Prioritizing Presence: Why the Church Must Engage Public Schools
As missional Anglicans, we want to engage those struggling on the fringes, but we often withdraw from the place where it happens daily: our public schools. Middle school teacher the Rev. Cameron Robinson shares why we—as parishes or as individual families—must make the local schoolhouse a missional priority.
by Cameron Robinson
Every day I walk into my classroom, ready to mold the minds of 93 students, 23-26 at a time. These students are oddly similar and unique at the same time. Some of them come from wealthy homes and some come from very poor homes while others are somewhere in between. Some students have experienced homelessness and some come from homes without enough food to make it to the next day. Some can read on a 12th grade level and some on a 2nd grade level. The differences and similarities continue.
This is the public middle school.
Justice in the Void
Learn to do right. See that justice is done — help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows. (Isaiah 1:17)
Orphans and widows show up in Scripture quite often. We are reminded that these two people groups were often the most unprotected in their society. They were the ones void of a patriarch or a male figure to give them voice and protection in a male dominated society.
Our understanding of justice tends to revolve around this principle of caring for and helping those without help. God directs us to step into the place that has a void, to step into the place where situations leave people without voice. I assert that the local public school is full of those people, and I seek to challenge those of us sitting in pews who believe the local school is not our responsibility. I seek to challenge us to reignite our involvement in the local school as I see kids, daily, whose lives have the same void that Isaiah talks about and I am constantly wondering, Where is the Church?
Private school has historically been the place that Christians go to in order to “remove their children from the influence of the world.” The National Center for Education Statistics states that as of Fall 2015, “5.8 million students were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools…of those students, 36% were enrolled in Catholic Schools and 39% were enrolled in other religiously affiliated schools.” From the statistics, we cannot assume that those 39% are Christian, but we can acknowledge that the students who likely attended these schools came from households who could afford the extra expense for this education.
What About the Students?
My question is and has always been: What about the students who cannot choose? Why is it that we abdicate our responsibility for the “widows and orphans” of the community—the public school student? Let me be clear, I do not mean the students with the resources to choose private education if desired, but I mean the students who, for no reason of their own, come from a house where the lights are barely on or a place where breakfast is not served. Are we in fact acting justly when those students’ needs aren’t at the front of our radar as a parish or as individual families?
Education is the responsibility of the community and I can understand that many feel like it is their primary responsibility to educate only their child, but I argue that we are responsible for educating or attempting to educate the community, just as we are responsible for being Missionaries and Pastors to, not just our church, but to the whole community. We are to go to the highways and the hedges inviting all to the banquet (Luke 14:23)!
Are we sitting at the same table as our guests?
The Church’s Missional Priorities
It is the law that students begin receiving an education for free at the age of 4 or 5 until they are 14 in some states and 17 in others. After that point, any education they receive is optional. This is the only place that a child has to be during these most formative years. This is called compulsory education. If we actually care about the wellbeing of this child, who is essentially without power, and who will one day be the foundation of the community, why are we not doing everything we can during these most formative years to make an impact? Why is the Church not making the local schoolhouse a strong missional priority?
One of the greatest lessons the schoolhouse offers is the ability to rub elbows with people who are different than you. It allows us to engage real narratives of local people and allows us to do more than extend our arm of support overseas. The public school allows our children to gain those skills of communicating the truth of the Gospel in the hallways of their communities. Removing our children from those spaces or choosing to never engage this population actually hurts the community. It is not caring for the widow.
Imagining a Different World
What if we put aside our reasons, secularized curriculum/God out of schools, and began to imagine a world where the Church was a public witness, from child to adult? What if the church stood as a place that taught its parishioners how to do more than escape, but taught the truth of the Gospel in context? What if a whole generation knew how to separate truth from false doctrines and had the chance to engage their Pastor about the realities of culture in contrast to Kingdom culture? I’m not saying that this won’t be hard, I’m saying there are so many kids out there void of the option to leave and we shouldn’t leave them void of witness.
When the tide rises, all the boats do.
I believe wholeheartedly, that Christians who actually love Jesus and are committed to drawing nearer to him daily, could transform the educational sector. They could transform it, not into a place of proselytizing, but into a place where the love you share with the hungry kid transforms her life and begins to transform the life of her family. She knows something is special about Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith cares for me in a different way, I wonder what it is….I wonder why he is so different.
That can’t happen when we build fences and continue segregating ourselves into our communities that provide comfort.
Again, I understand the logic behind choosing alternative institutions, but who bears the burden of our brother and sister void of options? Can we share their load?
Here are 5 possible options that churches can adopt as a start to engaging the local schoolhouse:
- Every parish should adopt at least one classroom teacher and commit to praying for that teacher and that school as well as for the students who walk into those doors. Show up in August to help the teacher decorate and prep their classroom. Bring them monthly lunch and Starbucks. Buy them books that are meaningful and even pay for professional development. Commit to investing in their classroom and realize that you’re not just caring for one, but you’re caring for that classroom’s shepherd.
- Retired Educators/Educators in the pews: Get back to teaching! Take over the church’s curriculum and craft one that is tandem with the State’s Standards. Put that educator hat back on and train our children to understand the theological implications of the state’s standards. For example, 6th Grade Social Studies in South Carolina learns about all the Abrahamic Religions during the first semester. What would it look like to expand that lens beyond what the teacher can cover in a week? What is our worldview about our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters? Create the literature so that our kids can walk into class and have healthy discussions that make the teacher and students think!
- Contact the local United Way and find out what educational resources lack in your community. If you are void of a library, create one. If you are void of an Adult Education Center, partner with some other agencies and create one. If you are void of trade training opportunities, create some.
- Teach from the pulpit! Don’t be afraid to point out a conjunction in Scripture or the use of a semi-colon! We dive into theological concepts, as we should, but remember that those in the pews may not be literate.
- Have a relationship with the local school. Know the principal by name and show up to more than the football games. Pray for their families and be present at all of the initiatives. Make them believe that their mission is yours as well.
Our presence is important. We are needed to shape the world we want to see and it starts with loving those without options. They’ll show up tomorrow sometime between 7:30am and 8:00am.
The Rev. Cameron Robinson’s ministerial appointments have included Simeon Fellow, hospital chaplain, and pastor of a Reformed Episcopal Church (an ACNA founding jurisdiction). As well as working as a middle school teacher, Cameron serves as Associate Director for African American Affairs for the Anglican Multi-Ethnic Network. He and his wife Joy both have a heart for people and a passion to equip God’s children with the skills they need to succeed in the areas to which they are called. They have one beautiful daughter, Koryn, and enjoy getting away to the mountains to commune with God.