From the Reformed Quarterly Winter 1987 Bulletin.
If you want to see God at work, travel to the small community of Opelousas, buried deep in the Cajun country of south Louisiana. Here, in this unlikely place, where the population of 20,000 is eighty-five percent French Roman Catholic, Ned Rutland (RTS ’77) and his wife Valerie have revived a dying church and built from the ground up one of the most successful Christian schools in the southeast.
But the picture was not always so rosy. When the two arrived in 1978, a dismal sight awaited them on that first Sunday. Only eight people sat in the pews, and in the coming months, Ned would be happy to see twelve. During its 100-year history the church had employed thirty-three ministers. Their average stay was about three years. Two days a week, during those first months, Ned wore his work clothes to scrub and paint a church that was simply deteriorating.
A more faint-hearted couple might have given up the first month. But Ned and Valerie are both workhorses, and both were convicted beyond a shadow of a doubt that God had called them to this rather hopeless-looking spot. So, they simply dug their heels in and got right to work.
What they have to show for such tenacity ten years later is a vibrant church with 180 members (fifty percent from Roman Catholic backgrounds) and a top-notch school teeming with 440 students from over 20 communities.
In Valerie’s opinion, anyone could do it. “An individual or small group” can make a difference. There are really no obstacles to doing a great work for the Lord–except one’s own lack of faith. In our case the Lord has overcome them all–money, size of the church, size of town, our lack of experience, and the community’s religious preference. The main determining factors are faith and hard work.”
IN THE BEGINNING
The Rutlands had been in their new pastorate only a matter of months when they realized an alarming fact: there was not an acceptable school in the community for their growing family. Their Christian convictions left them only two choices–to home school or start a Christian school. They chose the latter.
With four private schools already in the area, most people thought they were crazy. But in 1978, Ned and Valerie started the First Presbyterian Christian Play School with thirty preschool children, two teachers, and Valerie as administrator. By the school’s third year, more grades had been added, the name changed to Westminster Christian Academy, and an eighteen-acre main campus outside Opelousas had been secured. The preschool still remains at the church, with a third campus scheduled to open in nearby Lafayette next fall.
As the school grew, so did Valerie’s responsibilities. Incredibly, by the third year, she had become administrator, secretary, and kindergarten teacher, working ten-hour days, six days a week — while she was pregnant with her fourth child and all with no pay. Ironically, Ned originally wanted to be a school administrator while in seminary, and Valerie never saw herself as a pastor’s wife. But the Lord has blended their talents perfectly in their current positions. Valerie is a gifted administrator, able to handle details and organize projects. Ned is a people-person, able to generate enthusiasm about new ministry directions, while remaining a sensitive pastor.
WHAT IS WESTMINSTER ACADEMY
The hard work has resulted in a school that is the envy of other Christian institutions in the southeast. In a Christian environment, children are exposed not only to the basics, but also to such things as computer programming, stringed instrument classes, and French from kindergarten through the sixth grade. The accelerated sixth grade French students perform at a level equivalent to second-year high school French.
Sports range from soccer and basketball to tennis, baseball, and volleyball. Soccer and Pioneer camps in the summer challenge the children’s athletic and camping skills. An exciting new Ranger Program for the high school offers spiritual growth in the context of outdoor educational activities. While white water rafting, rappelling, caving, and backpacking, the faculty has an opportunity to get closer to the students outside the classroom and teach the Christian life and its principles in greater depth.
Ned and Valerie, who both work ten to twelve-hour days, stay busy half the year just recruiting the faculty, half of whom come from out of state. The Rutlands tap sources like Interchristo to compile a capable international faculty, some of whom bear degrees from places like the University of Heidelberg.
Already blessed with a modern educational building on the sprawling campus, plans are now underway for a large gymnasium and a separate high school academic building. Enrollment is expected to double to 800 students by 1997.
Finances have never been a problem for the school because the Lord has provided the needed money at just the right time. Says Valerie, “Usually the Lord converts a wealthy man when we need funds for a building project!” Ned himself has raised over half a million dollars for the school, and he and Valerie continue to give fifteen percent of their gross income for its support. Some men converted under Ned’s ministry have given twenty to twenty-five percent of their income to the church and school.
Furthermore, no child has ever been turned away from Westminster for lack of money. Full and partial scholarships help the younger ones, while the older students may receive work scholarships. People in the community even sponsor children.
WHAT IS WESTMINSTER CHURCH?
After ten years of acting as the school’s “ramrod” and seeing it take root, Ned is now turning his attention to the growing church. More and more people from neighboring communities are hearing about the church and visiting. The congregation come from every kind of background. Valerie and one of the elders are the only people in the church who were baptized Presbyterians. And only three couples have walked through the door as Christians.
“But,” he comments, “we’ve got one of the healthiest church situations I have ever known. Our people are utterly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and to each other. There is a unity of spirit and a bond of peace, without any sectarianism.”
“I think it’s because we teach Christianity without labels, Ned continues. “We are trying to lead people to Jesus Christ. They don’t have to go to our church, although many do after they become Christians. But others have remained in their denominations and are active Christians there — leading Bible studies and raising Christ-centered families.”
Ned and Valerie Rutland — tremendously gifted and even more determined to do a great work for the Lord. If this is a beginning, what can be in store for the next ten years?