By Stan Friedman
IRVINE, CA (June 22, 2012) – Thousands of students in the educationally underserved area of Oakland, California, have had a greater chance at academic success over the past 11 years because Randall Roth decided to leave a well-established position as pastor of First Covenant Church there and start a collaborative network of churches and businesses that adopt schools.
For his work in establishing and guiding the Faith Network of East Oakland, Roth was presented with the Irving C. Lambert Award, which honors excellence in urban ministry. The recognition came during today’s business session of the 127th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
The award is given each year to a Covenanter whose life and practices reflect a deep commitment to urban and/or ethnic ministries. It is administered through the denomination’s Commission on Urban Ministries.
Through its Urban School Adoption program, the network responds to needs expressed by school principals and teachers. It provides tutors, classroom assistants, teacher appreciation events, family support, and summer camp for city kids at Mission Springs Camp and Conference Center, as well as other services. Click here to read a previous Covenant News Service story on the camp.
In an interview Roth noted, for example, that, “One third of all the libraries in the public schools are in mothballs because there is no staffing.” He adds that amounts to 10,000 students without access.
Another third of the libraries are “limping along,” he said. Volunteers from Faith Network run three of the libraries and help staff others.
One network program gives students the opportunity to shadow corporate executives, who also teach kids basic skills such as how to fill out a job application. Another program teaches reading skills at 18 clinics.
None of the opportunities for the students would have happened, however, if not for a foster child, a school superintendent, and a book.
Roth and his wife, Diane, took in Steve Goodwin as their foster child in 1979 at age 14.
An adult friend of Goodwin’s who attended West Hills Covenant Church in Portland, Oregon, where Roth was a co-pastor, introduced them. “I was what people call ‘at risk,’” says Goodwin, who is now a vice-president and senior portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Chicago.
At the time, Goodwin was in desperate need of family and someone to give him direction. “It was the grace of God that Randy and Diane became those people for me,” he says. “Randy and Diane had the faith and compassion to see the good in me.”
For his part, Roth was transformed through his experience raising Goodwin and seeing the needs of other struggling children. Roth is adamant when he says, “If it weren’t for Steve, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Goodwin tailored his current business trip to California so that he could attend the award presentation as well as a special dinner last night. (The Roths’ two daughters, Katie Otis and Chelsea Boniak, surprised their father by showing up at the dinner.)
After serving in Portland, Roth was called to pastor First Covenant Church in 1988. Within months, he helped launch a weekly intercessory prayer group that met at 6 a.m. to pray for the shalom of Oakland and the East Bay.
“I would have never guessed that 13 years later the founding of Faith Network of the East Bay might well be one of the answers to our prayers,” Roth says.
The answer began to crystalize in 2000 when the Oakland Unified School District superintendent invited 25 clergy to a meeting and urged them to encourage their congregations to adopt a neighborhood school. The situation was so dire that many churches would be needed.
The superintendent told them that the city’s schools are more racially and economically segregated than before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and are attended almost exclusively attended by disadvantaged kids from low-income families, Roth says. “That was the beginning of soul searching for me during the next six months.”
It became a season of extended prayer, journaling and seeking the counsel of friends. The congregation appreciated Roth’s ministry, and he could have easily continued serving as their pastor if not for the restlessness in his heart.
Then Roth attended the Midwinter Conference in 2001. As usual, pastors were given several books paid for by donors. One of the books was If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg.
Roth was reading it on the flight home. “I turned to my wife and told her it was time for me to leave First Covenant,” he says. He had been a pastor for 30 years.
His last day at the church was June 30. By July, Roth and others formed Faith Network as a nonprofit. By the end of August they began looking for schools to adopt. One week after 9-11, Faith Network adopted its first two school because volunteers from First Covenant and another congregation were so enthusiastic about the undertaking.
Today, the Faith Network serves 34 schools. The expansion has come because the network has earned trust by proving that they will offer a sustained program.
Just as important, Roth says, “It has been going in with humility. It’s going in listening to needs.”
Presenting the award were Gary Walter, president, and Debbie Blue, executive minister of the Department of Compassion, Mercy and Justice.