The Common Good

Extremes Stretch One’s Faith, Then Leave Us With Hope

“Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit, revives my soul again.”

So where does this revival come? Often when we looked at a dilapidated building in our community, the revival comes with the eyes to see the possibilities of rehabbing, of new uses. The revival comes in community, in coming together to take action. There is nothing like some music and food, too, to bind us together.

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An Advent Tune-Up for Faith

Thinking back, I haven’t always been great about getting my car “winterized.” I grew up in fairly temperate Kansas, and mostly parked in a garage at home. There didn’t seem to be too great a chance of the car’s malfunctioning on me, and I was often more interested in where the car was getting me than whether it was in prime shape. I knew the car would never be perfect, but by and large, it seemed functional.

Then I moved to Chicago, where the winters were colder, the streets harder, and a garage a rare luxury. Suddenly winterizing seemed a bit more critical.

Today I am (by virtue of my baptism and in a way specifically called for by my ordination vows) partly in the business of serving as a prophet. Oh, I don’t rate myself as too great of one, but I do think that God has made me a part of that work. I may not be all of Christ’s Body, but I’m a piece of it. So prophecy and transformation are some of my duties too. And the season of Advent has me thinking a bit about whether I do enough to “winterize” my prophecy.
 

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Letters from a School Near MLK Street

In my lifetime I’ve driven on three roadways named after Martin Luther King, Jr. One was a street, another a boulevard, and the third a highway. And whether by cosmic irony or human design, each of these roadways passes through communities of significant poverty and color, namely black. Around these roadways are boarded up storefronts, crack and heroin dens (think The Wire), condemned row houses, and inevitably, always – public schools.

From 2001 to 2006 I left the safety of the pulpit to teach in the schools of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., pursuing a call to care for the proverbial least of these (it’s always pained me to think how I might feel to be called this, as in hey, you least of these, can I help you with anything? – but that’s a reflection for another time). I left also the safety of a suburban megachurch, where all you needed to do to understand the socioeconomic standing of its members was to walk through the parking lot, and the familiar cultural context of my Korean-American upbringing.

This article, however, is not about me. It’s about beautiful, creative, energetic, and intelligent children — kids who, as the least of these, are too often treated as such. There is no limit to blame: from the mother who comes to school drunk, a prostitute, publically shaming her son (who loves her nonetheless and gets beaten by the other boys defending her honor); to the worn-out teacher who drags a “difficult” child into the bathroom, bruising her arms and threatening her with verbal vitriol and rage; to the administration that promotes student after student, knowing they are years behind, but too old to remain; to the system that maintains, protects, and worships a biblical truism, that for to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mt.25:29).

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Education as an Exercise in Dominion

I remember the first time I ever got straight A’s. It was also the last time.

I was in Mrs. Becker’s 4th grade class at John Story Jenks School in Philadelphia. I was always good at reading, I LOVED science projects, and art class was fun — but math? Ugh. Math was my nemesis. In 4thgrade the times tables felt as insurmountable as that dang rope everybody else could whiz up and down in gym class. I just couldn’t figure it out. In fact, to this day, I haven’t figured the rope.

So, my father became my times tables drill sergeant and resorted to straight memorization tactics, making me write each one 10 times. Then he sat across from me at the dining room table and drilled me on the times tables until I said them in my sleep. It was brutal … and oddly, one of the fondest memories of my elementary school years. Not only did I master multiplication, but I also learned something much more important. When my report card came back that quarter with straight A’s, I learned that I could learn!

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The Church's Call in Educating Their Community's Children

I love October. As a teacher, it was that time of year where rhythms were becoming established and the seeds of learning were beginning to sprout. In ministry, it is the time where I find myself riding the waves of my student’s school schedules in an effort to connect and converse. In either case, education, shapes not on the schedule of my life but the purpose.

As I breathe in the crisp autumn breeze, it reminds me to consider the larger partnership between the educators and the church. When we, as ministers and church leaders, consider what role education plays in the life of the church, we have to consider the active part of the church in the education of not only the church community, but its larger context.

Education, in the public context, is a constant topic of political struggle and strife. Education, in the ecclesial context, in its best is in-depth Bible study and at its worst is education by osmosis and observation. What is the call or consideration of the church to the topic of education? What role does the church have in the education of the community?

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How Can People of Faith Help Students Achieve Their Potential?

Most Americans share a common understanding that many public schools in poor neighborhoods aren’t great. It’s rare that I engage anyone who doesn’t know this basic fact on some level. But what’s less common is a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem. And sadly, even less common than that? Finding individuals who express a deep conviction that educational inequity can be eliminated. Faith communities are poised to add our voices to this much-needed conversation.

Fifteen million children live in poverty in the United States. Given poverty’s impact, many of these children already face additional challenges in their lives. For many young people, education can be “the great equalizer.” A high quality school can provide students with the necessary foundation to go to college and have a variety of opportunities opened to them. Poverty can become a thing of the past. But students growing up in poverty are more likely to attend low-performing public schools. In fact, only 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school. Only 9 percent receive college diplomas. And, not surprisingly, given our nation’s historical intersection of racial injustice and poverty, African American, Latino, and Native American students experience some of the nation’s biggest educational inequities.

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Church Partnerships Working to Stop School-to-Prison Pipeline

Over the last few years we have heard much about the school to prison pipeline. According to the ACLU, it is:

 a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.

The Children’s Defense Fund argues that because of a lack of early childhood education and healthy beginnings, this epidemic begins before a child is old enough to enroll in school, defining the problem as the Cradle to Prison pipeline. Organizations such as the Advancement Project, the Legal Defense Fund, and many others too have defined the school-to-prison pipeline as just another level to the mass incarceration epidemic and one of the most disturbing injustices we face today.

We know that the pipeline is undergirded by Zero Tolerance policies, mass expulsions, unprecedented school arrests, inadequate school funding, and myriad other unjust policies that either criminalize our children or rob them of the resources they need to be successful. We also know that high-school dropout is certainly a station on the pipeline. In many urban centers the dropout rate hovers around 50 percent, and some data suggests 7,000 students drop out of school every day. What happens to kids that drop out of school?  Where do kids who are expelled end up? 

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How Long, O Lord?

I can still see in my mind’s eye the vibrantly colored wraps draping the hundreds of displaced women I met at Joborona Camp in Northern Sudan. The stories they told, of blazing huts in Southern Sudan and their men burning alive inside; of their boys forced to fight and kill at ages as young as six or seven; and of their girls taken and forced into sexual slavery seemed impossible to be true. Yet I heard them again and again.

And if these stories weren’t horrific enough, it was the stories the women chose not to share that haunt me the most. Their empty eyes and void expressions told me all I needed to know.

I know empty eyes. I have gazed into them in Bosnia and Croatia. I remember Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. I have witnessed them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — where it is believed that one million girls and women have stories to tell of the gender-based violence they have endured. I have been confronted by the eyes of our sisters from Darfur, who risk their dignity, their bodies, and in some cases their very lives by leaving their refugee camps to collect firewood for their small cooking stoves (those who are lucky enough to have one). It is in the bush, often, that they are victims of sexual and gender-based violence. These are the countless women who risk being raped so their children can eat.

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Combating a Culture of Exploitation

Eight years ago I left my dorm room, humming the hook to “Till I Collapse” on my walk to the bathroom. When I returned a new song was playing on my laptop. Ludacris’ “P-Poppin’” pierced through the thin walls and echoed down the hallway. I bobbed my head along and then sat down to finish my homework. I looked at the screen, and I thought I saw my sister.

One of the women on the screen in the strip club swinging around a pole trying to seduce Ludacris looked like Jennifer – my older sister.

And something began to shift.

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Shalom and Gender Justice

Two things are clear in both creation stories: 1) both men and women are created to exercise equal dominion, and 2) according to Genesis 1:31, this relationship between men and women was “very good.” This is what right relationship between men and women looks like. It is only after the fall of humanity — when we decided not to trust God’s ways, when we decided to grab at our own way to peace and gratification — that women were subjected to men. And I see nothing in the text that says this is the way God wanted it. Rather, I see this is the natural result of choosing to exercise a human kind of dominion rather than one that reflects the image of God. Humanity grabs at its own peace at the expense of the peace of all.

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