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COMMENTARY: A new evangelical engagement with public schools

(RNS) There's a new evangelical engagement with public schools that is dedicated solely to helping kids rather than arguing over school prayer, evangelism, and other culture war flash points.

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Why would evangelical Christians want anything to do with public schools? Judging from decades of culture war rhetoric, these are bastions of secular humanism where God and his fearers are unwelcome. School prayers — not allowed. Teaching creationism — verboten. Abstinence-only sex education — few to be found. Sharing the gospel openly — forget about it.

Little wonder, then, that many evangelicals withhold their support, and kids. And through their support of conservative politicians and policies, evangelicals have been, broadly speaking, part of a political dynamic that has shrunk support, financial and otherwise, for public schools.

But there is a serious problem with this flight from public education. Evangelicals are realizing there are real human beings in those left-behind schools who are struggling to teach and learn against difficult odds, and the future well-being of those kids and our communities depends on their success. Shouldn’t Christians with hearts full of love and compassion be helping them?

Absolutely yes, argues Nicole Baker Fulgham. Formerly vice president at Teach for America, Fulgham is author of the new book “Educating All God’s Children” and heads an upstart nonprofit called The Expectations Project working to improve outcomes for students in our public education system. Fulgham and her work exemplify a new kind of evangelical engagement with public schools that is dedicated solely to helping kids rather than arguing over school prayer, evangelism, and other culture war flash points.

“There are so many places where Christians can make a positive impact without explicitly sharing the Gospel — and public schools are one of them,” Fulgham says. “Part of our work on this planet, I believe, is to bring equity and justice to broken systems.”

At the annual Q conference this spring, Christian engagement with public schools was a big topic. Among the quick-hit presentations was a talk on a church-school partnership in Portland, Ore., that many churches around the country are viewing as an inspiration and a model.

Captured in a documentary titled “Undivided,” the Portland story goes like this: As part of a day of service by the area’s evangelical churches, members of a large suburban congregation gathered at a struggling city high school to spend a day sprucing up the building and grounds.

The people from SouthLake Church were not content with one and done, however; they have “adopted” Roosevelt High School and made the relationship the central component of the church’s ongoing public engagement these past five years.

From the volunteers operating the clothes closet where kids access free outfits and toiletries, to the SouthLake staff member who works at the high school every day on the congregation’s dime, the church people have become a permanent helping presence. The church volunteers have all agreed not to evangelize and, to this point, there have been no reports of anyone breaking that pledge.

A similar ethos prevails at Kauai Christian Fellowship in Kaloa, Hawaii. Founding pastor Rick Bundschuh says the 400-member church resists suggestions to start a Christian school and instead encourages its people to enroll their kids in the public schools and get involved — “with no agenda,” Bundschuh says, “except to serve.”

These efforts are few and scattered, to be sure — although a wider movement is building in the Portland area. Yet even if there’s a nationwide boom in churches serving schools this way, evangelicals will be fighting a hard current until society becomes more supportive of the public education system. That’s why Fulgham is calling on her fellow Christians to go beyond volunteering to address the systemic injustices evident in the vast student achievement gaps between wealthy and poor zip codes.

If this kind of post-culture wars approach to social engagement becomes a major part of evangelical Christianity’s public face in the years ahead there is cause for optimism.

The coming up of a new generation of socially committed evangelicals promises new energy, heart, and skill for the fight. These are people with whom nonreligious progressives and liberal people of faith can form partnerships and coalitions for the common good.

For those embittered by the likes of Falwell and Dobson and Palin and Bachmann — the emergence of these “new evangelicals” poses a challenge to old stereotypes: These evangelicals are not trying to take over. Their critique of right-wing politicized Christianity bears much in common with the critique you’ll hear from many a non-evangelical progressive.

Despite the reflexive edginess many of the nonreligious feel when they hear that evangelicals are mobilizing in the public-education arena, this different evangelical dream — in which all kids get a shot at a good education and a promising future — is not creepy or threatening. It bears a striking resemblance, in fact, to the best features of another dream with which we’re all familiar and comfortable — the American dream.

(Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and author of the new book “The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.”)


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