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Locally Grown: Sharing the Bread of Life with JAM

J.J. with the kids from the bus ministry
By Andrew Sharp

Every Wednesday J.J. Nisly gets in an old minibus and drives more than 20 miles through the vast farm fields surrounding the tiny crossroads town of Partridge, Kansas, to another nearby town to give rides to children who want to come to Partridge to take part in Plainview Mennonite Church’s “Jesus and Me” program. The church, located near Hutchinson, Kansas, has run the weekly Bible-school-type program, known by its short form of JAM, on Wednesday nights for 11 years.

JAM is held in an old school building in Partridge. J.J., who with his wife Joy serves as a director of the program, said on average about 70-75 children have attended this year on a weekly basis, with a high near 90.

When the school building came up for sale 11 years ago, church members had some ideas about how to use it, so the church put in a bid of $5,000 and won it, J.J. said. They held their Bible school there that summer, and then decided to hold the church’s Wednesday night children’s program in the building and try to extend it to community children.

The church went door to door around town and invited children in Partridge to come. One of the families that sent children to JAM moved out of Partridge, but the children still wanted to come, so Joy volunteered to pick them up every week. They started out using a van, but the children told their friends about JAM and the crowd quickly outgrew the van, all through word of mouth without the church ever trying to publicize the program there.

“The hardest thing I ever had to do was leave a little boy standing by the curb when I didn’t have enough room,” Joy said. Soon, J.J. was driving out with an old minibus the school district had used in the past. On a recent Wednesday night, he said, he brought 17 kids in the minibus. “They keep asking me when we are going to get a bigger bus so they can invite more kids.” So by popular demand, he is going to start using a 24-passenger bus owned by one of the families in the church.

Preschool teacher, Jon Miller, getting down on their level
When the kids get to the meeting, they have a praise and worship time, and sometimes an illustration or a Bible story. After that they go to classes organized by grade from preschool all the way up to high school (all high school grades are in one group). For the classes, Plainview uses a Sunday school curriculum called FaithWeaver from Group Publishing. “We felt like this curriculum was about as biblically sound as you could find,” J.J. said. Once a month, one of the church’s cell groups will bring a meal for everyone.

For a few weeks every summer, the teachers take a break, but “The kids just love (JAM) and they don’t like it when we close it down,” J.J. said.

They also seem to be listening in class. J.J. said three girls came to faith recently, and others have in the past. They wonder sometimes how much difference they are making in the children’s lives. But if they see the kids somewhere during the week, he said, “they’ll come running and give you a hug. It’s just amazing to see how God works with these kids ... it is just exciting to see the changes that I’ve seen in kids that started when they were little.” Some of the children he has worked with are grown up and married now, but if they see him they make sure to talk to him.

This kind of weekly project demands a lot from the church. Except for those few weeks of break in the summer, the program runs year-round, and teachers are asked to commit for a year, just as they would for teaching Sunday school. Several teachers have been involved in the program either from the beginning or almost from the beginning.

It also takes a financial commitment. In addition to that initial $5,000 investment to purchase the building, J.J. estimated the church spends about $5,000 a year on the program. Over the years they have made repairs to the building, including installing a new roof, but he said they have been able to avoid borrowing any money for the repairs.

Giving of time and finances has resulted in a program that has been very positive for the church, J.J. said. Running the program requires people to join their efforts, and work together. It takes them out of their comfort zones and stretches them, and gives them an outreach in the community.

It’s also a project that can involve all kinds of people in the church. Most of the teachers are couples, which is helpful for taking care of large classes, and “also models a loving couple working together that some of these kids really need to see,” Joy said. But two of the longest-serving teachers are singles who Joy says are “very passionate about the program,” and serve on an advisory team with the Nislys. The church’s senior members are able to serve effectively as well. “The kids just love them; it’s kind of like Grandma and Grandpa being there teaching them,” J.J. said.

“It takes all of us to make it happen and sometimes we wonder if we have enough people, but it’s just interesting how God provides. Every year we have enough teachers,” J.J. said.