Lawrence, MA — Led by a group of United Methodist churches and agencies in New England, religious and community leaders joined forces with the U.S. Department of Education in what is considered an unprecedented national coalition on public school education.
Education Secretary Richard Riley met with more than a dozen clergy and religious leaders representing Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths, in a ceremonial signing last month of a partnership in support of family involvement in learning. The goal of the agreement is “to reinforce the central role of the family, to help families find the information they need and the time they need to get involved in their children’s education.”
The meeting underscored the fact that religious institutions are well positioned to play a vital role in the education of the nation’s children, but until recently have not been tapped to help rescue the nation’s public schools or shape education policy.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Church of God in Christ in the New England area, are among the 34 religious communities that have endorsed the partnership.
In his address to more than 200 church, community and education leaders, Riley noted the unique role of the nation’s religious communities in providing a sense of direction and purpose “at a time when so many young people are at risk of losing their way.”
While United Methodist Urban Services is taking the lead in mobilizing the ecumenical coalition, the partnership formed here is in response to an initiative launched a year ago when Riley appealed to families to become more involved in their children’s schools.
Involvement in the partnership is just what the Assemblies of God needed, said the Rev. Herman L. Greene, president of the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, Inc. in Cambridge, MA. As the 77-year-old organization undergoes an organizational overhaul, Greene said religious and public education will become a focal point of the church’s emphasis.
“We’re trying to form a strong educational department that will strengthen every area of life,” adds Greene. “We’ve been around for 75 years, but education has been an area that’s been neglected in our denomination. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that education plays a major role.”
The Rev. Wesley Williams, executive director of the Boston-based United Methodist Urban Ministries, said he expects to tap education leaders at some of the state’s premiere institutions including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as draw business leaders who are active members in their congregations. Individual congregations and religious agencies participating in the partnership are responsible for creating and funding their own programs. No federal funds have been allocated for the partnership, Williams said.
Beyond Politics, Religion
Education secretary Riley, an active United Methodist from South Carolina, dismissed concerns that the partnership represented a potential church-state conflict.
“I’m very careful to say that there is no connection whatsoever with church-state issues. In this country it’s important not to shed your own religious beliefs because you are in the private sector or in government,” Riley said. “We need all of you here today, people who are willing to look beyond political lines and religious lines and state lines in a common effort to lift the lives of America’s children.”
Nonetheless, some say myths and muddied lines separating church and state, continue to hamper needed solutions to the problems plaguing America’s public schools.
“Unfortunately, in recent years a myth has developed that suggests that education generally is hostile toward religion. We believe that it is time to dispel that untruth” by forging this partnership, said Brenda Dann-Messier, Riley’s regional representative in Massachusetts.
“I’ve gotten calls from educators and church leaders from all over saying, `I’ve wanted to do this — bring schools and churches together, but was afraid to bring it up'” because of the cloud of separation of church and state, said Messier.
Williams tells skeptics who broach the church-state issue that there is no proselytizing going on. “Many people right away think we are setting up Christian schools. We are just concerned about morals and we remind people that the basic rule in life is that life is sacred.” Last year, at President Clinton’s urging, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines on permitted religious expression and religious freedom in the nation’s public schools.
After spending nearly two decades as a top administrator in the U.S. Department of Education, the Rev. Russell G. Ruffino, rector of Saint Peter’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Narragansett, RI, and a participant in the partnership, feels strongly about the tradition of separation of church and state.
But, Ruffino says, “when it comes to engendering hope, I’m for partnership. It’s up to government to set policies and programs, but the religious community can inspire and encourage the government to do those things.”
While the ecumenical partnership is new, many faith groups have long been involved in specific efforts aimed at improving education and bringing families together. For example, a United Methodist Church in Cambridge, MA, which offers the children of Haitian immigrants piano lessons also offers parents instruction in English as a second language.
In more than 60 congregations and Jewish centers in Newton, MA, parents and children spend time after the school day ends and on weekends studying religious texts, learning morals and practicing their traditions, said Dr. Daniel J. Margolis, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston and an endorser of the partnership.
Riley also came armed with an election year agenda — President Clinton’s 1995 religion and education platform: “Don’t you believe that if every kid in every difficult neighborhood in America were in a religious institution on weekends — the synagogue on Saturday, a church on Sunday — don’t you really believe that the drug rate, the crime rate, the violence rate, the rate of self-destruction would go way down and the character of the country would go way up?”
There are some in Washington, Riley said, who have spent the past year “retreating” from the needs of America’s children.
“We can balance the federal budget without creating an education deficit,” Riley said. He concluded his remarks with a warning about impending federal budget cuts, labeling as “wrong-headed” efforts to slash Title I, the primary program to improve the education of poor and minority students, by $1 billion.
The government-religion partnership comes at a time when the United Methodist Church has said it is being challenged to reclaim its heritage of commitment to both public and private religious education.
Governing members of the churchwide Board of Higher Education and Ministry recently published a 51-page paper, “Education: The Gift of Hope,” which was presented to Riley by the Rev. Roger Ireson. A companion study guide to “The Gift of Hope” will also be developed for United Methodist congregations to use.
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