They are the 22 children who attend the church’s Activa-Tree Preschool.
The preschool is more than 30 years old – the daughters of the current board president attended and, soon, so will her grandchildren – but this ministry has undergone an amazing transformation in the last couple of years. The preschool has nearly tripled its enrollment, and parents are calling seeking openings.
“It’s transformed from a ministry of the church people didn't pay attention to, that just ran itself, into a symbol of hope,” said Karen Cassidy, chair of the preschool’s Board of Directors. “There are miracles and excitement around it.”
Church members who were never involved before have become passionate about this ministry, said the Rev. Geisa Matos-Machuca, pastor at First UMC.
“The Holy Spirit has really worked amazingly,” she said.
And there was much work to be done. In the fall of 2013, the preschool was in trouble. It was nearly $20,000 in debt and had only eight children enrolled.
But rather than seek more money in grants or raise its fees to fund Activa-Tree, the church decided to open the doors wide to accept as many families as possible even, perhaps especially, those who could not afford to pay.
The idea sounds counter intuitive, but it worked.
They knew they were barely covering the bills, but they also knew there was a real need in this community. Manchester has no universal pre-
k and few options other than the federal Head Start program to meet the needs of those who can’t afford private preschool.
The first meeting to talk about this approach with staff and members of the board was a difficult one, Rev. Matos-Machuca said. Everyone was uncertain about what would happen.
“We had to take that walk on water and have faith,” she said. “We accepted Jesus’ invitation to (continue) even though we didn’t have the money.”
Rev. Matos-Machuca admits that to “some it didn’t make sense,” but during the discernment process the vision for Activa Tree became clear.
“Are we really going to jump from this boat and see what is going to happen?” they asked themselves.
“It’s safe to be in the boat, Rev. Matos-Machuca said, “but we need to get out and listen (to the community) and trust (in God).”
So they did trust. And they also went to work, Cassidy said.
“You can't just sit there,” she said. “Everyone worked hard and continues to work hard.”
“This was a way to minister to people … (and make) disciples of Christ by bringing hope to families who were struggling financially and emotionally,” Rev. Matos-Machuca said. “It’s being the hands and feet of Jesus.”
The children at Activa-Tree, who range from age 3 to 5 years old, come from a wide range of ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. There are two students on full scholarship (supported in part by a matching grant from Calvary UMC in Arlington, MA), and many get at least some form of subsidy.
But all of the families contribute goods or services to support the preschool. In fact, the families were so supportive they had trouble finding room for all the cereal brought in for snack time.
“Since we changed direction,” Cassidy said, “families will cry when they tell us they never could have come to preschool (without our ministry). One father begged me, ‘please try and take my daughter,’ and we could take her. It's transforming to parents; they feel wanted in the community.”
A Muslim father was hesitant about sending his child to a Christian preschool, but out of options, took a chance. He has since recommended the school to another Muslim family.
“We are sharing the gospel of love and brotherhood without trying to convert anyone,” Rev. Matos-Machuca said, but these families now “have a different experience of Christianity and what Christianity is about.”
Kathleen Steinmetz, a long-time teacher at the preschool, thinks she may understand part of what makes Activa-Tree so attractive to parents.
The morning of her interview for the teaching job, Steinmetz said she was in the shower praying about it when “a feeling of calm” came over her.
“I walked in and this big voice – it was almost audible – said, ‘You’re home,’” Steinmetz recalled. “Our parents say it has a homey feeling.”
Passing along the inspiration
The change at Activa-Tree was fueled by a class at Boston University’s School of Theology. Participants were asked to come up with a “provocative proposal” for their churches or ministries, and the Activa Tree plan was certainly that.
New Hampshire District Superintendent David Abbott and the Rev. Christine Elliott, pastor at Calvary UMC, were in that class, and according to Cassidy: “their heads turned” when Manchester First made its proposal.
“It was one of the most amazing moments in all of this,” Cassidy said. “in that class at BU, when we announced ours … the pastor at the church in Arlington turned her head, so did the DS; we caught his attention … it was Spirit-filled.”
Rev. Elliott urged Manchester First to get in touch with Calvary, and Rev. Abbott offered to connect them with some resources as well. They also have been invited back to BU to share their success story and perhaps inspire a new group about to make their own provocative proposals.
The support they have garnered has helped stabilize the finances; the preschool is now moving toward self-sufficiency, Rev. Matos-Machuca said, and paying some of the bills the church used to pay.
And people seem moved to help, Cassidy said, including a woman attending a Leadership Academy, who heard the story, and handed them the $20 she had in her pocket.
“That 20 dollars means a lot,” Cassidy said. “We’re so humbled by it. When you experience a miracle like that, it takes your breath away.”
Rev. Geisa Matos-Machuca and Karen Cassidy are happy to talk to other churches about the preschool and its transformation. Contact Rev. Matos-Machuca at email@example.com
Story and photos by Beth DiCocco, Conference Director of Communications.