For the last six weeks, I’ve led an online book club discussion on the book Educating All God’s Children. The book was written by Nicole Baker Fulgham, a seasoned teacher, former vice president of faith community relations at Teach For America and current president and founder of The Expectations Project, a national organization that mobilizes people of faith to support public education reform. Recently, the author was named to the list of “50 Women to Watch: Those Most Shaping the Church and Culture” by Christianity Today.
Seventy women, from all different walks of life, participated in the book club. And for six weeks, we had hard conversations around education, race, the achievement gap, poverty and lack of funding for our low performing schools.
We also had hard conversations where we confessed our own prejudices towards the poor and the marginalized and their seemingly lack of involvement in their children’s schools. We shared the personal struggles of continuing to keep showing up and pouring out when our efforts seemed like drops in the bucket called Hopelessness. We confessed our weariness at the task of seeking the welfare of our cities by serving the least among us and still feeling like the city we were serving was working against us. We complained about the lack of funds, the lack of resources and the crumbling buildings our children called schools.
And we lamented our own selfish desire to do right by our own children.
We lamented the desire to fight to get them into better public schools, to hell with the poor schools. We lamented the fact that by working two extra jobs we could afford to skip the whole public school fiasco and pay for private school. We lamented the truth that we could downsize and stay home and homeschool.
And we lamented the choices set before us because we had choices.
As a group of women in the full throes of trying to improve public education for the families in our communities, we came awake to the truth that not everyone has choices about where and how their children are schooled. We realized that families patching together two and three part time jobs to put food on the table could not be involved in their kids’ education. We came to understand generational poverty and homelessness and survivalist thinking and how these facts of life negatively impact a child’s ability to learn- not because the child is without ability, but because the child is without the means by which to tap into that ability.
And we came to understand that as a people after the heart of Jesus, we could not make a choice to do right by our own children if our good did our neighbors harm.
The Nash County Commissioners are moving forward with a “compromise” to avoid an official split of the existing NRMS system along the county line. Their compromise will require that Edgecombe students in the system, grades K-8, only attend the schools located in Edgecombe county. They will likely then reallocate all of the Nash students into Nash County located schools, meaning your children will be moved to new schools.
The main point of contention right now has to do with Rocky Mount High. If the county line split becomes official, Edgecombe students who aren’t in high school now will have to go to high schools in Edgecombe County and there are no high schools in that part of the city. Naturally, if the line split becomes official, the impact on neighborhoods on the Edgecombe side will be considerable. No family will want to move into these Rocky Mount neighborhoods if their children can’t attend a high school in Rocky Mount.
Generally speaking, Nash County residents do not want their children attending schools on the Edgecombe side. Nash County believes, but won’t say publicly, that removing Edgecombe county students will make the schools in their county more attractive to families.
For two solid days, I’ve been wrestling with what this means for our family. We’ve invested four years of our life in a community filled with people on the margins. We have become well acquainted with their sorrows, their joys, their struggles. We have given two years to our neighborhood schools. We’ve taken stock of the old, dingy buildings, the lack of resources, the never enough rolls of toilet paper in the bathrooms. We’ve noticed the weight rooms in need of equipment and the few numbers of kids who actually try out for sports. We’ve seen the lack of parental involvement and the huge need for mentors.
And we’ve wondered why the schools on our side of the tracks are nearly 100% black and poor and riddled with at risk kids living in hotels and on couches.
Faced with the truth that our children may attend different schools next year, I’ve been tempted to be fearful about what will happen to the children we leave behind. I’ve been tempted to dig into the history of our city’s educational system and pluck from its archives the problems that have created our mess today. I’ve even been tempted to storm the Nash County Commissioners meeting on Monday and shake my fist and curse them for withholding tax dollars and new buildings and picking a fight with a county that cannot sustain the full responsibility of educating its poor children because of the immense poverty that consumes its citizens-
Citizens that just so happen to live on the wrong side of the tracks in our great city of Rocky Mount.
And I’ve been tempted to buy the lie that the kids I’ve grown to love at Parker Middle and Baskerville Elementary are no longer my concern come the of Fall 2016.
Out of sight. Out of mind. Out of my pocketbook.
And therein lies the rub, y’all.
Jesus’ command to love my neighbors as myself doesn’t end at whatever line the powers that be draw on some map.
And God’s desire for me to seek the welfare of my city doesn’t end at the edge of the city that falls on the wrong side of the tracks.
If Jesus has invited my family to seek the welfare of the city of Rocky Mount and pray to Jesus on its behalf that it might prosper, isn’t my city still across the railroad tracks?
If Jesus is about the good of my people and my place, no matter the cost to me, aren’t my people and my place still across the railroad tracks?
If Nash county and Edgecombe county get together and make some written agreement that certain kids will attend certain schools and certain dollars will be spent in certain ways, what does Jesus require of me and my family?
Does His commandment get rewritten to not include some people who have been man-ually written out of my life?
Or does His commandment stand, no matter what man says?
In the last few days, I’ve written a thousand words over my kitchen sink and I’ve said a million more to Thad. I was invited into this conversation over the counties’ looming decisions about where dollars and lines are going to go because our family has intentionally chosen to place our kids in two, failing Edgecombe county schools where they are the 1% of everything.
I think I was invited into the conversation in hopes that our story of loving the marginalized would be compelling enough to send the powers that be back to the drawing boards to rethink their plan. And honestly, when I agreed to share my thoughts, I sincerely hoped the weight my words may carry would be enough to change the rolling tide of change.
But y’all, the power to change the city of Rocky Mount does not lie in the hands of any elected official.
It lies in the hands of Jesus and He has given each of us that bear the name of little Christ the keys to the kingdom He is building right here.
If we’re willing to count the cost of carrying them.
What man decides or decrees or declares, does not exempt us from loving our neighbors nor does it exempt us from spending our one life on behalf of the city that God has strategically placed us into.
Jesus is working a plan that we cannot see. His spirit is actively pursuing our neighbors. And we have been invited to play a part in the great story of redemption that He is writing in our city.
The choice is ours.
Following Jesus into the margins of Rocky Mount may get harder for us. Serving the least of these in our city may cost us more. Figuring out how to seek and find and redeem the most vulnerable in our city may require more of us. It may require a move across the railroad tracks. It may require a 20 minute drive into Tarboro to mentor the kids who live 2 miles from us. It may require us shopping locally, across the tracks, and giving up some things we love so that our neighbors prosper.
As followers of Jesus, our marching orders do not change because man decides to seek the welfare of a few and forsake the rest. We don’t get a pass because legislation changes or laws get made or lines get redrawn.
We simply get invited to trust that Jesus is working a plan we cannot see and believe that the cost of loving our neighbors and seeking the welfare of our city leads to the kind of abundant life we long for.