A senior hopeful for his first teaching position, John Booy wrote a personal statement for his interview with a principal in the Grand Rapids Public School system and showed a draft to his Calvin education department adviser.
One line stood out: “While in college, Jesus changed my life.” The adviser wondered if the public school administrator would worry about Booy’s overt Christian witness.
“I left the line in,” said Booy, “because my encounter with Christ was so central to why I wanted to teach and teach in a city school.”
The first question the principal of Beckwith Elementary School asked Booy was about that statement—and Booy got the job. He taught in the fifth and sixth grades for 27 years. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
After teaching at Beckwith for a few years and living in intentional Christian community with a number of other Calvin graduates in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood of Grand Rapids, he and the members of the community wanted to make a larger impact on the lives of the children and families they were getting to know.
“We lived in the neighborhood while we were students and decided to stay there after graduation, buying houses as we were able. There were male and female houses on various streets—eight houses in all—and we tried to reach out to our neighbors with impromptu outdoor concerts, meals in our homes and a Tuesday night kids program,” he said.
Eventually, there was some discouragement as the alums—many of them teachers—noted that the children of the neighborhood were often two or three grades behind educationally.
“Reverend Pontier of Grandville Avenue Christian Reformed Church heard some of us talking about this issue and said, ‘Have you ever thought of starting a school?’ It struck a chord. It was God’s timing,” said Booy.
Booy and two other Calvin graduates, Nellene Duimstra and Mark Van Zanten, decided to pray about the challenge and follow God’s leading. Duimstra and Van Zanten quit their teaching jobs to work at the new school for free; Booy would keep his job at Beckwith but handle the administrative details and fund-raising.
In 1981, the three opened a school in the basement of Grandville Avenue Christian Reformed Church—under a one-year reprieve from the city’s fire marshal—with the vision to offer a Christ-centered education to a diverse population. They welcomed 12 students in September, which grew to 19 by the end of the year.
The next summer, with only a few thousand dollars in hand, the three alums bid on the former Southwest Christian school building, then owned by the Godfrey-Lee Public School district. They got the school, provided they could deliver a $40,000 down payment at the end of August. After a Saturday morning breakfast with a small group of local businessmen, they had more than they needed and Potter’s House Christian School was born.
“That was our clear answer, a defining miracle,” said Booy. “We knew that money would never stand in the way of this vision. God would always not only meet our needs, but provide for more beyond that.”
Today, Potter’s House has 570 students from pre-kindergarten through high school in two buildings and has a waiting list of 200 students. Only 20 percent of the school’s budget comes from tuition, since ability to pay is not a factor in accepting a student. Last year the school received $2.7 million in scholarship assistance.
Booy no longer teaches at Beckwith and is the superintendent of the school. Van Zanten still teaches, now in the fifth grade (and yes, he actually gets paid). Duimstra taught until she passed away of cancer in 1995.
The entire staff starts every school day in prayer, before students arrive. Then, Booy stands at the entrance to Potter’s House and shakes every student’s hand and welcomes them to school by name.
“John dreamed that students from every neighborhood in Grand Rapids and of any ethnicity could have access to the best education the city had to offer,” wrote Mark Ponstine, a Calvin graduate and the elementary school principal at Potter’s House. “And now, he stands daily at the door of the school to welcome them. They come from every neighborhood in the city and he knows the names of all 500 of them.”
Booy has become a national spokesperson on urban education, both in Christian circles and in public forums. The experience of Potter’s House has inspired the start of numerous other urban schools across the country.
Booy’s career close to home also became global. Never married, he always pictured himself as an adoptive father.
“When we were living in community, being a single parent was obviously something I couldn’t do during those years,” he said. “And when I first tried to adopt, with my heart set on a son from India, there were barriers to single men adopting from that country.”
The call to adopt remained in his heart for 20 years, until the obstacles fell away. He is the father of Seth (now 24) and Joshua (now 15). In addition, his house is the current home of four other young men and boys—forming a cavalcade of cultures.
God didn’t lead him very far from his childhood home of Grandville, but in many ways his daily life is worlds away from the experiences of his younger days. One can serve around the corner from home and still evidence a life radically changed by Christ.
“When I was younger I felt I was a good Christian boy,” he said, “but I wasn’t invested in faith. I just wanted to be well-thought-of. Through friends and professors at Calvin I was challenged to see that my faith demands my entire life. If this gospel is true, your life should reflect that truth.
“There came a time I said to Jesus, ‘Do with my life what you will,’ and he clearly answered that prayer.”