Evangelical Christian club quietly established chapters in elementary schools in east Portland
In September 2015, David Linn’s 6-year-old son returned from Sacramento Elementary School in East Portland with an unusual flyer.
A year later, the Good News Club is still there, and that bothers Linn.
“The club uses the legitimacy of the school to add credibility to its own agenda,” says Linn. “If it’s at school, the kids think the club has the same distinction as their teachers.”
Few after-school offerings are as divisive as the Good News Clubs – evangelical Christian Bible studies held in the halls of public elementary schools. Critics say it is difficult for children to differentiate club teachings from the school curriculum, and that clubs encourage students as young as 5 to proselytize with other children.
But the Missouri group, called the Child Evangelism Fellowship, managed to win a beachhead in Portland. For the first time, two Portland school districts publicly acknowledge that Good News Clubs operate in at least three public elementary schools located within city limits.
WW confirmed with the Parkrose School District in East Portland that Sacramento and Russell Elementary Schools have good news clubs, and Portland Public Schools have confirmed that Harrison Park K-8 also has a club.
The schools are all located east of the city and serve poorer populations.
Andrew Robinson, a fifth-grade teacher at a Parkrose District elementary school, says the arrival of clubs is diminishing the effectiveness of his teaching.
“Every teacher and administrator of a public school that I know works very hard every day of the school year to impart critical thinking skills to their students under difficult circumstances,” Robinson wrote in an email to WW. “The fact that an organized group walks into your building and systematically undermines these efforts is obviously frustrating and disappointing.”
The ministers who sponsor the clubs claim to be volunteers and welcome children from all walks of life.
“It’s a time when kids get together with other kids,” says Tom Schiave, senior pastor of Gateway Baptist Church, which sponsors the Russell club. “It’s a nice break.”
“If a public school allows outside organizations to enter the school, the school cannot say no to a club because the club has a religious mission,” Jann Carson, associate director of the Oregon Civil Liberties Union, tell WW. “It’s an all or nothing situation.”
Portland School Board member Steve Buel says the district’s hands are tied. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “You are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of religion, but you are not supposed to promote it.”
“In low-income districts there is sometimes less resistance to the club,” writes Stewart in an email to WW. “Parents need more after-school care, and they’re generally less inclined to protest against arrangements they don’t like.
Parents must sign permission slips before their children are allowed to participate in a Good News Club. But the clubs are free, often provide snacks, and in some schools are offered on days when no other after-school care is available.
In Russell and Sacramento, clubs are held on Wednesdays – a day of the week when the class comes out early.
Lana Buchanan, 52, whose grandchildren attend Harrison Park K-8, says volunteers handed out Good News Club flyers outside the school last fall. She says they were aggressive.
“I quickly informed them that we were a pagan family and that we had enough gods, thank you very much,” she said.
But not all attempts to create a Good News Club in Portland have been successful. The Southeastern Community Church of the Nazarene tried to start a club at Arleta Elementary School in the Portland Public School District a few years ago, but it was blocked.
Rodney Bertholet, the church’s pastor, says a parent’s dissenting opinion prevented the club from starting there.
“I think they know that strong Christian groups are not going to fight them,” says Bertholet. “Therefore, they can oppose [our clubs] of how they want to oppose them. “
Portland Public Schools spokesperson Courtney Westling said the club was blocked because no clubs hosted by outside groups were allowed in Arleta.
the Portland Chapter of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, as well as many local churches that are believed to have sponsored the Good News Clubs, declined to speak directly to WW, all citing the need to protect “the safety and anonymity of children”, instead directing the requests to the national office.
John Luck, project manager at Child Evangelism Fellowship headquarters in Warrenton, Missouri, would not award WW information on club locations in Portland. He said it was because he didn’t want “satanist clubs” to form as a reaction.
Linn, the parent of Sacramento Elementary School, says he hasn’t seen any change in the culture at his son’s school. But he still plans to file a formal complaint with the Parkrose School District.
“The clubs are bigoted and political,” Linn says. “They shouldn’t take place in elementary schools.”