The head of the nation’s largest teacher union hailed a summit meeting for clergy and educators initiated by the Baptist Center for Ethics an historic first step toward building bridges between public schools and people of faith.
“I’m charged up,” National Education Association President Reg Weaver said at the close of the Thursday-Friday meeting in Memphis, Tenn. “I’m energized. I’m going to tell everybody about this meeting. I’m going to tell everybody there were some people of faith who joined with the educators, because they believed it was important for us to work together.”
Carolyn Crowder, a member of the NEA executive committee from Mustang, Okla., said Robert Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based BCE, suggested a roundtable meeting for educators and clergy while collecting signatures last spring for a Baptist pastoral letter supporting public education. The meeting was scheduled on the front end of the NEA Southeast Regional Leadership Conference last weekend at the Downtown Memphis Marriott.
Weaver, a 30-year middle-school science teacher from Illinois, pledged next year to establish an associate membership so every member of the faith community can be part of the NEA. “I’m going to say I’ve got Brother Parham as a member,” he boasted.
Weaver said people with a common goal should be able to work together on behalf of children, whether or not they agree on every point. He said the meeting illustrated the NEA “is a different organization” than it once was.
“Who would have ever thought that the faith community and the so-called union would come together on education being a basic right for children?” he asked. “There was a time in NEA when if you had mentioned this people would have looked at you like you were crazy.”
Weaver urged participants to do more than go home and talk about having a good meeting.
“I think this is the beginning of something big,” Weaver said. “Can you imagine if the members of the faith community would join with the NEA, and we go hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, to members of Congress? That is one of the things I have been trying to do, get people to come together as partners, so we can go forward with one message of what is important to kids.”
Weaver said his definition of partnership is there is benefit for both parties. He said educators and the church may not agree on every issue but can help each other as long as they don’t have to contradict their values. “It’s OK to disagree,” he said, “but no longer should we allow ourselves to be disengaged.”
Weaver said one thing ministers can do for teachers is to speak up against voices in the religious community that seek to tear down public education.
“One of the greatest challenges we have in the education profession is when ministers talk about us from the pulpit.” he said. “We don’t know how to respond. We want to be courteous. We want to be respectful, but what do we do when a minister is spewing things he knows are not right?”
On the others side, Weaver said, educators can “speak up for what is right” when they hear others disparaging people of faith.
“Many of you in your pulpits, sometimes your greatest detractors may be your board of trustees or your deacons,” Weaver addressed ministers. “What we are saying is if in fact we can help you, select some of us to be on your deacon board or trustee board. We will solicit you, perhaps, to run for school board. We will solicit you to help with members of Congress.”
“They’re going to say we are trying to take over the church,” Weaver said, “but you know that is not the truth.”
Weaver said churches and educators should work together on behalf of “not just some children, but for all children.”
“To me helping children, all children, is a basic right,” he said. “And if in fact we can do this together, I’m telling you folks, it is absolutely fantastic what we can do.”
“A basic right is a God-given right, and as people of faith we all have the duty to assure that these rights are enjoyed by all human beings,” he said.
Weaver is serving his second term as president of the 3.2 million-member NEA, the nation’s largest professional employee organization.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.