IN 2000, McLaughlin and Hunt made hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hung out at the local park, feeding both sandwiches and Bible stories to hungry students after school. McLaughlin talked to the children, while Hunt ministered to their mothers in Spanish. That two-woman outreach soon expanded into a released time ministry with a pastor, two full-time staff members, and 30 regular volunteers who now keep released time classes and Bible clubs running at 15 elementary and middle schools and four high schools in the district.
That means every Thursday morning a volunteer named John drives 80 miles from his home in Hemet to Santa Ana to pick up the church trailer and tow it over to Lincoln Elementary. Parked in front of that trailer is another released time trailer and bus—three separate classes in all. At lunchtime, students march up to their grade-assigned trailer and squeeze into tiny plastic seats, balancing red lunch trays and black paperback Bibles on their laps. On the particular Thursday I visited, odors of the day’s lunch menu—fried chicken drumstick, ripe banana, and a pale, unidentifiable carby blob—saturated the tight space, while a generator-powered air conditioner groaned and feebly blew cool air.
“We have a wonderful story today,” began Ogburn, who teaches the fourth-graders. “Yay!” some kids cried, while others licked their greasy fingers before flipping open their Bibles to Genesis 37, the chapter on Joseph’s dream and his brothers’ betrayal. Several already had their hands raised, eager to read the verses out loud. The lucky chosen ones read with loud, clear voices, bravely stumbling through unfamiliar words such as “tunic” and “cistern.”
Throughout the class, Ogburn made the children repeat the main theme of Joseph’s story: “God is working a wonderful plan in our lives, even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it.” At the end of the lesson, little Jonathan volunteered to pray: “Thank you, God, for our lives, because You have plans for us. Amen!” Then just in time, the bell rang again, calling the children back to school. One by one they passed their completed homework to Ogburn, picked a lollipop from her stash of candy, and hopped off the bus saying, “Gracias, señora” and “Thank you, Miss Joann.” One boy lifted his palms up high and cried out, “I’m blessed!” before jumping out, and Ogburn chuckled after him, “Yes, you are!”
Ogburn, who has been teaching released time classes for more than four years, remembers her own schooling days in the 1960s South: Fridays always involved Bible stories with props and pictures, and prayers accompanied the daily Pledge of Allegiance. Now that religion has been segregated from public education, Ogburn sees released time as “one way to bridge that gap” and bring Biblical knowledge and values back into public schools: “It’s so important that these kids get the truth and grace of God early on. I have this yearning to tell them the truth, so that God’s Word will shape them as they grow up.”
‘It’s so important that these kids get the truth and grace of God early on. I have this yearning to tell them the truth, so that God’s Word will shape them as they grow up.’
As a new volunteer for the program, Ogburn used to fret about the time: She had only 30 minutes each week to impart Biblical knowledge and passion to her students, so she sometimes felt flustered when they raised their hands and talked about things that didn’t pertain to her lesson. But soon she realized her class was more than a curriculum—it was a safe space for kids to share something about their life. And they had much to say: One boy talked about his cousin who’d recently died. Another girl mentioned that her family’s computer had been stolen but her parents had no money to replace it. Ogburn now uses those moments to invite the kids to bow their heads and pray for their classmate.
Tommy Cota, the pastor who oversees Calvary Chapel’s released time ministry in Santa Ana, calls the program the best way for churches to get involved in their local communities. For many Santa Ana residents who are immigrants, the school is the one-stop community center to which they turn in times of need. Oftentimes, Cota said, the school office will ask him and his church for help and support for these families, particularly during moments of tragedy. When an elementary student witnessed his father getting shot dead in front of his house, the school called Cota, who visited the family members and prayed for them.
Cota first joined the released time ministry in 2003 as a volunteer driver by mistake. Then a student at Calvary Chapel’s school of ministry, he had responded to a “Drivers Needed” notice at the church bulletin board, mistaking it for a paid job. When he found out it was a volunteer position for released time, he begrudgingly decided to stick with it for only two months. On his first day as volunteer, he drove the trailer out to an elementary school, and the moment he stepped out, a group of kids with big smiles surrounded him. They peppered him with questions about Jesus and heaven, proudly recited their Bible verses of the week, and showed him their completed homework. As Cota gazed at the excitement and enthusiasm on these little round faces, he decided: “You know what? I want to keep doing this.”
Two years later, Cota took over Calvary Chapel’s released time ministry as pastor. Since then, Cota has formed relationships with principals, teachers, and district administrators and board members who see evident benefits of the program. Principals dealing with difficult students sometimes strongly recommend they join released time classes (with approval from parents), knowing from observation that students who regularly attend are likely to improve in both behavior and academic performance. Calvary Chapel’s program has grown organically as principals and teachers spread the word to colleagues at other schools.