Urban Public Schools and the Kingdom of God (Part 1)
For the past ten years, I have ministered in an urban environment, and a big part of that has been getting to know and ministering to urban public schools. Our church has served our neighborhood schools in various ways: helping with school supplies, feeding teachers, hosting events, mentoring and tutoring students. For the past five years, my children have attended an urban public school, and my wife and I, like other parents, have been engaged in their education by serving the school in various ways. I say all of this to provide context. Urban public schools have been a part of my life for the past ten years. These two posts offer some reflections on urban education and the responsibility of the people of God. I have heard it said that the church has two main responsibilities to children. First, we are to pass on to our children the faith in Christ we profess. Second, we are to care and provide for the children in the world who are vulnerable. Vulnerability takes many forms: children without stable parents or grandparents in their life, children reared in violent or addictive situations, or children growing up in impoverished homes. All of these scenarios can be seen in urban public schools.
Within a mile of our church building, there are three school campuses not currently meeting educational standards set by the state. While there are many factors that can contribute to a school failing the grade, experienced educators will tell you that the biggest factor is not a deficient curriculum, ineffective teachers, or even disorganized administration; rather, it is the fact that the majority of these students come from vulnerable backgrounds of poverty.
Failing schools often find themselves in a vicious cycle. Because of the impoverished student body, they don’t meet the standard. Because they don’t meet the standard, middle-class and more stable families send their kids elsewhere. The student body becomes more impoverished. The school continues to not meet standards. Good teachers get tired from the pressure and worn out from the behavior problems and leave. Administrators get reassigned for low performance. The student body becomes further impoverished; the school continues to not meet standards.
The ones caught in the middle are the children. Through no fault of their own, they find themselves in a difficult school situation. They struggle to learn, they become frustrated, their home life gets in the way, and before they realize it, they are behind educationally and probably will struggle the rest of their lives because of it. At the very same time, across town or in the next suburb over, children have a much better opportunity to succeed educationally.
The question for the church is, what is our response? Should we even care? Does the gospel have anything to say about the vulnerable children in urban schools?
Jesus tells the Pharisees that the weightier matters of the law are justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). Two of those matters---justice and mercy---I believe speak mightily to this situation. First, justice is the idea of treating people fairly. The prophets spoke out against God’s people because of injustices present in their society. Primarily, the orphan, widow, and foreigner were often taken advantage of as the wealthy protected their own interests. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah became advocates speaking on behalf of the poor, calling for repentance and justice to be done.
Today, the church finds itself in a similar situation. Children in urban public schools often have no advocate: no one to speak on their behalf. Teachers are too busy dealing with the day-to-day demands. Administrators fight for them but are often overruled. Parents are too disengaged. Because of this, resources get allocated elsewhere. Attention is placed on other schools who have many advocates. The result can be an unjust system where children attend a school that is under-resourced and under-supported. Wealthier families don’t experience this dilemma because they have the means and access to move their children to another school. Poorer families often can’t. The church has a responsibility to care for the children caught in this unfair system: to be their advocate and seek to bring about justice.
Second, mercy is the feeling of compassion that moves one to act. It is the feeling that the Samaritan experienced when he saw the man beaten on the road. He did not just see him, but he acted. That’s what mercy does; it moves you to act. The reality is that many children in urban areas are on the side of the road, struggling in a complex system of poverty, addiction, and prejudice. Despite educators’ abilities to provide a just educational system, the segregation in neighborhoods based on race and income perpetuate the same segregation in schools where there are rich and poor, achieving and failing. The people of God are called to see this and to act. We are called to stop and help the vulnerable children among us because the love of God in us. John said, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17). Maybe this could be reworded, “If anyone has a college degree and sees a child struggling to read but has no concern for them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
Several years ago, a vice principal of a struggling middle school called me to ask if their school could use our building as an evacuation site. I said, “Of course. But first, I want a tour of your school because we want to be a blessing to your school and this neighborhood.” We set up a time and I went over and he started the tour. He took me from class to class. Each time, he would interrupt the class and say, “Class, this is Mr. Cloer, a local minister, and you need to know him. He is going to be around here doing a lot of stuff.” I remember thinking, “Hang on, I just wanted a tour; I wasn’t signing up to volunteer.” But then I realized the need. This was a school of children drowning in behavior struggles, insufficient resources, and high staff turnover. They wanted any attention they could receive---even if it was a half-interested minister.
Are we willing to be pay attention to the vulnerable children around us in the public schools that often we don’t want to frequent? Mercy and justice demand, “Yes!”