As Presbyterians and other Christian denominations gather in Washington, D.C. next month for Ecumenical Advocacy Days, they’ll be looking at a number of factors that inspired this year’s conference theme “Lift Every Voice!: Racism, Class and Power.” One that continues to resonate across the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) is education.
In 2014, the PMA, with General Assembly approval, launched the “Educate a Child, Transform the World” initiative aimed at alleviating poverty in the U.S. and around the world. The Rev. Alonzo Johnson, convener for the national facet of the campaign, says his goal has been to get churches interested in making the education of young people one of its top priorities.
“We don’t want participants to just hear about the initiative, but go back to their own churches and get involved in these issues. They need to empower their congregations, churches and friends to get connected,” said Johnson. “We want Presbyterians to have a sense of urgency about this because children are facing stumbling blocks to their education and well-being every day. We must be engaged in the lives young people, not just African-American but all young people from low-income households.”
The Federal government reports as many as 17.7 million children in the U.S. live below the poverty line, making children the most poverty-stricken age group in our nation. More than 6.5 million children must survive on less than half of the poverty line income. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 25 percent of poor and minority children who enter high school will not earn a diploma.
“If they fall behind, they begin to lose hope and when they drop out of school, that’s it,” said Johnson. “When students quit or are thrown out of school, we should be concerned about what happens to them. Where do they go? What are they supposed to do now? We need to be ready to engage and act.”
Johnson will be leading a workshop at Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day on April 15 entitled “Educate a Child: Disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline.” Through hands-on activities and participatory learning, participants will examine the relationship between poverty, racism, educational inadequacies and mass incarceration. Johnson hopes this will inspire churches to do more. However, he recognizes some churches may not feel they are capable of tackling such a huge issue.
“Many churches are in maintenance mode, struggling to take care of themselves including paying bills and keeping the church building together, so working with young people to improve education may not be their top priority. Many churches may not think they can afford to do this work,” said Johnson. “Resources are a challenge but there is also fear about engaging with young people or concern that they won’t be interested. Some churches don’t know how to start, where to go for help or who to talk to. It can be overwhelming.”
While the task may seem intimidating, Johnson says churches don’t have to work alone. There are many opportunities to connect with existing after-school programs or meet with local school officials to learn ways they can get involved.
“When Jesus walked this earth he didn’t work alone, but called on His disciples and gave them the authority to minister,” said Johnson. “We have the authority of Jesus Christ as well as the strength, power and love to do this kind of work.”
Leaders from Compassion, Peace and Justice as well as World Mission have reached out to churches and their partners over the past two years, sharing stories and providing tools to help.
“We are seeing more churches expressing an interest in the program. They want to know what this initiative is all about,” said Johnson. “We are lifting up the stories of churches doing great things and many congregations are looking at ways that they get involved.”
Church leaders recognize educators themselves can only do so much, having little control over such hurdles as hunger or racial inequities.
“Schools may offer very good programs, but the students’ stomachs are empty. If the students aren’t getting enough to eat, how can they concentrate?” asked Johnson. “Their basic needs must be taken care of. Young people need things that are key to survival and they need to feel safe and loved. Churches can be powerful entities in providing that.”
Johnson adds there may be no need to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to supporting educational efforts in your community. More often than not, the work is already happening, and a congregation’s role is simply to discern where and how to get involved. It may be as simple as offering their building for needed meeting space or providing a meal before or after school.
“Young people need us. As adults, we had mentors and people who cared about us growing up. Churches are still full of mentors that can help young people make the right decisions,” he said. “Our youth are facing difficult life decisions. Some are not conducive to a healthy life and many of their parents are struggling to make ends meet and can’t always provide that guidance. That’s where churches can help.”
A toolkit is available for congregations on how to minister to children through education.
Click here to learn more about Ecumenical Advocacy Weekend and how to register.