LAST FALL, I WALKED INTO Room 154 at my son’s public elementary school in Great Falls, Va., for the inaugural meeting of a new after-school club. The club’s lead organizer, a parent at the school, eyed me as she stacked Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies snacks and asked about my son, a fifth-grader at the school: “Is Shibli here?”
“No,” I responded, quietly taking my seat. I’d come out of curiosity. Our school administrators had emailed parents a flyer advertising a free, exciting, fun-filled hour of “dynamic Bible lessons,” “creative learning activities,” and “inspiring missionary stories,” with a pledge to teach our children “respect for authority,” “moral values,” and “character qualities.” Would this club be a good experience for my fifth grader?
At 3:17 p.m., three minutes before the dismissal bell, the mother-volunteer said: “Asra, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. This is a kid’s club, and you don’t have a kid [here].” My curiosity turned to suspicion. Instead of leaving, I called the school district’s public affairs office who confirmed that the club, held on public school grounds, was in fact open to anyone, with or without a child.
The mother ran out of the room and returned with the school principal. He bee-lined to me, yelling: “Right now, you are disturbing the children.” I looked around. The children were happily munching on their Cheddar Bunnies. He moved the club to the gym. When I followed, he blocked my way.
This was my introduction to the Good News Club, a private Christian organization founded in the 1920s for children age 6 to 12, run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship.
Since the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club vs. Milford (NY) Central School, the number of Good News Clubs in the U.S. has increased from 1,155 clubs with about 17,000 children enrolled to 4,225 clubs in 2014, reaching about 174,000 children—most of them meeting in public schools. Unfortunately, these “good news” clubs are bad news for kids because they employ a shame-based pedagogy that, some report, may become emotionally abusive.
In Great Falls, I found kindred spirits in an interfaith group of parents who were equally distressed by the Good News Club. Mostly mothers, our core group included one who grew up Lutheran and Greek Orthodox, one raised Southern Baptist and married to a Jewish man, and another who was Jewish married to a Christian man. We learned that one of our group, a Jewish mother of two children, has a heartbreaking two-page list of family members who were killed during the Holocaust. We bonded over daily challenges such as health issues, aging parents, and our children’s test-taking. Jokingly, we called ourselves the real good news club of Great Falls.
In the days after the start of the club at our school, a second-grade attendee told classmates they were destined for “the underworld” because they didn’t attend the Good News Club. She led her classmates in an arts and crafts activity making wooden crosses “to protect them.” Later, at the bus stop, an adult supporter of the Good News Club told one of our interfaith group mothers, a Lutheran, “You’re going to hell.” While the Good News Club flyer advertises that the club is open to children “regardless of religious background,” a lesson plan instructs teachers to tell the “unsaved” child “you are not God’s child.”
In the second week of the club’s meeting at our school, the club met behind a locked door, in violation of school policy. When a parent tried to enter, the parent-volunteer and then the school principal demanded the parent sign a form agreeing not to be a disturbance. The school district could provide no other example of a meeting at a school where a parent was required to sign such a document.
Our group of mothers protested. Once we were granted access, our interfaith group sent parent-observers to the club meetings and began learning more about Good News Clubs and the Child Evangelism Fellowship.
THE 2001 SUPREME Court case overturned a lower court ruling that had sided with the Milford, N.Y. school in prohibiting the club from meeting on public school grounds. The school denied the club’s request because, it said, the Good News Club’s proposed use constituted religious worship, which was prohibited in public schools by the community use policy. The Good News Club sued for violation of freedom of speech—and, ultimately, won. The Supreme Court decided, “What matters for Free Speech Clause purposes is that there is no logical difference in kind between the invocation of Christianity by the club and the invocation of teamwork, loyalty, or patriotism by other associations to provide a foundation for their lessons.” But the 6-to-3 decision was highly contentious.
Greg Anderson, a firefighter in Shoreline, Wash., told me about how he is raising the alarm with his school board because of Good News Club literature that says teachers who teach evolution are “fools.” He fought the Good News Club in the 1990s, when it came to his daughter’s elementary school, by insisting students had to be dismissed to go home first before they could come back for the Good News Club. “It’s not your grandma’s Bible studies,” said Anderson. “They like to sneak in, under the radar.”
“Good News Club engages in shame-based emotional abuse,” said Eric Cernyar, an attorney in Cripple Creek, Colo., who used to argue on behalf of the Good News Club in court cases, before he had a change of heart. As a child growing up in Texas, he attended Good News Club meetings. Five years ago, he and his wife adopted a son, and Cernyar went through soul-searching. “No adult stood up for me,” he said, to protect him from his childhood indoctrination. “I wanted to stand up for children.”
Katherine Stewart, a journalist who spent two years investigating the group for a book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Assault on America’s Children, said the group “feeds faith-based bullying.” She began her investigation after a Good News Club came to her daughter’s Santa Barbara, Calif., elementary school.
“The Good News Club itself, for example, presents itself to parents and administrators as an outside group. But it creates the false but unavoidable (and, as far as I can tell, intentional) impression in young school children that its form of religion is officially endorsed by the school,” said Stewart in an interview in Patheos. “It describes itself with nonthreatening labels such as ‘nondenominational’ and ‘interdenominational,’ which makes people think it’s broadly Christian, when in fact it’s highly sectarian.”
At that first club meeting at Great Falls Elementary, with the principal blocking me, it wasn’t a district superintendent who paved the way for me to enter; instead it was Wayne Rautio, the white-haired executive director of the Child Evangelism Fellowship in Northern Virginia, who finally gave me permission. Only then did the principal step aside. The school district said the principal acted “appropriately.” But, indeed, the club uses the threat of litigation against schools to intimidate principals, school boards, school districts, and PTAs.
As we learned more about Good News Clubs, we were also witnessing club meetings at Great Falls Elementary. One week the children were read the story of a missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, kidnapped in the Philippines by “terrorists,” the Abu Sayyaf Islamic separatist group. The children were led in walking in place “as if they are hungry and tired and have sore feet,” as if they were kidnap victims. Another week, volunteers read the story of Lottie Moon, a Baptist missionary to China, and chronicled attacks against her by the Chinese people. The story prompted one child to ask, “Why do the Chinese hate us?”
Moises Esteves, vice president of USA Ministries at Child Evangelism Fellowship’s headquarters in Warrenton, Mo., declined comment on the activities at my son’s school, saying that state and regional chapters have “a great deal of independence and discretion about how they go about their work.” Instructors “attempt to teach the Bible literally,” he said. Many in the Fellowship do not believe that Catholics and other Protestants are Christian; Esteves said that’s not the Fellowship’s official policy.
THE CHILD EVANGELISM Fellowship had a fundraiser this spring to double its number of northern Virginia schools with clubs, from about 24 to 48. One of the key presenters was Mat Staver, an attorney at Liberty Counsel, which sues school districts on behalf of the Child Evangelism Fellowship. Liberty Counsel is a religious nonprofit connected with Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
The Good News Club is considered a leader of the “child evangelism movement,” targeting children in a “4/14 window,” with the ages of 4 to 14 considered the best to target. The fellowship claims operations in 188 countries.
“This is colonial evangelism,” said Randy Woodley, a Keetoowah Cherokee and professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, who converted to Christianity as a child. “If the church is the one who holds the power over heaven and hell, that is an awfully powerful position to be in. That’s the basis on which America began genocide,” he said. “That type of evangelism comes from an imperial strain of control. It’s sad. So many good people think they are doing good.”
In his work, Woodley said, he teaches young adults who have to go through a form of “deprogramming” from the shame- and fear-based teachings they learned at the hands of well-meaning Christians. “I see them cry and deprogram,” he said. “I’d call it manipulative, but I think that the people doing this think they are doing good things for the children.”
Brian McLaren, an evangelical preacher and the author of A New Kind of Christian, says the Good News Club is particularly “dangerous” because of its “innocent” pretense. “They are known as little old ladies who go create churches,” McLaren said. “In their minds, they are doing nothing but standing up for morality. They never thought of how these Bible stories have been used to oppress people. When somebody criticizes them, their first thought is that they are suffering for God. The fact that they have innocent motives actually makes them more dangerous. The fact that they are being criticized is almost beyond their comprehension.”
“The irony,” McLaren added, “is that tens of thousands of churches teach the Bible this way and never give it a second thought.”
Last September, at a Good News Club “teacher training” at Capital Bible Church in Annandale, Va., Rautio of the Child Evangelism Fellowship gave his presentation on “Spiritual Warfare for the Good News Club” to about 40 adult volunteers. “CEF is under attack,” he said. “There is spiritual warfare. The enemy is here. It is really Satan opposing God. It is evil vs. God. He uses people,” to oppose the Good News Club. He said, “The persecution is a direct response to our good work.” Fairfax County, where Great Falls is located, is “Satan’s territory,” he noted.
A man in the front nodded his head in agreement. Later, as Rautio talked about targeting children, the man yelled: “Get them when they’re young!”
OUR SMALL INTERFAITH group met with the principal and other school officials to express our concerns about the negative effect the Good News Club was having in our community. We gained access to the club meetings—restoring accountability and public presence—but the administrators didn’t do much. We educated ourselves about the club’s curriculum. Importantly, following Martin Luther King’s steps for nonviolent action, we educated other parents and community members. The number of children attending didn’t grow much. There were 12 children at the last meeting.
These are the kinds of political issues that are part of American democracy. As an immigrant, as a Muslim, as a woman, I know from my own experience how important it is to push back against extremism. I know how important faith is; how important conversations about religion are. I also know that bad religion that bullies children must be countered with good religion and good conscience. I want my son to grow up with a “respect for authority,” “moral values,” and “character qualities,” as advertised by the Good News Club. But I also want him to be curious, not afraid of other faith traditions. I want him to think critically about faith and learn compassion. I want him to learn from the real good news club of Great Falls that he’s “spiritually alive.”
Back in Room 154 at Shibli’s school, a dozen young children gather in a semicircle around Diane Rautio, Wayne Rautio’s wife, as she tells them: “If you believe in Jesus, you will go to heaven. If you don’t, you’ll be separated from him forever and ever.”
One of the students turned around to steal a glance at me. I smiled warmly. Beneath my jacket, I wore my T-shirt: “Coexist.”
Asra Q. Nomani (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.