Churches on Christian “Mission” to Support Public Schools Without Proselytizing

Cody High School in Detroit is getting a makeover this summer by volunteers organized through Life Remodeled, a non-profit. (Carlos Osorio, AP)
Cody High School in Detroit is getting a makeover this summer by volunteers organized through Life Remodeled, a non-profit. (Carlos Osorio, AP)

Picture children in a rundown Detroit neighborhood known for high unemployment and low incomes as they slip past abandoned houses on their way to school. Visualize classrooms of students watching their shot at a bright future slipping further out of reach. Then imagine an army of volunteers from two dozen suburban evangelical churches showing up en masse to remodel the school and fix up its surroundings.

This picture from Cody High School in Detroit is real and, increasingly, what Christian “mission” looks like as a growing movement of evangelicals stop arguing about school prayer and evangelism prohibitions and jump in simply to support students and teachers.

Off limits to explicit forms of religion, public schools might seem the last place evangelicals would want to tread with their passion for proclaiming the Gospel “good news.” On the contrary, it’s entirely fitting for evangelicals to support public schools, whose work matters so much to the kids’ and communities’ futures. And school officials are wise to welcome the church people’s contributions, provided they stay on the right side of the constitutional line against direct promotion of religion in government settings.

Church-State Issue?
The thought of evangelicals showing up in force at public schools is bound to make some people squirm. Doesn’t their very presence violate the separation of church and state? Don’t we all know that their real agenda is to proselytize?

Not so, say evangelicals such as Chris Lambert, who believe that service to those in need might be the most powerful public expression of their faith. As if to demonstrate the point, Lambert and his non-profit, Life Remodeled, are organizing the massive Cody High makeover, which is set to take place this summer with the support of school officials and millions of dollars of funding help from General Motors, Quicken Loans and other sponsors.

One church has already entered into what it hopes will be a long-term relationship with the high school. Volunteers from Oak Pointe Church are beginning a mentoring program for ninth-graders, a sports booster club, and a summer internships and training program. A paid church staff member reports to the school each day to coordinate the volunteers. “Detroit is on the rebound in so many ways,” Oak Pointe Pastor Bob Shirock says, “and the church is in the thick of it.”

The church’s partnership with Cody High School is just getting started; it is obviously too soon to say whether the church will be able to sustain the work and abide by a no-proselytizing stipulation set in place by the school district. Also tricky are the race dynamics. Can largely white church volunteers work effectively with the predominantly African-American students? Clearly, close monitoring is needed.

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Tom Krattenmaker, a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is author of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.

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