During a time when some teachers are struggling or burned out, Baltimore teacher Jess Pariso is finding ways to connect the students in her classroom to her local church.
If attending Redemption City Church in Baltimore on a typical Sunday, one would observe Pariso surrounded by kids, often helping her greet others as part of the hospitality ministry or even taking up a whole row during the worship service.
It started out by simply asking one student whom she saw struggling in her class if he wanted to join her at church.
Pariso is a first-grade teacher at William Paca Elementary, and also helps teach English as a second language. The school is right across the street from Redemption City, where she serves as a deaconess.
As she watched the student struggle, Pariso got to know the student’s family and asked if it she could give the student a ride a couple blocks over to the church on Sundays.
Over time, other kids from Pariso’s class who lived on that street wanted to start coming to church also. Eventually, other kids who lived on that street, and even other students from the school that lived on other streets, wanted to join in the fun.
Pariso said it often takes her multiple trips back and forth from the neighborhood to the church to transport all of the kids on Sundays, making sure to get a parent’s permission first. Everybody in the church knows the kids and has gotten accustomed to seeing them on Sundays.
Although it was never her intention to take this many kids to church, she said it has been an amazing opportunity.
“It’s been a really cool opportunity to be just a part of the neighborhood,” Pariso said. “Being able to live life with kids on a day-to-day basis is just so impactful.”
Pariso explained the Baltimore neighborhood surrounding the church and school can be a rough area. She believes living just a few blocks from the kids in her class and experiencing the same things they do gives her credibility to speak into their lives.
“I live life here in the same neighborhood and the same context that they do,” Pariso said. “When things are rough in the neighborhood or there is a shooting, I don’t just dip out. I know what’s happening and I can check on kids or have them come to me.
“I feel like they have a lot of opportunity to really get to know me. My door is always open to the kids if they want to knock on the door and play games or get an ice pop. They are always in and around my house. It’s something that I never would have imagined, but has been a blessing.”
Pariso has been teaching for nine years, five of those at William Paca. She was previously a teacher in Montgomery County, Md., and would drive up to the Baltimore area to do ministry with kids.
She was volunteer at a local ministry that Redemption City partners with called GEM, which stands for Gospel, Education and Mentorship. The program serves as a VBS-style ministry for younger kids, and a hang-out and Bible study time for older kids.
After feeling the Lord calling her to move closer to the area, Pariso prayed for a teaching opportunity. The answer was her position at William Paca.
Pariso now tries to connect the students in her classroom and community with the local ministries she is involved with. She takes kids to the GEM program each Wednesday night and brings kids to Sunday service with her at Redemption.
Ministering in the Baltimore area as both a deaconess and a teacher comes with its challenges.
It is rare for students in the area to attend college, particularly the boys, she said. The sentiment is that if men grow into their 20s without joining a gang or going to jail, they’ve done well for themselves.
Pariso takes pride in the fact that several students who have come up through the GEM program are now in college, including some men. Additionally, several of the kids she brings to church have been baptized by Redemption.
Though living in the city can be difficult, Pariso loves the area and the relationships she’s built.
“Baltimore is such a rich, vibrant and colorful community. It’s such a beautiful place to be,” she said.
“I love Baltimore for the city that it is and love that people are very involved with each other’s lives. Our community can see that there is a faithfulness from the church in helping the neighborhood.”
Adam Muhtaseb, pastor for preaching and vision at Redemption City, said Pariso is creating opportunities for Redemption to minister in an area that is often segregated and divided.
“Jess is bridging the gap between the racial and economic divides in the city, because she teaches in an inner-city school and brings children in the community to church,” Muhtaseb said.
“It helps us communicate and show how the gospel brings all different types of people together. It’s really encouraged our people and they rally around loving these kids. Only the gospel brings this level of community.”
Pariso said her service ultimately points to Christ, who does the real work of change.
“I believe that lasting change does not come from anything except for Christ, so if I want lasting change for them, I have to connect my students to Christ,” she said.
“In order for me to do ministry holistically, it’s important that kids see me and can come along and see how Christ has changed my life. True discipleship and change happens when living life side by side.”
This article, written by Timothy Cockes, originally appeared in Baptist Press