By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
For an example of what’s possible with full communion between Episcopalians and Lutherans, a group of educators says the place to look is not just inside a church. It’s inside a school in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.
Since 1985, Holy Family School has been offering low-income students an affordable, faith-based education in a neighborhood where failing public schools have become all too common. What began as a ministry of Holy Family Lutheran Church in Chicago expanded over the years, and it welcomed students from St. Gregory Episcopal School, which closed in 2010.
“The merging [of the schools] is a demonstration model of ‘Called to Common Mission,’ which envisions an exchange of ministries in the service of ‘common mission’ between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA),” said a Holy Family School statement from earlier this year.
The ELCA approved Called to Common Mission in 1999 and the Episcopal Church followed in 2000. The document established full communion between the churches, including clergy-sharing and partnership in missions.
Now Holy Family Ministries, which oversees the school, operates a 45,000-square-foot building that opened in 2008 and enabled enrollments and programs to expand. The $9.3 million facility houses not only a K-8 school but also preschool, afterschool, and summer programs that aim to bless the entire neighborhood.
The ecumenical project is bearing fruit. More than 80 percent of graduates of Holy Family matriculate to above-average high schools, as measured by standard test scores. Commitments from dedicated parents, students, and staff to build character as well as intellect play major roles in that success, according to the school.
Another factor: donations from a wide network of Lutheran and Episcopal sources mean that 75 percent of education costs are covered by non-tuition sources. That enables Holy Family School to charge as little as $1,100 per child in a neighborhood where affordability is crucial.
Holy Family Ministries has joined forces with school-choice advocates in urging the Illinois legislature to authorize vouchers for parochial education. It’s an initiative that arises every year, so far without success. But Holy Family Ministries sees it as a justice issue to ensure that every child has access to a high-performing school. Hence the organization vows to keep pushing for it.
“Holy Family’s Board of Directors operates on the belief that every parent should have the right to send their children to whatever school they choose, regardless of family income, and that the per-student allocation from taxes should follow the student to that school,” said a Holy Family School statement during National School Choice Week in January. “Too many children — particularly children living in low-income neighborhoods — are stuck in chronically under-performing schools.”