By Tom Krattenmaker
They’re havens for secularism and sexual permissiveness. They indoctrinate our children against traditional American and family values. They’re places where Jesus has been run out and moral weakness let in.
Such is the environment of America’s public schools, according to the rhetoric of many in conservative Christendom. The view helps explain why the number of home-schooled children in the United States has jumped 74 percent during the past eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Not that they’re all conservative religious people, but the vast majority of the parents of home-schooled kids cite “providing religious or moral instruction” as a reason for having their children taught at home rather than a public school.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council and leading voice of the Christian right, applauded the trend in a recent message to the group’s e-mail list. “As a home-schooling parent myself, I understand the desire to give children an environment that affirms traditional values,” Perkins wrote. “The government has eliminated God from the classroom and too often replaced Him with an anti-life, anti-family curriculum.”
It is against this backdrop that something fascinating is happening with the church community here in the Portland area, something far more constructive than the bash-and-run approach typified by Perkins. Rather than fleeing from the public schools, many of the area’s evangelical Christians are running toward them — toward schools such as Roosevelt High and Harvey Scott Elementary. Not to condemn the schools, but to serve them. Not to convert the kids, but to support them.
As part of the 2009 Season of Service engineered by the Luis Palau Association, based in Beaverton, hundreds of the region’s evangelicals are digging beneath the rhetoric and finding great human need. That they’re diving in to address it in a government setting understandably raises separation of church and state concerns.
It’s raising something else, though, too: the spirits and hopes of a lot of students.
Roosevelt Principal Deborah Peterson lights up when asked about the difference the church community is making at her school. “They’ve brought incredible hope, energy and enthusiasm,” she told me when I visited the school recently.
In what organizers call one of the largest school cleanup projects ever in the city, more than 1,000 people from SouthLake Foursquare Church in West Linn flocked to Roosevelt last summer to paint, pull weeds and plant flowers and shrubs. The school district estimated the value of the work at $200,000.
This was no one-and-done gambit aimed at good publicity and pats on the back. Following through on its pledge of sustained support for Roosevelt, SouthLake has maintained a steady and visible presence throughout the school year. So much so that Kristine Sommer, the church’s director of missions and outreach, reports for work each day not at her church but to her desk in the cramped counseling center at the North Portland high school. In addition to overseeing ongoing church projects like the clothes closet — where students can pick out new hoodies and jeans they won’t be ashamed of wearing — church employee Sommer has begun serving as the volunteers coordinator for the school.
Roosevelt students’ graduation rates and family incomes tend to run low. But the statistics only hint at what many of the kids are going through in their lives.
In operating the clothes closet this school year, Sommer quickly realized she would have to expand the definition of “clothes.” The shelves now are stocked with toothbrushes, deodorant, soap and the like, which some of the students would otherwise do without. Sommer’s next ambition is a mentoring program that will match up kids with church and community members because, for many, constructive relationships with adults is another unmet need.
“For the church, love has to be a verb,” Sommer says, “and this is what it looks like.”
Roosevelt junior Kelsey Jones, like the other finalists in the school’s recent Rose Festival princess competition, worked closely with Sommer in preparing for the event. Despite getting to know Sommer, Jones told me she didn’t know the name of Sommer’s church and didn’t know much about her mentor’s beliefs, other than a commitment to “helping people.” Nor was Jones aware that it was Sommer’s congregation that had done the massive aesthetic makeover at Roosevelt last summer.
What she’s most aware of is Sommer’s ever-present smile. “She’s always cheerful,” Jones says, “full of energy and full of confidence.”
SouthLake is one of roughly 50 area churches in partnerships with public schools under the umbrella of the Season of Service. Now entering its second year, the Season of Service is a project of the Palau Association, an international ministry known for its mass evangelism festivals and, more recently, an emphasis on representing the Gospel with works as well as words. A three-way alliance among municipal government, the corporate community and the churches, the Season of Service also provides food, clothes and mentoring for homeless people, free medical and dental clinics for low-income uninsured people, and meals for needy children.
Although similar, church-based “serve the city” campaigns are beginning to take shape in a few other metropolitan areas around the country — partly though the Palau organization’s work — none has the size and scope of what’s happening here, says Kevin Palau, executive vice president of the Palau Association.
“We’re trying to live out the kingdom of God,” Palau says. “We’ve made a commitment that this wasn’t going to be a flash in the pan. This is something that’s going to be sustained.”
What’s the catch? That’s the question you might be asking now, and it would be understandable if you were. The Palau ministry and most of the participating churches are evangelical, after all, and evangelizing is a big part of what they do.
Isn’t this just a ploy to convert kids?
Talk to the church’s school volunteers and you’ll realize that they’re keenly aware of the concern and committed to playing by the rules.
Phrases like “no strings attached” and “no agenda” came up repeatedly at a recent organizing meeting of school-partnership coordinators from participating churches. These are not the evangelicals you might know from the film “Jesus Camp” or one of the televangelists’ programs. Defying the straight-laced image of theologically conservative Christians, many at the organizing meeting sported sneakers, soul patches and distressed jeans.
There are more substantive reasons to trust the Bible-believing school supporters when they insist they’re not there to proselytize. The model for living out the faith and representing the Gospel is undergoing seismic change in evangelical America, and Portland’s Christians are in the forefront. Open-eyed about the negative image the evangelical movement has developed in the age of the Christian right — and rather horrified by it — the emerging generation is determined to manifest the faith in a different way. As one participant quipped, “We’re not at the schools to float the Gospel blimp.”
Out: retreating behind the walls of evangelical subculture and railing against the things the old-guard Christian right doesn’t understand or favor, like gays, government programs and progressive politics.
In: forming relationships with the majority who are not evangelicals, listening rather than just shouting “the truth,” and representing the Gospel with idealistic action that reflects the church’s teachings (especially “love one another”). They’re doing this partly for the sake of effectiveness, but mainly because they believe the Bible tells them so.
Certainly, some vigilance is required wherever private volunteers interact with a public institution — the schools — where the population is young and vulnerable and the stakes are high. But our communities need whatever infusion of talent, energy and heart they can get in a time when money is short and needs are great. So it’s smart not to disqualify a ready source of that help just because they’re serious Christians.
Joshua DuBois, executive director of the Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the White House, deals with a similar dynamic in his work to fund and monitor the social-service work of churches and other religious organizations. Whatever their creeds, the faith-based groups must make sure their government-supported services “don’t cross the boundary between church and state,” DuBois recently said. “We understand it is a fine line. But it’s a line we’re comfortable walking.”
This area’s church-school partnerships put us on the same line, and not everyone is comfortable there. In these times, though, isn’t it a line worth walking?
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. His book on Christianity in professional sports will be published this summer. Reach him at: http://tomkrattenmaker.com