What is the value of public education? Should Baptist Christians enroll their children in public schools, or is a mass “exodus” to home and parochial schools in order?
This question is once again at issue in the Southern Baptist Convention. Some members of the denomination seem to be intent on demonizing public schools and the efforts of those who work in them because they believe that public schools are tainted with sin. Others suggest that this strategy is connected to a larger effort to completely dismantle the American public school system.
This is not a new debate, but it caught my attention in a different way this time around. For the past few months, I have been conducting dissertation research in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Part of my study deals with what happens to an educational system when government ceases to function.
Congo’s war officially ended in 2003, but fighting continues here. Four million people have died so far, and the death toll rises by 1,200 each day as a result of the violence, war crimes and the poverty, starvation, and disease that accompany the fighting. The national government has no authority in much of the east, where militias and armed gangs commit atrocities against the population. Millions of people live in utter misery.
For 30 years, the government of the Congo has been unable to fund education. In the government’s absence, the country’s churches took responsibility for running the public schools.
Our Congolese Baptist brothers and sisters assumed a huge portion of that burden: the Baptist Community in the Centre of Africa runs 414 schools serving more than 114,000 children. This group of churches (the equivalent of a state Baptist association) employs almost 3,500 teachers as well, which is no small thing in a place with a 90 percent unemployment rate. These are not religious schools–they are public schools, open to all children regardless of creed or background.
Baptist leaders here see support for public education as part of their God-given mission to be salt and light in a difficult place. Without their support, there would not be schools in dozens of communities.
As a result of their response to this calling, they have educated hundreds of thousands of children over the last three decades. They lack adequate supplies or facilities–and work in the midst of violent conflict–yet the Baptist teachers and administrators consistently strive to implement new pedagogical methods and to teach Congolese students the skills they will need to rebuild their country when peace finally comes.
Baptist public schools here do not conduct religious education; they strongly believe that religious instruction should be carried out in homes and churches. But these believers are engaged in kingdom business nonetheless. They redeem villages by opening schools in the aftermath of war. They love children who have seen unimaginable horrors. They give hope to parents who want their children to have a future. They witness to communities that God cares for the most neglected. They provide tangible evidence of justice and mercy in a place where there is little of either.
I’ve been wondering lately what my friends here would think if they learned of the views on public education that keep popping up among Baptists back home. What would they say if they knew that some seem to believe that public schools should not exist?
Would those who want to dismantle American public education tell these men and women of God that their calling is invalid? What would they say to the children who would lose their only opportunity to learn were it not for the commitment of the Baptist churches?
Public education in the United States is very different from public education in the Congo. But perhaps Congolese Baptists can teach us an important lesson about the value of involvement in the public education system.
They demonstrate that by being present, we have the opportunity to care for all of the children in our society. They show us that we can live out our faith even in places that scare us. Most importantly, they remind us that whenever we respond to God’s call, we are part of God’s redemptive work in this world.
Laura Seay, the daughter and granddaughter of Baptist public school teachers, has been living in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, for the last four months. She is a graduate of Baylor University working on a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.