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Burglary, financial woes cant deter Maranatha's faith
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Maranatha Christian Academy president Pastor Rod Bell talks with third-grade teacher Dona Hopper on Thursday in Oakwood. Maranatha, which has been struggling financially, was burglarized early Monday morning. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

When Rod Bell found out that Maranatha Christian Academy’s small gray safe was missing early Monday morning, he thought it was a joke.

“At first I thought it was a senior prank — they were just trying to bug me and get me riled up,” the school’s president said. “So I called the chief of police to find out if it was a senior prank and found out it wasn’t.”

Oakwood Police Capt. Andy Smith said an officer found a door to the school ajar before dawn on Monday morning while making his routine rounds. There were no suspects or leads on the case as of Saturday.

The burglary was another blow to a small private school already struggling with financial problems and dwindling enrollment. But support from the community has helped bolster the faith of Maranatha’s staff, students and parents.

Nearly $10,000 in checks and about $2,000 in cash had been stored in a rarely used safe following a fundraising auction at the school last Saturday, Bell said.

Community restaurants and businesses had donated auction items such as manicures, sporting event tickets and vacation time shares to help the school meet its monthly $30,000 payroll. Bell said a Maranatha student even donated his guitar — a prized possession — to the auction.

News of the burglary rippled through the community.

Mechelle Vickers, who has two sons who attend Maranatha, was instrumental in organizing the auction May 9. She said she felt “deflated” when she heard the news.

“We’re just doing the best we can,” she said.

Jennifer Rivera is a middle and high school teacher at Maranatha and has four daughters enrolled at the school. She said she, along with the school’s 16 other teachers and three staff members, was devastated the money was missing.

“We were upset to hear the news. But I can honestly say I never felt like I wouldn’t receive a paycheck,” she said. Rivera said she had complete peace that God would provide.

“It’s a ministry, you know, so it’s a sacrifice,” she said. “... It’s not necessarily about the paycheck to be here. It’s more about serving the Lord and blessing the kids.”

When Bell was informed of the burglary, he was told Satan was at work. He dismissed that notion.

“This instance is not just about a safe ... God will use that person for his glory,” he said. “This is the Lord’s doings. It’s marvelous in our eyes. We’re going to thank him. It’s his safe. It’s his money. It’s his school that sits up on this little hill and we’re going to trust him.”

As word got out about the burglary Monday, the phones on Bell’s desk and on his belt began ringing.

“I think as things developed throughout the day, what blew my mind was just how much people were saying, ‘OK, how can we help?’” Bell said. “They said, ‘In this day of bailouts and people not recognizing their responsibility, you committed to help these families and stick to it and we want to help you.’”

People from all over the country were calling Bell asking how they could contribute, he said. And the donations came pouring in.

Kim Anderson, manager of Oakwood Ace Hardware on Winder Highway, put out a collection jar Monday for customers to help support Maranatha. The unwavering Christian called his idea “a God thing.”

“When I heard it, I just thought ‘How terrible,’” Anderson said. “My heart went out. And I’ve gotten to that point in my life when I feel God tugging on my heart, you just respond to it.”

He said he wasn’t surprised when the container at the front of the store started filling up with $20 bills, $5 bills and change.

“I feel like personally there’s lots and lots of good people out there,” Anderson said. “Even in these trying times that we’re in, it just shows that God will provide. ... We may get $300 or $400, or we may get $3,000 or $4,000, I just don’t know.”

Later that day, a fast-food worker dropped off a $10 money order at the school’s front office.

On Tuesday evening, Bell got a call from an Atlanta businessman who wanted a moment of his time. Bell jumped in his car and drove downtown. The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, handed Bell a check for $10,000.

“The people are not discouraged,” Bell said. “They are excited about what God is doing.”

In addition to replacing the checks made out at the auction, some contributors have donated funds on top of the amount of their original checks. Not only has the school recovered its $12,000, but Bell said he’s grateful for at least $24,000 in donations the school has raked in this week. And the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

He said every bit of that is needed to keep the school doors open and teachers paid.

Bell said with annual tuition ranging from $3,500 to $5,000, the private school has been struggling to maintain enrollment. Since August, Maranatha has lost about 25 students because of families’ economic constraints, he said. The school still has 83 students in grades K-12.

When Bell took over the school in November, he learned it would need at least $100,000 more to make it through the school year.

“At that time, the decision was either to close the school at Christmas or press on,” he said. “... Our board and church family decided with much prayer to help these families and not drop our commitment to them.”

Bell said since then, the school has been surviving off fundraisers — and prayer.

Four seniors are graduating from Maranatha on Saturday. It could be the school’s last graduating class.

Bell said the school is on it its last rung, and the burglary initially was a big blow to its financial instability.

He said he also found out Monday the insurance company covering McEver Road Baptist Church, the school’s sponsor, had rejected the church’s claim for assistance in repairing the mold problem in the sanctuary. The entrance to the sanctuary is now cordoned off and bears a neon toxic warning sign.

The congregation of about 100 people has relocated to a room in the school building. Green lockers line the walls of the gray room and Bibles anchor rows of folding chairs.

Katie Emerson, a seventh-grader at Maranatha, said she’s heard rumors the school might close next year. She said she hopes to return in August because students there are kind.

“I feel really bad, because I love this school and have a lot of emotions for this school,” she said. “Here when I visited, everyone knew my name and started being nice to me.”

Katie’s mother, Beth deSousa, said if Maranatha were to close, she would send Katie to another Christian school.

“For many people, public school is not an option. Some people drive great distances to get here,” she said.

Maranatha includes students who come each morning from as far as Dawsonville.

Bell said it’s likely he and the church will make the difficult decision on the school’s status for next year within the next two weeks.

He said the burglary and resulting media exposure from the Atlanta news to local radio airwaves is a testament to people’s faith.

“It’s not about the exposure for our school; it’s the exposure of God to our county and our community and our country. And that’s what our school is about,” he said. “... No matter what happens on this hill, God will be glorified.”

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