There’s a price to pay for many graduating seniors of Tampa-area schools. It’s a price many have trouble meeting.
Thanks to Idlewild Baptist Church, that payment has been made.
In December Ken Whitten, senior pastor of the church located in the north Tampa suburbs, preached a message series on generosity titled “The Gift.” After that message, he told the Florida Baptist Convention, he thought of the accumulating school lunch debt owed by parents and how it would be due in January.
“[Those parents] couldn’t afford to send money with their kids for lunch during these hard times,” he said. “We wanted to demonstrate what the gospel demonstrates for us. God gave us an opportunity to give a visual expression of the verbal message of the gospel. “I always ask, ‘If our church were gone tomorrow, would our community miss it?’”
The answer? It would.
Recently, an anonymous church member approached Idlewild leaders with a large financial gift. The individual didn’t want to dictate how it would be used, leaving that up to the church. That gift ended up erasing $38,367 in school lunch debt for thousands of juniors and seniors in Hillsborough County schools as well as those of all ages attending public schools in Pasco County.
Located in Hillsborough County, Idlewild sits near the Pasco County line. Hillsborough includes schools in the city of Tampa while Pasco is a relatively rural area.
All debts must be reconciled for graduating seniors before they are allowed to walk at graduation with their classmates. That point stood out in discussions over how to use the money, said Yerusha Bunag, local missions director for Idlewild.
“Hillsborough County’s total student lunch debt was over $100,000,” she said. “So in that conversation we asked what this debt means to a family and how it affects them. It affects them at graduation when it needs to be paid. That’s why the focus went to juniors and seniors in that school system.”
The debt relief is hardly Idlewild’s first connection to local schools. Six years ago, a new local missions emphasis focused on hope for schools, hope for communities and hope for orphans.
“We had already been working with schools through a mentoring program we had initiated,” Bunag said. “It started with one school but then moved into others. We’ve had hundreds of members involved since then.”
Many of Idlewild’s partner schools are Title I with a high percentage of students on reduced or free lunch. During the COVID-19 shutdown, Idlewild members handed out grab-and-go lunches for students as well as boxes filled with food and toiletries for others in the community. Its history in helping schools became crucial last year when Hillsborough’s district welcomed a new superintendent in March just as the shutdown was beginning.
“He knew of us [through the previous superintendent] and that we were already helping schools. It was a huge blessing for them that the church was already committed to investing in the lives of students and teachers,” Bunag said.
Pasco County Schools superintendent Kurt Browning, a member at Idlewild, talked about the sense of relief the debt forgiveness brings.
“In this time, parents are stressed, working less or even unemployed, all while racking up lunch debt,” he told the Florida Baptist Convention. “By providing complete debt forgiveness, students could come back in August with a clean slate.
“This act puts feet to the gospel. [Idlewild is] going into the community. This ministry speaks to our communities that there are people … who care for their needs. Student lunch debt was forgiven, and Christ was glorified because of it.”
A year ago, Idlewild established a “Get Help, Give Help” portal on its website to better facilitate not only those requiring assistance during the pandemic, but those wanting to provide it. A slow start quickly grew into hundreds of requests.
“People began to see Idlewild as a source for help,” Bunag said. “Church members began taking diapers and food to homes and sharing the gospel on the doorstep. We know of 15 salvations from those conversations. Wherever we go, it’s opening doors.”
On March 27, the church is partnering with Christian Veterinary Fellowship to provide – for a minimal $5 fee – care for pets that includes an exam and rabies shot. COVID-19 may have temporarily interrupted international missions, Bunag said, but it has caused local outreach to grow.
“It’s brought the focus to our backyard,” she said. “God has used Idlewild and our members’ generosity to reach others. It’s been a testimony to me of what we can be and given us the opportunity to show what real hope and love is.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.)