In the summer of 2017 on a sweltering weekday morning, I parked just south of the Capitol and walked to the Michigan Department of Education, holding the hands of my two toddlers, in order to get a letter of approval declaring us a school.
I had tried and failed to register our school with the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs office, who informed me that “school” and “academy” are restricted words one may only use with the written approval of the MDE. As a lover of classical political philosophy, I found this shocking and unbecoming to a free society. But I was determined to be, for the moment, a pragmatist. So here I was, children in tow, to get my written approval.
The man at the front desk had difficulty understanding why I was there. He could not answer my questions nor could he allow me upstairs to talk to anyone. He scribbled down a phone number and said, “This is the person who deals with the homeschoolers.” And that was the unstunning beginning of a multi-year legal circus designed by the Lord for his glory.
At that time, “us” was a disguise for the fact that we had not yet recruited outside of our family. These days, when I write “us” it is an affectionate shorthand for the 30 households, and as many donors, involved in our school for the long haul. Our mission, then and now, has not changed: partner with parents in the education of their children so that they grow up to slay dragons.
We are now a two-year-old K-8 school with 60 students from 26 families representing 3 counties, 10 cities, and 8 churches. Just this week, we requested permission from our township zoning board to expand to K-12. The legal and facilities side of our school’s founding is just one tiny slice of what the Lord has accomplished, but it is a clear picture of the character of our King. As you will see in the remainder of this account, the Lord has done all of this work.
An Impossible Maze
By the end of August 2017, I had puzzled out that everything hinged on our lightning-fast acquisition of three things:
- A building that meets fire code
- 50% of our first year’s operating costs in possession
- Staff that cleared a background check with bachelor’s degrees
Even this overwhelming list was incomplete. Later I would learn that the building also had to be ADA compliant and that we would need to redraw blueprints for thousands of dollars. Later the state fire code would change midway through our project and require additional measures for tens of thousands of dollars. Later I would learn that staff cannot clear a background check until the township grants a zoning permit, that a full accounting audit is required to demonstrate how much money you had, and a host of other things. But at each step of this process, the Lord protected us with ignorance.
I talked with dozens of state and local officials to ask them the same chicken-or-egg questions: We cannot acquire the name “academy” until we report the square footage of our classrooms, but how are we to acquire a building without being a legal non-profit corporation receiving tuition money? Occasionally I received a sympathetic “That is tough.” I was amazed to realize that, despite the steep hurdles in starting a school, the academic hurdles were short: a list of grades and subjects. The immense regulatory burden was bureaucratic, but not ideological.
Bureaucracy or ideology, we were stymied. How would we possibly do any of that? How does a nonexistent school get hundreds of thousands of dollars, a building, and a staff when it can’t get one committed family?
Moving Forward with No Promise of Success
I will never forget that conversation in Adirondack chairs in our backyard in the fall of 2017. Jack and I felt that we could not move forward with these insurmountable tasks unless we had a committed base of parents. At the same time, we realized that no one would join our school until we had a school to join. By necessity, we had to move ahead alone if we were to ever build this institution. We would never have the luxury of certainty that this would work, but to quit now felt wrong.
Little by little, the Lord taught us the manner in which we were to work. Big events aimed at recruiting committed families would fall flat, but small conversations in the church lobby would convince lifelong partners. Over time, we learned the habit of stepping back from an effort when we reached an obstacle and asking, “Lord, work while I sleep.” We felt a kinship with Martin Luther who described his work in the Reformation this way: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank beer with my friends… the Word did everything.” On our mailing list, “Classical School Endeavor” turned into “Cedar Endowment Corporation d.b.a. Cedar Classical Academy.” By the end of 2018, we were a group of four committed families.
LCCC & CCA: A Love Story
From the fall of 2018 to the spring of 2019, I spent every weekday calling building owners to tell them about our school and inquire about leasing. During one memorable week, I took my infant son to my hometown during a family crisis. Every day, I would put my son down for a nap, clean my parents’ kitchen, and call more buildings. It was a strange time, but an apt juxtaposition of the many different duties of the Christian life.
I visited multiple elder board meetings to make our case, met with pastors of churches big and small, looked into renovating a strip mall, priced out modular buildings, and evaluated repurposing office space. Multiple times a week, I would pack up my three little kids into our van to drive around to evaluate buildings’ window size, number of exits, and accessibility from the highway. Hallways were too narrow, bathrooms too cramped, exits too few, zoning regulation too strict for us to legally occupy any of these places. If the building miraculously met code, the church turned us down for other reasons. In one case, this was because the church’s quilting circle refused to share classroom space with us. By March 2019, we were a tax-exempt charitable purpose organization of six committed families with no building and five short months before we needed one.
On March 26, 2019, I visited 3654 Okemos Road for the first time and met Timothy and Christin Peng. Their story, which I’ve heard a thousand times since, stunned me into skeptical silence. Listen for yourself:
All this time that I had been evaluating 170 buildings, Lansing Chinese Christian Church had been praying that a school would start in their building. Over the next several months we had more hearings with the local government, and learned of more requirements, but we had found our building. By July 2019, one month before we hoped to open, we were a group of 15 families with a building on a 9-acre property.
All Glory Be to Christ
Not since 2016 have I felt like life is easy. Personally and professionally, life gets only more complicated and weighty. Yet my King Jesus has taught me that I am too young, with too short of a perspective, to be discouraged. To submit to discouragement would be to deny the cosmic victory that he already inaugurated with his incarnation, that he already purchased with his blood, that he already proved with his resurrection, that he already ratified with his ascension. He can harvest where I did not plant, and he does not have to harvest where I did plant – even if I planted with my own blood, sweat, and tears. The tedious details that I have recounted here are not glamorous or heroic; on the contrary, I am often struck by how the shining dream of classical education involves such mundane tasks. What a mercy that I am not the one writing my own story. Our school is a setting, and we are characters, in one chapter of a grand and glorious book of the Lord’s work.
As I said at the beginning, this account is a tiny slice of the Lord’s mercy and provision that he’s graciously poured out to us over the past few years. He has provided advisors, finances, encouragement, supplies, families, and solutions when we needed them. He has changed the lives of children and the cultures of families. To think that I have been discouraged over permits!
Our best efforts do not add up to, or warrant, his smallest mercies. This is a great Christian lesson that I have had the privilege to learn through many days of slow, unremitting effort. In salvation, in sanctification, and in fire safety regulation, the Lord loves to give good things to his people.