When God Purposes
The Very Rev. Sarah Bronos
The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Maitland, Florida sits on a beautiful piece of property with green space, shade trees, a chapel, church, parish hall, and a campus with four other buildings.
Nearly seven years ago, during my vestry interview to be considered as rector of Good Shepherd, I commented that I truly believed that the Lord purposed something for the property that would benefit those outside the church community. I also said that the theme of education kept coming to the forefront of my mind during my prayer time.
A couple of years later after I became the rector at Good Shepherd, I met Gale, who handed me a book written by her daughter and granddaughter. She said, "I just had to come and give you this." The title of the book is I Am in Here: The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice. This book changed the focus of my prayers from education in general - to Christian education for special-needs children. It is a powerful writing that contains wonderful poetry written by a nonverbal autistic child.
When I introduced the possibility of a Christian school for special-needs children on our campus, many parishioners were supportive, but there was not enough interest to explore further. Yet, I kept it in my prayers. Sometime later, a visitor asked about renting space for a special-needs school. However, she was not interested in a relationship between the church and the school, or in having a chapel service for the children - something for which I had been praying.
Last March, a woman drove onto campus and asked, "Do you have space to rent a Christian not-for-profit school for special-needs children?" She was the mother of one of the students at Celandine Life Preparatory Academy. She added, "We need to relocate the school. As I drove by here on the way home, I felt compelled to come in and ask." Shortly thereafter, I received a call saying they weren't interested after all. Since this had seemed like such a right fit, that evening, I prayed. "Lord, if this is of you, then close every other door that they try and walk through, and bring them here."
A month later, I received another call from them asking if I would still be willing to meet. It seemed that nothing they had looked at was acceptable.
Interestingly, a few months earlier, we had been short-staffed, and I asked for volunteers to help out in the office. One of my parishioners, Mark, who had taken early retirement as a school superintendent from New York, answered our call. He was working on another project for us when Kristin and Margarita (the school owner and the administrator) arrived for the meeting. I asked Mark to sit in.
I stated up front, "I am not interested in a straight rental situation. What I would love is a relationship between the school and the parish family." It was a Holy-Spirit filled moment; we all felt this relationship was of the Lord. It also became very clear during the conversation that I didn't understand how a school operated." But Mark did. I asked him to take over the lead on the discussions.
I shared our conversation with the vestry, and they were 100 percent in agreement to move ahead. A proposed rental agreement was drawn up. The vestry approved it. Then Kristin stepped out in faith to finalize the lease. The school then requested permission from the City of Maitland for a zoning change.
The date set for the zoning meeting was going to be the day school was to begin. There were many challenging hurdles ahead. A property boundary survey was needed. ADA compliance requirements needed to be met which included the construction of a concrete walkway and a railing, and the installation of a fire alarm system.
This was to be an expensive undertaking, but we again stepped out in faith. The congregation was extraordinarily generous. After making the down payment for the fire alarm installation, work began. We still needed money to pay the balance when the work was finished. And, we still needed a lot of money to cover everything required for zoning approval. One parishioner, Scott, volunteered to write a grant application in spite of the fact the deadline was so close. And God provided! We were awarded $25,000 through the Congregation Development Commission Grant.
Meanwhile, we also had to clear out the two buildings to be leased. Many faithful parishioners helped. Kristen also needed to remodel the two buildings. It was a very busy summer for many people. We prayed fervently throughout the exhausting zoning process. Even though one zoning board member was against the change, the city council ended up voting unanimously to grant it. On August 15, 2016, Celandine opened its doors on our campus with 38 beautiful children, ages 7-21.
The program for the older children includes life-preparation skills. Our campus provides them a stress-free place for learning these skills. They are being taught how to clean, to set tables, and to plant gardens. It is such a blessing to see children moving from one building to another during the day.
In our earlier conversations, the school representatives asked if I would be willing to have a weekly children's chapel - another answer to prayer! Some students are even being trained as acolytes and ushers. What a joy it is to share the love of Christ with them. Grateful parents tell us, "The chapel services are so wonderful for the kids! We don't have words to describe how good it is for them."
One parent wrote thanking us for giving Celandine Life Prep Academy the opportunity to have the school at our location. She expressed how wonderful the school and their staff are. She was joyful that for the first time her son said that he wants to go back to school, because he misses his friends and the teachers. She is relieved that he feels so safe and welcome; that he is understood and his needs are being met. She is very happy, thankful, and proud to be a part of this community.
When God purposes and we wait on Him in prayer as well as step out in faith, a two-way blessing always unfolds.