They don’t call Jesus “the Teacher” for nothing.
With those words—attributed to the great African-American teacher advocate, author, and scholar, Dr. Cain Hope Felder—the Rev. Alonzo Johnson opened his team’s “Educate a Child” presentation, one of some 60 workshops offered at the 2016 Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) gathering, held from January 27–30 in downtown Chicago.
Johnson, convener of the “Educate a Child, Transform the World” national initiative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was joined by his staff colleagues, the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, pastor and author of numerous books and articles on child advocacy, and the Rev. Ginna Bairby, managing editor of the PC(USA)’s Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.
“Educate a Child,” approved by the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA), calls on Presbyterians “to work with partners in the U.S. and worldwide to improve the quality of education for 1 million children by 2020.” The initiative has two priorities: to strengthen early childhood education and to decrease the school dropout rate.
Johnson began by inviting participants into a dialogue around major challenges children face today, notably poverty, the quality of their schools, and the often-absent commitment of their parents.
“We as God’s people—as Presbyterians—are called to do something about the problem of education today,” he said. “We seek to engage congregations to take a stand and do something for young people so that they can live lives of self-determination.”
Several attendees shared the ways in which their congregations are already working to address and strengthen early childhood education through programs such as STAIR (Start the Adventure in Reading), a volunteer-based, non-profit children’s literacy organization.
“The power of being part of an initiative is to be able to excite you, and to think of the kinds of things that can happen in our churches,” Johnson said, “especially because we hold education as a priority in our denomination. We have an opportunity to make a difference.”
Lindner, in her presentation, spoke to the advocacy component of the initiative, addressing the “why” of it in three major points.
“There are lots of reasons in our theology,” she said. “We’re the only denomination that calls our clergy ‘teaching elders.’ We’re the only one that puts them in academic robes. Another point of Reformed theology is the ‘imago dei,’ the profound belief that on the face of every child is the face of God. The preservation of that ‘imago dei’ is important.”
The Reformers were also informed by scripture, Lindner said, especially Mark 9:42, which she cited as “the only sanction on the lips of Jesus anywhere in scripture,” and which she paraphrased by saying, “I would rather see you dead…than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
Her third point was that Presbyterians practice infant baptism, a very conscious decision on the part of the Reformers. “When we baptize, we ask the congregation, ‘Do you promise to support this child,’ to which the congregation responds, ‘We do and we will.’ But they don’t! My challenge to you today is that we have to keep those promises or stop baptizing. It’s a radical thing to say, but I think that’s where we are.”
Lindner walked participants through a congregational assessment tool—an important part of the initiative’s new toolkit—that helps churches to analyze the issues within their community and inventory their own congregational capacities to assist children or youth to better fulfill their educational goals.
“Doing this kind of an assessment allows you to bring to your congregation a prophetic word—a word about what we might be called to do,” she said. “I urge you not to go to the committee or session with the plan fully developed. Say what you know. Discern together what your plan should be. It will then have better ownership.”
Lindner emphasized the importance of “not getting lost” in this matter of child advocacy. “I hope that you will take to your hearts this challenge and find a way and share it with others,” she said. “We are called by Christ to remove stumbling blocks. You’ve got to update your program if you’re going to meet the needs of children.”
Bairby concluded the Jan. 28 presentation by talking through the initiative’s website and toolkit, informing participants that a new, informal congregational network is in the process of forming, so that churches and people who are starting to do an assessment can learn from each other.
One highlight of the website is the sharing of stories from PC(USA) congregations who are already making a difference.
“There are many more congregations doing this than we know about,” Bairby said. “Tell us your story—where you have experienced God in the world of child education and advocacy.”