JUST OVER A year ago, I attended a retreat sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education. During the retreat we were encouraged to look at our lives and to find a personal story that captured the essence of what led us to our particular ministries. That led me to reflect on my childhood: growing up in poverty, attending a different school every year, walking to school with cardboard in the bottom of my shoes because the soles were worn out, wondering how I was going to eat, lacking school supplies at times, and dealing with the stress of a single mother who was a substance abuser.
By reminding me of those things I endured and had to overcome as a child, that exercise helped me tap into my real passion. I wanted to find ways to help children growing up in similar circumstances. I wanted to inspire them to believe in themselves and know that they can make it.
At-risk youth and under-performing students need to be inspired, but equally important is their need for adults who are willing to do the work of helping them succeed academically. Education continues to be our most reliable tool for creating upward life trajectories and optimal opportunities. Churches are more than places where people come in search of a deeper relationship with God; they are also places where people come to find deeper connections with their communities and the possibility of using their gifts and talents to help those in need.
All these forces together compelled me to act on an idea I had more than a year ago: to call on friends from across the country to help create Faith for Change. Faith for Change builds a national network of churches and people of faith committed to implementing proven educational strategies for improving children’s lives.
In many cities people of faith are supporting public or charter schools. They are respecting the separation of church and state and don’t seek to impose their belief systems on students, teachers, or other education professionals. The goal is not to convert but to encourage an ethic of academic excellence in our children, families, and communities through the provision of appropriate support, enthusiastic mentorship, and resources.
Faith for Change connects churches with the Coalition for Community Schools to help implement the “community schools strategy,” which allows communities of faith to work with nonreligious organizations invested in the academic success of children. Similar work is taking place in communities of faith across the country. In New York City, Abyssinian Baptist Church has the Abyssinian Development Corporation. In Chicago, Lily Dale Baptist Church supports a high school across the street from the church. In Cleveland, a group of pastors led by Rev. Timothy Eppinger recently came together to work with teachers on improving graduation rates at a local high school; in Decatur, Ga., Dr. Cynthia Hale, pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church, provides support for BaSix Knowledge Academy, a school for sixth- through 12th-grade students.
Around the country, churches run successful schools and provide support for children in and out of the classroom. In Chicago, Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Baltimore, we have worked with churches through our “we got your back” program to fill backpacks with school supplies for more than 3,000 students. Through our “graduation ministry toolkit,” we conduct trainings with churches, religious conferences, and denominational bodies that teach church leaders how to make their congregations into “no dropout zones.” We recently conducted “graduation ministry” workshops at the Hampton Ministers Conference in Hampton, Va., and are scheduled to do the same at numerous upcoming national church conferences.
Churches can also support the work of dropout prevention by raising money to support schools in need of better technology or by providing scholarships to students in need for uniforms, tuition, etc. Through Faith for Change we have also created SWAG—Student With a Goal. This is a national campaign that promotes a positive message about education through the T-shirt line we developed. Proceeds from the purchase of these shirts support church programs that promote academic excellence, such as college tours, tutoring programs, after-school programs, technology for schools, and more.
Next year we plan to launch programs that educate congregations on how to effectively engage their elected officials on political issues that impact the educational success of our children, locally and nationally. We will train them on education policy and what they can do to bring about needed changes in their communities.
The opportunities for churches and individual Christians to support the academic success of students are limitless when we allow our creativity and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to direct us.
Faith for Change started as a question: Would people of faith answer the call to serve their communities? The answer was that they already had. We hope to be a partner in this work to elevate these efforts and create national and global models of success. The work is too important to do it alone.
There are children in communities across the country waiting for someone to believe in them, support them, and provide them with resources and champion their causes. We must not be guilty of abandoning our children when they need us the most.
Romal J. Tune is founder and executive director of Faith for Change.