Having just completed the pilgrimage of Lent to Easter, now I think about what it means to be an Emmaus-Christian, ready to run full speed back in to the waiting city to be witnesses to our own experience of blessing and love and to be the hands and feet of Jesus, the living Lord.
The focus of gospel ministry in the community is not what we, as church members do for the world, but what Jesus has done for it. Substituting our deeds for Jesus is to risk blindness of the gospel itself.
Life-giving ministry is a collection of tangible efforts with a strong gospel purpose of compassionate and visible love. Ministry with real people transforms.
As one woman recently said, “I have moved beyond packing a backpack with supplies, to supplying my time and love for a real live kid – as it turns out, every child is remarkable and so worthy of my time and care.”
Ministry to children in our community schools with a humble spirit, gentle conduct and extravagant generosity all point to the redeeming, life-transforming power of the gospel.
We should seek to bless the image of God in each child.
In her first experience as an educator, a student teacher received an essay from an accomplished high school student who posed the question: “Am I important? I don’t know. I don’t know until someone notices me, until my prayers are answered, until I fall and someone is there to pick me up, until my achievement is shown as your delight.”
Time magazine arrived last week. In it, the faces of high school student leaders from Florida held the coveted cover photo spotlight.
Among the plaintive questions of these children beyond responses specifically to guns, are the basic questions: Are we important? Will you put us first?
The church is tasked with responding, in a meaningful and collective way, to plaintive questions from our children.
Too often young people are treated as a problem and this has led to exclusion and detention rather than education, empowerment and resilience.
Second only to early childhood, adolescence represents a window of opportunity for significant growth and development.
The malleability of adolescents’ brains can make it possible for them to recover from past trauma and grow into their full potential, but only if they have the support they need.
Science also points to the importance of context and experience in the developmental process. Today, the systems that could connect adolescents with opportunity are often built on entrenched inequality.
Congregations that combine their collective energy to mentor and serve kids in community schools are preparing those kids to live together into their futures in educated, caring and effective ways.
We should remember that we are better together. How do we nourish and sustain the Emmaus energy to rush headlong into our communities for the sake of the gospel?
Individual mentors and occasional efforts in a school are good beginning points. However, efforts can be multiplied when we recognize that we are not alone and that the greater church family is acting in many places.
Your local church-school volunteers can benefit from connecting to important national networks like Kids Hope USA that have grown from successful local ministries to support congregations across the country in simple, proven programs.
Another kind of emerging effort are programs like One Plus One, a regional effort of the Methodist churches of North Texas to coordinate and amplify mentoring for school kids and bring new context and new experiences in a specific region or across a school district.
When volunteers know each other and learn together, they are strengthened for successful work within the complexities of education systems.
Other efforts like Pastors for Texas Children create a place for pastors and ministry staff to work together with superintendents and other leaders for effective support of kids and schools across your state and nation.
“When did we see you?” is the Matthew 25 question of those favored by God. Borrowing another biblical image, we see Jesus looking down upon Jerusalem and weeping for her blindness and resistance to God’s way.
The church needs to be visible in every community and likewise needs to open its eyes to the children at our doorsteps.
We leave blindness behind when we see our neighborhood schools and look upon the needs of kids today across our communities and truly lift up and bless educators, parents and children in our congregations and beyond our congregations as central to the heart-work of the church.
We leave blindness behind when we advance education policies that are informed by a developmental lens and a belief in “imago dei” of individuals.
These policies provide the nurturing environment where every kid has a chance to flourish toward their own God-given talents.
We leave blindness behind when we strengthen young people’s lived experiences and help them create a new personal story as agents of change for themselves and others and when we show them in word and deed that they are important members of God’s beloved community.
Editor’s note: This article is the part of a series on public education. The previous articles in the series are:
Pastors’ Group Supports Strong Education for All Kids by Charles Foster Johnson
Why Privatizing Public Schools Threatens Education by Diane Ravitch
Right Side of History: Removing Barriers to Education by Colin Harris
Suzii Paynter is the current co-director of Pastors for Texas Children, and the former executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She lives in Austin, Texas.