HINSHAW: Christians making difference in public schools

Faith column



This week I want to reflect on a success story between the evangelical church and the public school system in Portland, Oregon. Samuel G. Freedman of the New York Times told the story in an Aug. 10 article headlined “Help From Evangelicals (Without Evangelizing) Meets the Needs of an Oregon Public School.”

Freedman described the laudatory efforts of the evangelical SouthLake Church in the Portland suburb of Linn, Ore., to support the inner city public Roosevelt High School. The church is supplying hundreds of volunteers throughout the school year, having done so for 3-4 years now. These Christians purchase supplies, serve as volunteer tutors, act as landscapers, custodians, carpenters and general encouragers and send handwritten letters of encouragement to each 9th grader who begins school.

This partnership was fostered on the evangelical side by Kevin Palau, son of the highly respected international evangelist Luis Palau. Initiating the emphasis from the public side was Mayor Sam Adams, the first openly gay mayor of Portland.

These two “sides” overcame mutual suspicion and bias for the good of the children of Portland. Conservative Christians are traditionally wary of education in a place where witnessing to one’s faith is difficult, public prayer is banned, evolution is taught and a variety of religious worldviews is accepted. The public schools, for their part, have been wary of Christians (and sometimes any volunteers) who they suspect of using school volunteerism as a sneaky ploy for making a verbal witness to their faith or distributing doctrinal material or rejecting certain lifestyles or faith stances. Both sides often overdraw their prejudices.

All parties in Portland discovered their fears were groundless, leading the SouthLake Church to extend its witness of love and deeds to more public schools and 50 other cities have inquired of Portland and the church how they could plant this partnership.

The Pacific Northwest is far removed from Georgia in ways more significant than mileage. Evangelical Christians are in a distinct minority in that section of the country; the category “none of the above” defines most respondents’ religious identification. I suspect there are far fewer private schools in the Pacific Northwest and much greater support of the public school system. It is possible that many of the Portland volunteers already send their children to public schools.

Could the Portland experience be translated to Albany? The obstacles would be huge. Many evangelical Christians and other well-intentioned parents have abandoned the public school system altogether out of the belief that the public schools have abandoned them. Many private school families are now in their fourth generation of sending their children to the same private school, therefore building an understandable allegiance to that school. Those parents are already volunteering precious spare hours and dollars to that private school, therefore leaving scant time or money to support a needy public school.

Our neighborhoods are rarely integrated and we hardly cross paths with people of other race or class. What his happening in Portland could happen in Georgia, but if miracles can be ranked in terms of dramatic nature, such cooperation here would be surely rank near the top of the miracle list.

Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.