Written by Don Byrd
In this weekend’s NYTimes, religion reporter Samuel Freedman profiles a unique partnership in Portland, Oregon between a suburban evangelical church and a public school in a low-income neighborhood. I love this story because it demonstrates what appears to be the successful navigation of tricky church-state concerns. When a church congregation wants to provide service in the community as part of its religious mission, and sees great need within public institutions like school systems, how should they be Christian servants without crossing important church-state safeguards?
That was apparently the concern, too, of Roosevelt High School principal Charlene Williams, and understandably so. Many church-state disputes in the public school arena emerge from adversarial relationships between school officials and religious members of the community, who see the public school as a place of great spiritual needs. When they try to extend the message of Christ to students and their families by advertising church programs, or encourage more religious activity on school campuses, the resistance they receive in the name of church-state separation often causes friction.
According to the NYTimes report, members of SouthLake Church have found ways to serve and partner without the friction.
On a Saturday morning last month, when the latest wave of Christian volunteers descended upon Roosevelt, a public school serving a mostly low-income, nonwhite student body, Ms. Williams greeted many with hugs. They had come by the hundreds for an annual Day of Service — weeding, planting, varnishing, washing, even nailing together picnic tables.
In all the years the program has operated, Ms. Williams had not heard a single complaint that the evangelicals were evangelizing. After church volunteers wrote personal welcome notes to every incoming ninth grader, SouthLake’s pastor, the Rev. Kip Jacob, read through them all, making sure nobody had signed off with “Praise the Lord” or “God bless.”
The piece explains the history of the partnership, and the attitude of the volunteers effort: serving a child in a school is not the venue for seeking new members. It is a time to serve.