figured she'd asked a parent to head it off.
As a new church member who was still shy and awkward about praying in large groups, I didn't want to attend if Jessica wasn't going to be there. But something in my spirit said to go. Since I had some work to do anyway, I grabbed my school keys and my car keys. "Jesus," I said on my drive to school, "If you mean for me to pray with people today, make that happen. If no one comes, I'll pray by myself at school."
Walking towards the teacher's workroom to run copies, I was more aware than I usually am when I'm alone at school of the quiet darkness. It seemed oppressive. My school needs more prayer, I thought. But, by that time it was well after 2:00, and I saw no one inside or outside the school.
After making my copies, I checked the front lot once more. Looking out the entrance doors, I saw a few cars and a circle of seven or so people with their hands linked. I felt God wanted me to join them, but dreaded the awkwardness of introducing myself to strangers, let alone praying aloud with them. I stalled, telling myself that I needed to go upstairs to my room to retrieve my jacket. If they were still there by the time I returned, I'd join them. Climbing the steps, I felt God not only urging me to join them but to invite them inside to pray.
On my way back to the lobby, I almost retreated several times. Despite the strong battle with my timidity, I found myself, quite out of character, opening the doors, walking towards the strangers and asking without hesitation, "Are you the prayer group?"
A woman with red, curly hair smiled and answered yes as the remaining mix of men and women stared in surprise. I heard myself saying something like, "Why don't you all come inside and pray? I just really feel like we need to pray inside where things happen."
At this, the curly haired woman's smile broadened. She lifted her face and praised God. She introduced herself as Tina and said that they'd prayed for God to make a way for them. As she confided this, I found myself tearing up, remembering the prompting I just felt to let them in. Because my school keys only unclock the side entrance and I'd let the front double doors close behind me, I escorted five from the group to the north side of the building where I used my keys to open the door. As I inserted my school keys into the lock, I thought of the "keys of the kingdom." Later I realized that God entrusts His keys to us when we are willing to listen to His voice and obey Him. He certainly doesn't need us to open doors for Him, but blesses us by allowing us to participate because He knows it draws us
closer to Him.
This small mix of men and women circled around me, praying for me in my classroom before doing anything else. I felt Tina's hand on my shoulder and fought surprise and tears so that I could listen to their whispered prayers. Then,
with me--a novice to prayer walks--awkwardly learning from them, we prayed as we swept our hands over lockers, cafeteria tables, and classroom doors. Lastly, we linked hands with Tina as she sang a hymn to Jesus in the large gym.
The summer before that 2007 school year and the prayer walk, I prayed daily for God to prepare me for my students (mainly seniors) and them for me. I'd been able to share a general version of my testimony on the last day with two groups of seniors two years before and was hoping for the same receptive atmosphere. I claimed my classroom for God in July and asked Him to bless me and my students. What I expected from those summer prayers is a group of harmonious, motivated teens. Ha! What I experienced was an intense mix of strife and disrespect with sporadic spurts of joy and love. It turned out to be my second roughest year as a teacher, topped only by my first.
Many days I left school feeling like a failure as a teacher and, more importantly,
as a Christian. When strife and disrespect seemed to win against harmony and decency, I'd get discouraged and lose my patience with students. A few times, much to my horror, I broke down and cried in front of them or colleagues. I was depressed, seemingly sabatoged by God.
My last block of the day was mostly boys, many of whom were football players. I am a sports imbecile, but, oddly, I did manage to form a fragile rapport with some of the boys. But I struggled with their egos. Some possessed the view that life is about them, about pleasuring themselves and winning more adoration.
Uttering quick sarcastic retorts that "put them in their place" seemed to be the only way to gain brief instances of respect and, oddly, harmony with this group. Other times I would get so fed up that I'd rant angrily. At the end of each day Jesus would remind me that He is my defender and that my job is to teach and discipline with calmness and respect, not glib hostility.
About a month before my encounter with the prayer group, I felt God urging me to use my tithe money on a Christian book about a sports leader. I bought a copy of Tony Dungy's Quiet Strength, but didn't get the sense that it was the book God intended.
A month later I read a book called The Shack. The book is controversial amongst Christians, but its clear themes on forgiveness and God's lone authority as judge impressed me. I called Tina (who'd given me her number after the prayer
walk), told her about the biblical parallels and seeming contrasts in the book, and asked for her prayers and advice on the matter. We both agreed that the controversies in the book would prompt discussions and, perhaps, a greater
interest in the Bible.
Another important piece of advice she gave me during our conversation was her recommendation to allow my classes to watch a movie called, Facing the Giants. Although I took note of the movie, I knew that I couldn't show a Christian movie to the entire class. With books I could always offer a choice, but the movie was too risky. I wished that the movie was a novel because it sounded perfect for my class of
football players. About a week later as I visited the Christian book store to inquire
about purchasing multiple copies of The Shack, I saw something that had God written all over it. As I leaned over to pick up one copy of The Shack, I noticed that right beside the book was several copies of a novelized version of the movie Facing the Giants. They were on sale. I purchased a copy and was touched by the main character, Grant's, stroke of bad luck as a coach because I was beginning to feel that way as a teacher--as a complete failure. But, just as the character Grant discovers, God works through our weaknesses when we are willing
to use the keys He offers us. Also, as I read the part about about the elderly Mr. Bridges praying through the school's halls, I immediately remembered the prayer group's prayers through my own school.
With continued prayer, God guided me to include Facing the Giants and The Shack as two of the four book choices. The other two books, Tuesday's with Morrie and The Importance of Being Ernest (a play), were favorites with my previous class of seniors. I stressed to students that the first two choices dealt with Christian themes. Slightly more than half of my students, some of whom aren't Christian,
chose to read a Christian book. I have never felt spiritual warfare so tangibly in the
classroom as I did before and during that unit. But, with the help of prayers--those offered by Tina and other friends--I found myself thinking of Him more and personal failure less. More often than usual, when students treated me disrespectfully, I turned to Him before opening my mouth in hurt pride and anger. Those times I let Him, He helped me to stay calm. Sometimes I would just have to stand silent and poker-faced
for a minute or more before students cooperated and focused.
I cannot express the joy I felt when students who don't attend church raised their
hands during silent reading to ask me things like, "What's the trinity?" Because
The Shack was more controversial and more challenging than the other books, I
hosted an after school session to help students struggling with their essay on the book.
I prayed beforehand that God would use the session in some way to bring glory to
Himself and draw students closer to Him. Although only five students attended, it
turned out to be an intense, thoughtful discussion about Jesus. When a few students
asked me why I believed in Jesus, I shared my testimony. One young lady, a Muslim,
shared her desire to know more about Christ. She said that she stopped believing
in her family's religion some time ago and knew that it may cause them to reject her
if she expressed her disbelief. Another student in attendance, one who I'd referred
to a counselor earlier on, used to dabble in the occult. He doodled satanic signs on almost all of his assignments and possessed scars on his forearm from where he used to cut himself. After our session, he lingered until the others left, put his hands in his pockets and said, "You know, I'm still not convinced that Christianity is real, but I like the way Jesus is in the Bible. He's not like I thought." I had already admitted to this student that I'd been praying for him and told him (casually so that he wouldn't feel uncomfortable) that I would continue to pray for him on his quest
During the course of the unit, Tina donated eleven Bibles for cross-referencing and for seeking students to my classroom and, when I couldn't afford extra Facing the Giant novels, another couple that participated in the prayer walk purchased fifteen copies for me. Most of those who read FTG enjoyed it. One young man, the only one of my ten football players who didn't give me a hard time, said that it felt good to read about God while at school. Some students gently opposed me out of a genuine belief that it is wrong to bring Christian literature into a public school, but a few others used it only as an excuse to stir up strife. Looking back, though, I am surprised that there weren't more complaints.
But because I did get reprimanded after a routine evaluation for the high Christian
content of the books and the lack of more than just two secular choices after an evaluation, I did doubt my discernment at times. It became an issue of balance, determining what should be rendered to Caesar (secular government) and
what' to be rendered to my Lord. Even many Christians believe that we should not discuss Christ in schools for fear that our message of love and hope will be misunderstood as arrogant superiority. Also, God gives us free will. If Christian literature is habitually made available in public schools that service students from a variety of religions, wouldn't Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist students and parents
demand access to literature that promotes their religion? In narrowing my choices to 50% Christian am I stifling students, preventing them from genuinely choosing Jesus? Jesus doesn't force our love because forced love is not love. Still, I am surrounded each school day by deeply troubled students who don't know they have a Savior. Our kids need Christ. I longed to offer not merely a choice, but the Truth. I was moved not by self-righteousness, but a genuine love for Christ and my students,
even those who hated me, to provide them with a chance, an opportunity, to learn more about the One who died for them. Feeling both prompted and protected by God, I chose to render unto God.
Looking back on last year, I cannot pin-point which successful moments were triggered or aided by the prayers of those prayer
walking "strangers" I now clearly recognize as brothers and sisters in Christ. But, I credit their prayers for sustaining me and encouraging me to love rather than give up on students.
God knew the trials awaiting me and sent these prayer warriors yes, for my school, but also to prepare me.
At the end of one of my roughest days, I expressed to my dear Christian friend and department head that I just didn't understand what God's purpose for me was anymore. I felt abandoned by God. Why couldn't he just throw some new--far more pleasant--job opportunity into my lap? Obviously I wasn't meant to teach.
I'd lost my touch. Books like Facing the Giants were uplifting, but life--and faith--just doesn't work that smoothly. That same
afternoon I reluctantly gave Tamara, one of my students, a ride home because she'd missed her bus. After listening to her express heartbreak over a boy who mistreated her, I found myself,
without any kind of forethought at all, talking to her about Christ. Tamara and I had spoken previously about God, but this time I found myself sharing my testimony with her and answering several questions she had about Christianity. Tamara accepted my invitation to our church's revival, attended church with
me each Sunday after revival, participated in VBS, joined the youth group, made a profession of faith, received baptism, and recently participated in Chrysalis, a Christian retreat for youth. After Tamara's profession of faith, Jessica, the teacher and friend I mentioned at the beginning of this testimonial and one who prayed for me during my struggles, walked up to me, hugged me and whispered into my
ear, "This is the reason you teach, Ellen."
No, our Christian walk seldom works out like fiction movies and books as God's perfect timing so often seems like slow timing for us. I never expected to see scores of students come to Christ after the prayer walk or the reading of Christian books,but I did expect Jesus to supply me with opportunities to sow seeds. And I think that happened.
Rarely do I remember as I should that in accepting Christ, we are crucified with Him. Teaching was easier for me those ten years I drifted from my Savior, but I can't say that I cared as much about my students as I do now. Mostly I just thought of myself then. As God "grows" me into His likeness, I have to continually die to self. Although most of them don't realize this, God uses my students to renew my character. Those who believe and practice the fruit of the spirit encourage greater faith in me. Those who rebel supply me with opportunities to develop the fruit of patience, self-control, and love. Am I learning my spiritual lessons as quickly as the character Grant learned His? Absolutely not. But I know that God will continue the good work He
started in me, especially when others care enough about me and the lives I touch to pray.
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Hi Ellen, I can certainly relate to this writing. Even though I teach high school English in a Christian school, I can not assume that all my students are Christians. Since the students are not cloistered in huge buildings night and day, they still rub shoulders with the outside world. In fact, at our fall retreat we had several students confess that they were concerned with their sexuality, pornography, suicide, drugs, and cutting. As Christian teachers, we were concerned that the other students would ostracise the ones who spoke up, but the others actually identified with their classmates. What is happening to our youth? I liked this section when you said "My last block of the day was mostly boys, many of whom were football players. I am a sports imbecile, but, oddly, I did manage to form a fragile rapport with some of the boys. But I struggled with their egos. Some possessed the view that life is about them, about pleasuring themselves and winning more adoration." This is the real world...they are told everyday that they are perfect in everyway, so why should they make a change to trust in the Lord. One day when I was whining to our Bible teacher about the students' attitudes, he graciously told me that we are to do what we are called to do and trust that years down the line...maybe 20 or 30 years even, they will come to rely on Him because of the continual love that we offered. I like this too... "God works through our weaknesses when we are willing to use the keys He offers us." That's all we can do. You are a light in a dark world...thank you for braving the halls of public school. I really like the idea of the prayer walk. I have heard about this being done at the state capital and downtown San Antonio. You got me to thinking that we need to do that at our school. Another book that students could read is "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by same author as "Tuesday's with Morrie." This helps students to see that they have a purpose in this world and it's not about pleasing themselves. Thanks for this article...it was a reminder for me and a shot in the arm to start another week tomorrow.
I thank God for teachers like yourself. Teaching (as you know) is more than book-learning. Thank God there are teachers that pray for their students and those that ask for wisdom and guidance. Sounds like you are in the right place at the right time. Thank you for sharing your testimony. GOD BLESS YOU