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Tracey Jonakin Shares the Love of Jesus With Students in Released Time
70 Liberty Middle School Students Have Given Their Lives to Christ Since 2014

By Karen Brewer

Photograph by Karen Brewer, The Christian View magazine

Tracey Jonakin teaches Released Time Bible Education to Liberty Middle School students.

            Seventy Liberty Middle School students have been saved during the seven semesters that Tracey Jonakin has taught Released Time Bible Education off campus at Liberty First Baptist Church. “Seventy students have asked Jesus to be their Lord and Saviour,” Jonakin told The Christian View magazine. “That’s encouraging,” she said. “That’s a blessing. That’s why I’m here, to further the kingdom and to make a difference for God, to help these students see that He is the only way.

“Students have told me that they were contemplating suicide,” she added. “A girl last semester told me that Released Time literally changed her life. She was going to commit suicide, and then she came into the program, and she found hope for living through Jesus. She’s so grateful.

“I’ve had students tell me how they went home and shared with their parents, and then encouraged their parents to get involved in church, so that has had an impact.”

            According to Brian Hale, who chairs the Board for Christian Learning Centers of the Upstate, 400 students participate in Released Time in all five of Pickens County’s middle schools each school day each semester. Jonakin said that 65 students participate from Liberty Middle.  (Publisher’s note: Click here to read an interview with Brian Hale and an article about Released Time in Pickens County.)

            Jonakin recalled first becoming involved with Released Time. “My husband lost his job, and Brian came to me and said Released Time was available. I sat in a class, and I just remember those kids’ faces. Jesus spoke to me and said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ I thought, these kids need somebody that won’t leave them or forsake them, and I joined up. I’ve seen a lot of students come through the program. I think it gives them an hour away from all of that middle school drama and stress, and some of these kids will sit here when the class time is over, and they don’t want to get up. They want to sit here and soak some more in. What a blessing it is to come over here and leave your troubles for an hour a day and just focus on God.”

            All of the Released Time teachers in Pickens County teach from a curriculum called Firm Foundations – Creation to Christ. “It’s 48 Power Point presentations, all of the way from creation to the cross,” said Jonakin. “It leads up to Jesus, leads up to the deliverer. It starts with sin and Adam and Eve, then the angels sinning against God, then going into who Jesus is, as the deliverer. I vary from the curriculum a little bit, because I teach Jesus as I go. There’s not this big ‘explosion’ of Jesus the last week I see them, because I want them to know who He was in all of the scriptures, that He was there in the beginning. I show them all throughout where Jesus is. I vary a little bit from the curriculum that way, and I think every teacher puts a little bit of themselves into it. Everybody has their own style, a different kind of teaching style and method. But it’s all the same message. It’s all about Jesus.

“The first thing we study is - Who is God? We go from A to Z with attributes of God -- like A - He is almighty, B - He is breath of life, C – Creator, D - divine, E - He is eternal, F - He’s faithful, He’s your Father, He’s your friend…. We talk about who is God. They write a letter to God. This is really prayer, writing a letter to God. We talk about Adam and Eve and how they disobeyed God and how fig leaves weren’t good enough…. and through this act of disobedience, sin entered the world and then death, and so that’s why we have to die. We talk about why do we live and why do we die? Why we live is to know God, to love God, and to choose God. And why we die is because of sin.

“For middle school children, that’s huge -- to know why we live. They want to know the purpose of life. I tell them I’m saving them all kinds of money for future therapy. They don’t have to sit at a therapist’s office and wonder what is the meaning of life. You can know this now. Genesis chapters 1 and 2 tell you that -- why you’re living and why you’re dying. That’s pretty cool to know that that’s in the very beginning of the Bible -- why we live and why we die.

“We talk about the covenants of God and why God made a covenant with Adam, and He said if you eat from this tree, you will die, and how Adam ate from the tree, how Eve was deceived and how Adam totally disobeyed. We talk about that covenant. And then, through the line of Adam and Eve, came Cain and Able and Seth. We give all of the characteristics of Able, and we see a picture of Jesus. Able is the Shepherd. Able is the one that gives the excellent sacrifice. Jesus is the Shepherd. Jesus is the one that gives an excellent sacrifice. And then through the line of Seth come two people, Methuselah and Enoch. Methuselah was the oldest man who ever lived. Enoch walked with God, and God took him, and that’s a picture of the rapture. So, we talk about the rapture. Then, through the line of Seth again will come Noah. Is there death, burial, and anything rising to the top in Noah’s ark? Death -- everything died. Why? Because of sin. Burial -- was anything buried? Everything. And then, did anything rise? The ark. So, what is that a picture of? Death, burial, and resurrection. It’s all a picture of Jesus. Their eyes just light up, because they see Jesus in the Old Testament. That’s pretty cool to know how awesome our God is. He put Jesus throughout the Old Testament in the scriptures. So, it’s all about Jesus. That’s what Released Time is. It’s all about Jesus.

“We’ve learned, ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’ (II Timothy 3:16), and then we learned, ‘For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life (through Jesus Christ our Lord) (Romans 6:23). And we’re learning Revelation 4:11, ‘You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for you created all things and by your will they exist and were created.’ And then they’re going to learn Genesis, Exodus, all of the way to Ezra. When they learn that, they get a star. Five stars will get a reward. That gives them a little bit of an incentive. It’s middle school. You’ve got to give them a little incentive along the way. That gives them a little motivation, since we don’t give grades. They need some type of reward for their good work. So, that’s the way I try to get them motivated and encourage them.”

            She also motivates the students with games, movies on Fridays, and visual illustrations, including a Noah’s ark from Answers in Genesis, and other hands-on visual aids to illustrate characters from the Bible, including Abraham, Joseph, and Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt. “Anything visual I can get in front of them, that really seems to bring the story home,” she said. “Anything I can put their hands on to visually see it, I think that helps them.”

            Jonakin teaches six Released Time classes, three classes each morning before lunch (sixth graders, seventh graders, then eighth graders), and then three classes after lunch (sixth graders, seventh graders, then eighth graders). Released Time is counted as a related arts elective, she said. “It’s a related art, just like art and computer and music and band. I’m a related arts teacher at the school. I just don’t have the benefits of retirement. My retirement is in heaven, anyway. I have none of the benefits of the school system, but I have to go along with everything the school does, schedule wise. But they are very, very supportive.”

            She has taught children in Sunday School for about 20 years, and she also taught in a women’s ministry at her former church, Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Since 2006, she and her family have been members of Rock Springs Baptist Church in Easley, South Carolina, where she teaches Sunday School to sixth grade girls, and she and her husband, Jim, teach a G56 discipleship program for fifth and sixth graders on Wednesday nights. “I love the Pastor and the staff and the people there,” she said. “It’s been a great experience for my children and for our family. It’s wonderful.”

            She and her husband, Jim, have two sons, Andy, age 24 and a student at Columbia Southern University, and Ben, age 21 and a student at North Greenville University, and a daughter, Kellie, who is 17 and a high school senior. “I was saved when I was about 11 years old,” she said. “The Lord has blessed me with a great family, a great husband and three great kids, and has grown me in the grace and knowledge of God.”

            She is also experienced in having homeschooled one of her now grown children as well as having taught other children with learning disabilities to read. “I have a child with four learning disabilities,” she said. “I homeschooled him and worked with him. And I taught at the Bodine School in Memphis and helped learning-disability children learn how to read. We had sent Andy to Lindamood-Bell Learning Center in Atlanta for two years, and I learned, by just sitting in their program, how he was going to be able to function in school, and then the school invited me in, and I helped children learn to read.

 “When Andy was diagnosed as one that would have school failure, that he would never succeed in a school, that ‘Mama Bear’ came out, and I said, ‘Over my dead body will my child fail at school.’ And so I did everything possible that I knew to do to make that child succeed. We went to two special schools. We went to Atlanta twice and got him special help. The school that we went to cost about $1,500 a week, and we had to go four weeks, so I was looking at $6,000. And then I had to have a home to live in, in Atlanta. And I had to have a car and all kinds of other expenses. We were living in Memphis at this time, and we were going to Bellevue Baptist Church. We went to the people at Bellevue, and I said, ‘This is life or death. If my child can’t read, he can’t survive. And this school at Bodine is telling me I’ve got to go to Lindamood-Bell.’ So, the church met with us. They paid a good portion of this. A neighbor paid for a week. The church paid for the rest. My Sunday School teacher was Chris Hodges, and he knew somebody in Atlanta. And they called that Pastor in Atlanta and said, ‘I have a family who needs help. They’re coming to Atlanta for their special-needs child and need a place to stay.’ They called back and said, ‘I have a friend who used to work at the Gables.’ The Gables called me and said, ‘You have a place for free.’ So, for four weeks, I had a free place to stay and a free education. Andy went through the program and just did exceptional, progressed so much. That’s where I learned the program and then went back and taught other students what Andy had learned.

“I saw God do miracles. The next year, we had so much success in this program, I went back, and I said, 'We need to do it again. We need to spend a summer there again, to help him to continue what he’s learned.' So I called the Gables, and they said to come back for free. So, for two years in a row, I saw miracles. God really used Andy, my own child, to show me that He’s so in control and sovereign, and He hears my cry, and He hears my prayer, and He’s there to encourage and to take care of my every need. And so, my faith grew through my own child.

“My faith is solid. I know who I believe. I know why I believe it. And the only reason I know that is because I spend some time with Him in His word, and I fully trust Him. I’ve seen, through all of the trials and tribulations of life, He is trustworthy, He has provided, He is my Jehovah Jireh. That’s how my faith has grown and has prepared me for this job.

 “And my husband lost his job twice, in 2014 (and that’s how I initially got on board with Released Time) and this year.” When her husband was interviewed for a job in security sales, the interviewer was a father of one of her Released Time students, who told him, “We love your wife, and we love Released Time.” “I said, ‘I got you that job. God used Released Time to get you that job’,” she said.

“I think that, having a child with a learning disability and a husband that’s lost his job, those are major stresses in your life, and, when you see the outcome, of how God took care of it, you know it really does say, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow. Be anxious for nothing but in everything in prayer and supplication let your requests be known to God.’ It’s really the only way to live. It’s all for His glory. It’s all for Him.

“God has a purpose, and that’s what we really teach the children -- you’re here for a reason, to bring God glory.”

Her son Andy is now in college. “He has really achieved well,” she said. “He has really compensated for his learning disability. He made an A in algebra this semester. He has really accomplished so much. God just really showed me his sovereignty. I was studying Moses one time. Moses told God, ‘I can’t be used,’ and He said, ‘Who do you think made your mouth?’ I just broke down in tears the day I read that, because I realized, who made Andy’s mouth? It was God. Who made the mute, the blind, the deaf? It was God. And He didn’t make a mistake when he made Andy with learning disabilities. That’s how He chose to make him. And, through his learning disabilities, I have grown, seeing God’s hand in his life.” She had a prayer request that her son would graduate from high school. She explained to her Released Time students, not only did he graduate, he graduated with honors.

Another prayer request was not answered as she wanted. “My stepfather died two years ago,” she said. “I had asked him, ‘Do you know for certain, if you die, would you go to heaven?’ And he told me it was a gamble. His time has stopped. I have a clock that doesn’t work. It has stopped. That so represents his life, because his time is up.” She tells the students in Released Time, “But your time is still ticking. Do you know for certain? It’s not a gamble. It’s not a shot in the dark. You don’t want to go to hell. You don’t want to serve Satan. You want to serve God.”

 “I have a little bit of knowledge (of teaching), but just a love for Jesus is really all that I have to bring. It’s His ministry. It’s not anything about me. It’s all about him.

          "This is non-denominational. I don’t teach denominations. I teach the Bible. The churches have really backed it, and the students love it. They absolutely love being here.”

“My life is faith, family, and Released Time. My family is precious to me, and these students are precious. I consider them my friends.”

Photograph by Karen Brewer, The Christian View magazine

This verse of scripture, designed on a chalkboard by her daughter, Kellie, is one of the Bible verses Tracey Jonakin teaches to Released Time students.

She said she asks the students in each class to write ‘Dear Mrs. Tracy letters.’ “They wrote me, and I wrote them back,” she said. “I wrote every one of them, thanking them for being in Released Time.”

Following is the letter of one student, whom she requested permission to publish: “Dear Mrs. Tracy, I love your class. It is a daily getaway from all the things that happen at school. It is just a pleasure to come here every day and worship God. I can’t explain how much this encourages me, helps me throughout my day, and I can’t think of enough words to describe how much you teach me and everyone in the class.” “What a blessing that was to read,” she said.

To a student who had asked her how her day was, she wrote, “My day was wonderful. I got to tell about 65 kids in Liberty Middle School Jesus is the only way to live. Not a bad job. Thanks for always listening. If I can help you any time, let me know. Thanks for being a part.”

Several of the letters students have written to her, she said, “are really touching.” One, she said, “basically is saying that, without Released Time, she doesn’t think she’d have a relationship with God and not know the Bible. Isn’t that sweet? They’re precious students. “

Each student keeps a journal to take home with them at the conclusion of the semester. “It will have their prayer requests,” Jonakin explained. “Each class has its own envelopes. I communicate with them about different things that are going on in their lives. At the end of the semester, we see what God has done this semester in their lives. That’s our prayer. I tell them with God all things are possible.”

Students are facing many challenges, she said, including the temptation of drugs or having parents who are divorced. “They face so much peer pressure, anxiety problems, self-mutilation problems. They’re cutting themselves. They’re screaming for help, and it’s so sad. Satan is very much at work in the lives of students. There is no doubt about that. And so, I’m just glad that Released Time is here to give them hope. Our only hope is Jesus.

“We live in this world that’s cursed, and I try to tell them you’re born into the train wreck. The train has gone off the track, and it’s smoke, and it’s destruction, and there’s nothing to do to fix this. But you can fix your sin problem. You can give your sins to Jesus and ask for forgiveness and let Him come into your heart and save you, and He gives new life, and you die to yourself and you live for him. So, that’s the hope we have. It’s the only hope all of us have, not just middle school.

“It’s a real blessing, it really is, to be able to help these precious kids. They’re family to me.” She and her assistant helped one of the students at Christmas time, she said. “”I’ve given a girl a pair of glasses one time. We try to go beyond just this classroom and reach out to them. We try to minister to them, get them involved in church, get them involved in the community, just help them in any way we can.”

Jonakin said that many of the students in Released Time are not involved in church. “The definition of ‘Are you in church’ to us is ‘Do you attend every single week?’ And the definition to these children is, ‘Is my name on a roll somewhere?’ If you ask them, ‘Do you go to church?’ they will mark yes, but the reality, I think, is no. Their parents just don’t put too much of a priority on it, I guess, and I would just be speculating on why. I would say a lot of them don’t go to church, is what it boils down to, but they think they go to church. Their knowledge of Biblical things is low; it’s lacking.

“I think a group of students has been on fire for God at Liberty Middle School, and I think that has created a desire to want to come see what this is about,” she said. “One of my students last semester told his friend about Jesus. That next semester, he was in the program, wanting to learn about Jesus, wanting to learn everything about the Bible. They see that the other students are an example to them. There are some godly students over there, being a great example to the Released Time program. There are a lot of students over there doing foolishly, too, that are in Released Time. And I’m glad they’re here, because you can know the truth, but doing the truth is totally different from knowing it, sometimes. It’s a struggle. They’re struggling to apply what they know, sometimes, because they’re kids, and they’re learning.”

Some of the students she has taught have returned to re-take the Released Time class. “I have some that return, and I have some brand new ones,” she said. “I do have some that return every year. I can see growth. Just as an example, I play a little game called, ‘How much do you know?’ And so, we play ‘How much do you know about Adam?’ And the first year I was here, there were answers like, ‘He has eyes, a nose.’ That was about it. And now, when we say, ‘How much do you know about Adam?’: ‘He had a covenant with God he broke.’ And so, I see how they’re growing. That’s my theme – growing in grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

“That’s what the Bible calls us, all of us that are saved, to do – to grow, grow in our faith, grow in our knowledge, grow in wisdom, grow in love, grow in the light. That’s what the Bible encourages us to do, and that’s what I try to teach the children. That’s what a lot of them are starting to achieve at, their spiritual growth. I’ve had 70 children ask Jesus to be their Lord and Saviour while I’ve been here in three years, and, so now, I’m starting to see a little fruit from those salvations, and they are having an influence. Mr. Floyd, who is the Assistant Principal, told me the other day, ‘You’re having an impact.’ I said, ‘I’m not having an impact, God is having an impact.’ I really do give Him all of the glory. It’s not about me. It’s all about Jesus.”

            Jonakin said that she would encourage all students to try a Released Time class. “Even if you’re a mature Christian, you can always grow. And, if you don’t know anything about the Bible, this is a fun, safe environment where you’re not looked down upon. We’re all at an equal level, and we kind of grow together. Anybody could benefit from being in Released Time. It doesn’t matter your spiritual maturity. You still could benefit from it. It’s a place where we’re growing in the Bible. It’s a place, too, where we’re developing Christian friendships. That’s important for these kids. We’re support for each other. We pray for each other. There are lots of benefits, not only the study of God’s Word, which is the main focus, but also other areas. Parents should enjoy it because I tell them to honor their parents. That should help students be better children at home, be better students at school. Parents should want their children in here from that standpoint.”

Parents sign a release form so that their children may participate. “The school cannot fund us,” Jonakin added. “We have to do it off the premises, and the school can’t support us by transportation. But the school is so supportive with a wonderful administration that encourages the program, and I’m so grateful for that.”

Jonakin or her assistant, Vonda Allen, drive a bus that transports the students from the school to Liberty First Baptist Church. “The Board of Directors is so instrumental in getting Released Time funding, and they do an excellent job behind the scenes,” Jonakin said. “They raised funds and purchased the bus we have.”

            The bus is able to transport 14 students at a time, limiting each class to 14 students at most. “Because of our bus situation, I can take only 14, but 14 is good for this room size, and to get one on one,” she said. “I do talk to them one on one, one time a year, and ask them, ‘Do you know for certain, if you die tonight, you’d go to heaven?’ And we talk about death, and I ask, ‘Have you been baptized?’ ‘Have you been rededicated?’ ‘Do you feel like the Lord is calling you into any kind of ministry?’”

            Jonakin said that Liberty First Baptist Church, which hosts the Released Time program for Liberty Middle School students, “has been phenomenal. Pastor Mark Kannarney is very much 100 percent behind Released Time. We do an open house each semester, and he comes to our parties, and he comes and speaks at the beginning of the year, too, and just encourages the kids.” She added that there is an envelope for him in the classroom, where students can write to him privately. “He’ll come over and help with the kids. I can call him, and, in a heartbeat, he’s right here and helps with anything I need. He’s just on board 100 percent,” she said. “I can’t thank the church enough for their support and encouragement. They are just a wonderful church to provide this place. I don’t share this room with anybody, and we lock the door. That’s a blessing. Not that I wouldn’t share the room. If I had to, we would work that out. But I love not sharing a room, because it’s nice to leave everything out and not have to worry about anybody moving anything.”

            The Released Time program, through donations, provides everything that the students need for the classes. They do not need to bring anything when they come. “We provide everything, pencils, pens, paper, Bibles,” said Jonakin. “I supply candy,” she said. “We do motivation like that. They don’t pay a penny to come. No student at Liberty has ever paid to be a part of the program.”

            The former Liberty Middle School students Jonakin first taught three years ago are now students at Liberty High School and, although she keeps in touch with them as, she says, “an ongoing ministry to encourage them in their faith,” the students miss the opportunity to participate in Released Time classes. “The kids beg me, ‘Please get it out here. We need Released Time. I miss Released Time.’ They want it. That would be wonderful. I would love to see that happen. It’s all about money, and that shouldn’t be a problem. And it’s about getting teachers.”

            Pickens County Christian Learning Centers is currently seeking to start Released Time in the high schools, beginning with Easley High School, as a class that would count toward credit. “It’s going to have to be a special person, I think, that fills that role,” said Jonakin. “You’ve got to know the Bible and you’ve got to have the degree. And, if you have the degree, you’re going to have to give up a lot of money. It’s going to have to be a special person, but I know God’s got that person out there.”

            Churches and individuals support Released Time through donations. “I’m so grateful we live in Pickens County and they support Released Time,” said Jonakin. “The churches have done great, supporting it. I know we need more to jump on board and help us.”

            Pickens County Christian Learning Centers accepts donations at $25 a month (or $300 a year) to sponsor a student. Released Time also holds two fundraisers. “They have fundraisers twice a year at local churches to help raise funds for the salaries of teachers, the buses, the insurance. It does cost to do this program.” She noted that the money spent is a great investment. “The time here is priceless,” she said. “This is eternity we’re talking about. Look at the impact of 70 children, or however many total, that we have gotten into the kingdom of heaven because of Released Time. Why aren’t churches pouring money into this, is what I don’t understand. Churches need to step up and take the burden off the Board and off of Brian. He should never have to worry about anything financially. And God has this. God can provide. I know He has taught Brian a lot through all of this, because, when he started, he said, there was hardly any money, and I think they are in pretty good financial shape. But there shouldn’t be any needs here. This should be very well funded, in my opinion. Brian and the Board do an excellent job. They really do. They’re here to support, to help, to encourage, and to provide for all of the financial needs of it.”

            Jonakin said that one of her favorite verses of scripture is Ephesians 3:20: To him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think. To him is glory and honor and power forever.” “I love all of the scriptures. I do. I just spend a lot of time reading God’s word and pouring into it. I love every verse.  I love Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me. That was probably the first verse I learned. And I love the verse in Psalms where it says, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing unto you, my rock and my redeemer.’ I’ve memorized Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. As a child, I was taught the scriptures, and, according to the Bible, that has given me some wisdom.

“We talk a lot about why we believe the Bible and that the Bible is true, God is true,” she said. “The word is true. The answers are in there. You just have to spend some time in it, finding God’s answers. I teach that this is not a blind faith. This is a very intelligent faith.

“We talk about intelligent design. And, in the Bible, God says the world is round. Men thought that it was flat, but if they had read the Bible, they would have known it is circular. We talk about that (in Released Time). We talk about how God shows aging earth. We talk about blood letting, that Moses said life is in the blood, and, in the 19th century, they were letting out blood and killing people. If they had read the Bible, they would have known.  Five hundred witnesses saw Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell the same story (about Jesus), and not one of them is lying. We talk about prophecy fulfilled: 3,000 prophecies, and this is just by chance? To me, the typology, like in Noah’s ark, the death, the burial, and the resurrection, it’s all Jesus. The Bible has 40 different authors. How could people make that up over so many years? It’s all about Jesus. I love the Bible. There’s nothing better.

“My job is to throw the seed. Some is going to go by the wayside, according to the Bible. Some Satan loves to snatch from you. But some will fall on good ground, and that will grow. And that’s what we’re shooting for, a lot of growth. They’re good kids. I have a bunch of students that truly love the Lord and really want to learn, and a lot of them are struggling with life. This is a place of love and encouragement. One time, one girl whose dad had died said, ‘Mrs. Tracey, this is my place of peace.’ And I love that. I love that she thought this was comforting to her.

“I just have praise for Released Time. It’s a wonderful program. It really is. I wish I had had it in school.

“This is not just a job. This is definitely a ministry. You’re not doing this for the career path. You’re doing this because you love the Lord and you’re serving Him. Hopefully, we’re making an eternal difference.”