I once thought that you couldn’t find God in public school. But I found him—or he found me—when we put our children in it.
I grew up in a state with a very well developed segregation academy system and with parents who were into dominionist theology. Home school kept us protected from the evils of the world (theoretically), and made sure we developed critical thinking skills to protect us from the machinations of the intellectual world we’d experience in college. According to my family and our subset of the evangelical culture, we needed to be isolated and smart.
In high school, my family attended a church that focused on ministering to the neighborhood around it; among other ministries, there was a tutoring ministry for the neighborhood kids, most of whom went to the public school just down the street from us. By college, I was in a campus ministry that emphasized being present in your community, and engaging your neighbors--which for me at the time meant mostly hanging out with the English department. By the time our oldest kid was heading towards preK, I was intrigued by the story of a respected acquaintance who had put her kids into a “failing urban school” and had a positive experience, including getting to minister to many refugee children.
And so when it was time to send our oldest child to school, to choose our neighborhood public school was completely natural, especially to my public school husband, but also profoundly strange.
Our neighborhood was integrated but mostly black, working poor or poorer. The test scores for our schools were abysmal. And so I went in all of my white middle-class evangelical-but-not-that-kind pride. I was going to be the best school-mom ever, and the school was going to know Jesus better because our family chose it over the Christian schools around us and home school at which, let’s be honest, I would be terrible. And maybe I’d do extra work with my kid at home.
From Savior to Neighbor
My hubris died a quick death. I discovered I was pregnant with our fourth child a few weeks before pre-K started, and instead of having the energy to serve the school, I stayed on the couch and thanked the school every day for carrying some of the parenting burden. A year into our education process, when our oldest was in kindergarten, our school became a “Free lunch free breakfast” school, and I had to thank them for feeding her too. During the Black History Month celebration at our school, the children sang gospel songs, and I wondered how many of the staff member’s Christianity I didn’t count because it wasn’t the same denomination or require the same clergy education as mine did. Or how many families’ faith I’d overlooked because they didn’t look like me.
It turned out when they sang “This Little Light of Mine,” God shown in the room, and the school didn’t need me nearly as much as I needed them.
Walking the Holy Halls
Then, right before Christmas, we moved to a city with a robust charter school program. We were too tired to weigh everything or find the “perfect” school—we again chose our neighborhood public school . . . three minutes away. We were told “nobody goes to public school” and I wondered if all those kids there were ghosts, or wraiths, or what. Did the staff and faculty there knew they were teaching shadows? As it turned out, everybody was real.
We were once again in a district with free lunch/free breakfast and in a neighborhood with 40% of the residents below the poverty line. As I casually dropped in conversation, “my husband’s a preacher” with our teachers, if they didn’t stiffen I would throw in, “I’m praying for y’all” and they would answer, “please do.” God is at our school right now, his Holy Spirit living in the hearts of teachers there. I can’t speak for all of them, of course, but I’ve seen how those Christian teachers, upheld by the Holy Spirit, sustain the school in all its stresses in multiple ways.
Our school is doing the things that God says he does in Psalm 146. Besides trying to teach kids—most of whom have lives affected by the toxic stress of poverty and racism—our school is literally feeding the hungry, clothing the (required uniform) naked, watching over the sojourners—both the kids in more transient families and families from all over the world, and trying to reverse the oppression our families have experienced as poor people, mostly of color. God is in the building at our public school and he is in the work of our public school.
I could pay money for my kids to go to a school that would teach them the catechism, but I can’t help but think they may learn more about God at our urban public school receiving common grace right there along with their classmates.
Exchanging Radical Life for Real Life
Going to a school that is based in a geographic area means that our neighbors’ concerns are our concerns. We are our neighbors.
The school has became my touchstone. Now, when good things happen for our neighborhood school, I am not simply dropping in carrying a layer cake with mousse filling and kleenex and then going back to my regular life in the suburbs. When good things in the neighborhood are good for me and good for my kids I start to understand more and more God’s plan for the siblinghood, not just of believers, but of all the people made in his image. Staying at our neighborhood school transforms the way I, a white lady with a Masters degree and a Costco membership, view the needs of our neighborhood. It doesn’t feel radical anymore, it’s just life.
Attending our neighborhood school has stripped from my heart the illusion that we can be insulated from the effects of sin, both individual and structural. We are all in this struggle together, whether we choose to act like it or not, no matter how our struggle manifests. Being at our school has shown me all the ways the students and families’ worth is acknowledged, but also the way, because of low test scores, poverty, and racism, the school itself is often viewed as without worth. My heart is opened up more and more to the care God has shown to all the world—a God who does not wish for anyone to perish, who sends rain on the just and the unjust—and to the connections I share with my neighbors. It’s not rocket science, it’s the kingdom of God. We are connected to our neighbors, whether in the deeper ways of spiritual siblinghood or in the regular way of image bearers. I have found God as my father in a deeper way at our public school.
God is working with or without me.
It’s not always great at our school. Before we moved, I saw the news about a tragic domestic violence murder suicide in front of the kids of the family. That day, my child came home with artwork and material asking about safety in the home and I realized the children in that family went to our school. There are dysfunctions in families, dysfunction in administration, the principal sends in work orders to get the air conditioning sorted out and nothing happens—it is often a mess. But even in the moments that chill my heart, I am reminded that God can produce shalom. So I walk around the school and pray the psalms back to him. “Jesus, this is your school—bring your peace to it, bring wholeness to this school.” And in all the human and systemic brokenness and inadequacies, I find God again, the one who can hold it all together, who cares for every student and every teacher, for the lunch ladies who joke with my four year old, the principal, the secretary—everybody.
God put everyone into that school from the neighborhood. He knows each one. I can bring cakes for the teachers and supplies for the students, and ask why our school isn’t getting its work orders filled, but he was there before me, and he’ll be there when my 4 year old goes to sixth grade and we’re gone. They are his people, whether they are bought by the blood saints, or members of the groups we know from scripture he cares for—little ones, the oppressed, sojourners, and he is there, Emmanuel, with them.