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.
Once the church recognizes her responsibility to offer justice and mercy to vulnerable children in urban schools, there are many ways this can be put into practice. Below I outline a few steps Christians and churches can take in helping the children within urban schools.
The first step is to get to know the public schools in your neighborhood. When our first child was getting close to school age, we decided to tour all the available school options. The principal at our neighborhood urban school generously gave an hour of his time to show us around the school and answer all the questions about the school. He spoke honestly about the challenges and successes of the school. We found out later, we were the first family to whom he had even given a tour of his school. He said that all other middle-class families walked into the school one time to get their transfer papers signed, and that was it. For many Christians, the first step is getting to know the neighborhood schools. Schedule a tour. Church leaders should interview principals and vice principals to understand the issues that the school deals with and offer to pray for them that God will be with you (most of them love that!).
A second step is to find small ways to bless a school. Urban schools are so busy dealing with parent issues, state requirements, or behavior problems, they don’t have time to think about the extra, community-building aspects of education. Providing a meal for the teachers, inviting parents to get school supplies at your church, serving concessions at an event, or giving coats during the winter are all very simple things. But they show that you care about the school and the children. Christians have to take initiative in these efforts as school leaders are often too busy to take inventory of what needs they have. Yet, when churches offer acts of mercy such as these, they are so appreciated. One neighborhood school gave us a plaque after we fed their teachers and provided school supplies. Very small acts, but the school was so appreciative!
A third step is to commit to being present at the school on a regular basis. This is a greater commitment but more rewarding. This involves committing to invest in the lives of children. Several faith-based programs are available for churches to utilize for this purpose. Kids Hope, Academy 4, Teen Lifeline, and Read 2 Win are great examples of local programs that help facilitate church members being with children on a regular basis to offer mentoring and support. This becomes a wonderful outlet to demonstrate love to vulnerable children while also promoting justice through supportive education.
Finally, a fourth step is to have a family or two intentionally move into the neighborhood and place their children at the struggling school. When you have skin in the game, it raises the stakes. When the situation is not about “those kids” but “my kids”, and it is “our school” rather than “that school”, you become more passionate about the situation. This is very difficult and certainly not a decision to make lightly, and it should be wrestled with on a yearly basis. But for the church to truly offer redemption and justice for vulnerable urban children, someone has to go. Just like we have foreign missionaries, we need urban missionaries who are willing to be present incarnationally in the urban environment.
Regardless of how deeply churches get engaged in urban schools, the need is still pressing and Christians have a responsibility to the vulnerable children among us. A few years ago, I was sitting in the office of a middle school principal, brainstorming how our church could support their students. She said, “You guys at Churches of Christ know how to do VBS and teach the Bible. That is what our students need. Could y’all do a VBS here?” I could not believe my ears. She shared that the problem with her students was not just academic, it was social, emotional, and, yes, spiritual. She recognized that if these other issues were not addressed, her educators could never address the academic ones. So we offered a special camp that taught Bible-based character lessons for her students. Urban schools are looking for help. Will we answer the call by offering justice and mercy to the vulnerable children among us?