by Kenneth Stringer

For St Matthew Lutheran Church in Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island, having a public school just up the road has been a wonderful outreach opportunity.

Whitiora School was established in 1919 and today serves about 180 students in years 1 to 8. About half of the students are from migrant families, 35 per cent are Maori and the remaining 15 per cent are New Zealanders of European heritage.

The description of the primary school on its own website reflects its community interest: ‘a great little school in the heart of the city’. Visitors are struck by the school’s long history of community involvement when they are greeted at the main gate with a memorial to 31 former students who served in World War II.

Many of the migrant students live in the small flats which are the predominant residences in the area. This does not offer much space for these children to play in a safe environment, so the school opens its grounds on a 24-hour basis to the community.

The school community also has been developing gardens, allowing the children to learn to grow tomatoes and other edible produce in pots and raised garden beds. This teaches them the value of growing food in small areas, which is suitable to their home environments.

Principal Paul Cooper has served Whitiora School for many years. This dedicated man has a heartfelt empathy for the welfare of his school and its students, enhanced by his previous overseas mission experience.

These values led Paul to discuss the need for a voluntary chaplain with the school’s Board of Trustees. At the time, the school had a counsellor and social worker, who visited weekly to look after students’ emotional and physical needs. But it was agreed this was not enough, so about five years ago the school decided to find a chaplain who could relate to students’ spiritual needs in a multi-faith environment.

The school chaplain would need to be sensitive and not openly preach Christianity, but was entitled to answer questions from students and to show Christian values
in a practical way. Whitiora School received support for the project from Lifewalk Chaplaincy Service, which provided a lay pastor, who served in the role for four-and-a-half years.

Lifewalk then offered to find a replacement, knowing the school’s preference for someone from the local community who understood the sensitivities of working in a multi-faith environment. Pastor John Davison and St Matthew Lutheran Church Ministry Council recognised the need as a way for the church to connect with the local community.

Through Lifewalk, the congregation approached the school to suggest Pastor John for the role. He had previous experience in school chaplaincy at Parkview Public School in Leeton, New South Wales. Lutheran Church of New Zealand Bishop Mark Whitfield enthusiastically endorsed the opportunity.

Kenneth Stringer is a member at St Matthew Lutheran Church Hamilton in New Zealand.

Subscribe here to receive stories & upcoming issues in full