Before Tracy Davidson’s father died in July 2008, he gave her one piece of advice: Get close to God.

Fifteen years later, Davidson is serving a congregation and surrounding community as the preschool director of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in El Cajon, Calif.

“It’s like God put me here,” Davidson said.

Davidson had a childhood she describes as “unstable,” characterized by multiple relocations. One of those stops, though, provided an introduction, albeit a cursory one, to the spiritual side of life.

“I went to Sunday school in Colorado when I was 6 or 7, with my two sisters,” she recalled. “I think it was just something my mom did so she could clean the house. I remember we got Bibles, and we got star stickers if we were good, and if you got so many stickers, you got a bigger Bible. I still had that connection with God even though I didn’t attend church after that.”

“It’s like God put me here.”

Davidson’s father was a Vietnam War veteran who died of complications related to AIDS. He was also, she ultimately learned, a Lutheran.

“I know Lutheran pastors are in the military, and I’m wondering if that’s how he learned about faith,” she said.

Davidson was introduced to St. John in late 2009 after the older of her two sons started “hanging out with a friend at church.”

“My son and I started coming here, and we were baptized in 2012, on Easter Sunday,” she said. “He had a lot of questions about church, and I hadn’t been to church in quite a long while. I took that to heart, what my dad said, and found a church where my son wanted to go and I wanted to go.”

Around the same time, Davidson, a longtime public and private school educator, had a couple of chance encounters with the director of St. John’s preschool. In February 2010 she accepted an offer to work as a teacher at the school and in 2014 became its acting director, with the “acting” tag removed the following year.

Part of the community

Davidson said that when she started with the school there were 10 students and that she helped boost the total to 46. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with California’s push toward “universal prekindergarten” (publicly funded preschool), has knocked that number back down to a dozen.

“I’ve had this calling to be a preschool teacher since the 12th grade,” she said. “COVID and [universal prekindergarten] have been hard on us, but I keep pushing myself to keep this place going. I love this place, as I feel like it has been my mission for the last 10-plus years. As a director, it can be kind of a lonely job sometimes.”

Davidson knows she’s fortunate, though, to have many allies.

Her husband and children do all they can to assist, which includes setting up and taking down special events and helping run the preschool’s summer camp.

The preschool has a pair of teachers, both of whom speak the Chaldean dialect of Aramaic. This is a significant asset because more than 10% of El Cajon’s 100,000 residents are Chaldean Catholics, a persecuted religious and ethnic minority in Iraq for 5,000 years.

Davidson also leans on the resources and camaraderie of the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association (ELEA) and the Church Related Early Childhood Education Fellowship (CRECEF), based in Ventura, Calif.

“It really does speak to what early childhood centers and schools can be to our congregations.”

“The ELEA and the CRECEF have both been an inspiration to help develop my experience to become a better director and teacher,” she said. “I love that I can connect with other directors from all over and be able to educate myself and develop my gifts for working with children.”

Cory Newman, ELEA executive director, says Davidson’s work and personal story exemplify what ELCA-affiliated K-12 schools and early childhood centers are all about.

“Many directors are not Lutheran, or not churched at all, but they take this call to serve in an ELCA institution and provide rich education and faith formation to children,” said Newman, whose organization serves and advocates for about 1,300 schools and early childhood centers throughout the ELCA. “Part of what they’re doing is as employees, but then they learn more about what the ELCA is, what the theology is, and their feeling is to be part of that community.

“It really does speak to what early childhood centers and schools can be to our congregations,” Newman added. “Many of our congregations are in decline, and when we have thriving school ministries or early childhood education ministries, we bring in young, more diverse families from the neighborhoods.”

ELEA-affiliated schools and centers bring families from a variety of backgrounds into a space where they know their children will be in the care of people whose teaching and values they appreciate, Newman said. “When kids thrive and can be safe and be loved, it gives us such huge opportunities to reach out and build relationships.”

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

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