Unexpected Fruit

Lesley Wolfe didn’t set out to become more rooted in her neighborhood, but it seems God had other plans. A series of unexpected circumstances led her on a journey that God used to connect her to her community and work in her heart.

Lesley and her family live in a largely white neighborhood near the University of Alabama campus, where she served on Collegiate staff. When it was time to send their oldest son, Graham, to kindergarten, she and her husband discovered that none of their neighbors’ children attended the local school, which was zoned to include neighborhoods that were mostly high-poverty and had a high percentage of ethnic minorities.

As the Wolfes began investigating, they found the local school had a lot to offer. They decided to enroll Graham in kindergarten there, then apply to a magnet school. After all, everyone they knew went to the magnet school.

But to Lesley’s dismay, after his kindergarten year, Graham was not accepted into first grade at the magnet school. Should they continue at the local school? Even their church friends questioned whether they should to consider it, though none of them had any experience with the school. Frightening rumors—which seemed to be based mostly on racial bias—abounded.

Still, Graham loved the school, and his experience there had been positive. The school received a good rating for academic performance and has a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) focus. Lesley realized the only reason to leave would be that her son would be part of a small racial minority. They stayed.

At the end of that school year, the campus ministry where Lesley had been serving shut down. “I had to start thinking, Where’s my ministry?” Leslie says. At the same time, the local school was in danger of closing. As she began attending school board meetings and working with others to keep the school open, she grew to know more people in her larger neighborhood. It became clear that this was where God wanted her—serving the school as best she could.

Because she had the time, she ended up as PTA president, something she says she was “not gifted for at all!” A few of her efforts to add value to the school flopped—they ended up creating more work for the already overloaded teachers. She began to see that her greatest contribution would be to support and encourage the teachers. And there was at least one thing she was good at: “I knew how to bake.” She organized a teacher appreciation week and worked with others to make the teachers breakfast every day. Her specialty? Homemade cinnamon rolls. Giving to the community “doesn’t have to be this big thing,” she says.

Graham is preparing to move on to middle school, but his younger brother, Evan, is now attending the neighborhood school. Lesley is delighted that now most of her neighbors are sending their children to kindergarten there, at least. 

Lesley reflects on how her involvement has been life-changing. Recently, as she was pulling up in the carpool lane, she was suddenly overcome with emotion.

“Had we gone to the ‘expected’ school, I wouldn’t be seeing the diversity of colors and cultures,” she says. She and her sons have formed close bonds there. “We have been loved well at our school.”

Lesley has seen her movement toward becoming rooted in her place bear fruit—so far, more in herself than in others. She has seen God work most dramatically in her heart—exposing biases, quelling fears. “Sometimes I suddenly see God there among those beautiful faces and faithful teachers,” she says.

We normally think of our “faithful presence” as something that will change our neighborhood, and that’s definitely the case. Lesley discovered that God uses it to change our own hearts as well.

Photo: Lesley Wolfe and her son Graham pose outside their neighborhood school, where Graham displays part of his project on famous African-Americans from Alabama. He learned about civil rights activist and pastor Richard C. Boone.