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Photo: Chris Meehan
On the left is George Guichelaar, South Christian High School principal and on the right James Peterson.
Photo by Chris Meehan

In the summer of 1951, a group of farmers planted 15 acres of oats and rye on land to be sold to raise money for a new Christian high school to go up on that same rural property on the south end of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Located in Cutlerville, the school opened in 1954 as South Christian High School to serve the needs of families in that booming area. Over the years, the school underwent several expansions to continue educating and helping to shape growing numbers of children from a Reformed biblical perspective.

This week, 55 years after it opened on the land those farmers tilled, South Christian is moving to a nearby, nearly $40 million facility — and this is happening with the same mission with which it began in the early 1950s: “To equip students to live Christ-centered lives and serve God to their greatest potential.”

“It has been a long process to get where we are now,” said James Peterson, head of the school.

Many meetings, the financial crisis of 2008, an ongoing campaign to raise funds, and the development of a visionary design for the future have all gone into this, said Peterson. “Our objective is that the new building is a place that encourages students to gather and connect with each other and their teachers and other adults. We are also intentionally creating a space for quiet reflection and to spend time with God.”

In North America, Christian schools such as South Christian remain a foundational part of the lives of Christian Reformed Church parents and, increasingly, parents from other denominations, said Joel Westa, executive director of Christian Schools International (CSI), which provides Christian schools with curriculum, leadership training, accreditation, and employee benefit services. CSI offers these services to about 500 schools in the United States and Canada.

In some cases, Christian schools are thriving, while in other instances they are struggling. “Demographics and size play an important role in this,” said Westa.

By this he means that many of the schools in larger communities with ample resources such as Grand Rapids are healthy, but schools in smaller communities often face challenges.

South Christian, said Westa, is one of the schools that is definitely thriving. In fact, it is one of the highest-performing schools in the association.

“This is one of the schools we hold up for other schools to look at,” he said. “It has had the right vision, and now it has a new building so it can continue providing tremendous programs to students.”

The new high school, said Peterson, will be more than a high school. Over the years, the parent-run school began to realize that the original building, along with its expansions, was being used as more than a place for education. It was an important part of the community.

“It has been a place in which people of the community have gathered to form relationships and grow together to better serve God. They gather for worship, for concerts, for different programs,” said Peterson.

As a result, the new school offers a strong focus on gathering space for school and other activities. In addition, an athletic complex is part of the new campus, as is an outdoor amphitheater.

With an eye to the future, the new building is designed to support the Reformed faith as it is finding ways to touch, move into, and influence an increasingly diverse world. A culture that was once fairly defined in the 1950s is much more complex today.

An interesting philosophy is reflected in the new, 177,000 square-foot structure. Featuring many windows, moveable walls, a large area to congregate, and space to display student art and projects, the goal is to reflect the “beautiful mess that reflects our lives in Christ so well,” said Peterson.

In John 12:24, Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus is offering here a metaphor about sacrifice and service in the kingdom of God. Over the years, Christian communities like South Christian have learned that, based on Christ’s example, giving of themselves for the glory of God brings blessings to the generations to come and to the larger community in which they live — and that God also blesses them abundantly in the midst of messy living in this broken world. 

In the new high school, they have built spaces where hard work will occur and yet also spaces that are open for conversation, for enjoying the everyday messiness and unpredictability of life. This is a building that doesn’t constrict; it enables and provides a place for one’s faith to unfold.

“Right off of the common area will be an experimental room, a place to be seen with windows to the common area, and a space for experiments to set up and play out over time,” said Peterson.

“In one spot you will be able to see the beautiful finished projects and the messy work in progress of exploring God’s world. This space honors the beautiful mess that we are called to walk through here on earth.”

The school has been built for the students of today and for generations to come. “We want to meet the needs of modern learning,” said George Guichelaar, South Christian High School principal.

Yet, he said, it is important to remember that the school is the outgrowth of the love and tender stewardship of hundreds of people for whom this high school has been a school and much more.

As he considers the new school, his mind drifts back to the farmers who planted crops to sell for the purpose of education — and of all the teachers, students, parents, and others who have helped the South Christian High School community make its mark.

“We want to honor all of those who have brought us to where we are today. . . . At the same time, we think of how our new school is not being built for us but for the many generations to come.”

A dedication ceremony will take place at the new South Christian High School at 7979 Kalamazoo Avenue SE, Grand Rapids, at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 13. An open house will follow at 3 p.m.