Religious communities across the United States host “Freedom Schools” to empower kids to change the world.
Many American Christians still grieve something Martin Luther King Jr. articulated more than 50 years ago: Churches are among the most segregated spaces in America. King imagined a universal, all-inclusive sisterhood and brotherhood with an equitable distribution of resources—a “Beloved Community” where there is peace because there is justice. Plenty of religious people have felt a duty to help bring this dream to life, yet most have failed to racially integrate their own congregations.
Now, though, some church communities are looking outside their walls for the reconciliation they haven’t found inside. Some white, progressive Christian clergy have embraced movements like Black Lives Matter and the NAACP-led Moral Mondays here in North Carolina. White Christians are often following black leaders in these movements, rather than leading. They are partnering in community service or political advocacy across racial and religious lines. They are taking action on issues that disproportionately affect communities of color, like gun violence and voter suppression. They’re also trying to foster cross-racial friendships and broader reconciliation within their communities.
Across the nation, churches are bringing this movement to summer camp. Joining with social-justice organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Industrial Areas Foundation, congregations are hosting “Freedom Schools” and other activism camps—to empower kids to change the world, but also to help them understand one another across racial divides.
For three years, the former auto-parts plant that houses Peacemakers Freedom School sat vacant in South Rocky Mount, where modest homes mix with collapsing warehouses below a set of railroad tracks that divide the rich, white and poor, historically black parts of town. Peacemakers started in 2006 with pick-up kickball and Bible studies as an outreach effort of Church on the Rise, a predominately white Assemblies of God congregation. Its main campus is an 18-acre meadow at the city’s forested northern edge, surrounded by a gated golf-club community and the campus of North Carolina Wesleyan College.
In the quest for racial reconciliation, congregations are trying to face the realities of persistent racism and racial inequality. Some white churches might take this on with a hint of paternalism, but some, like Church on the Rise, are trying to yield to black culture and leadership within their programs.
“Breathe in all the positive energy for the day,” 20-year-old Abbie Clifton told a crowd of more than 100 kids gathered one Thursday morning in June. “Breathe out the negative.”
“Àṣẹ,” she concluded, a benediction in the Nigerian language Yoruba, roughly translated as “so be it.” Clifton offered this blessing at the end of Peacemakers’ Harambee, a frenetic morning rally that involves everything from daily “recognitions” of positive behavior to story-readings by local African Americans. Harambee is similar to participatory black-church worship, but instead of a pastor or choir, a team of college students and young school teachers use their summer breaks to teach kids from this depressed Southern city about their history.
Here, and at nearly 180 other Freedom Schools across the U.S. designed by the Children’s Defense Fund, these “servant-leader interns” rouse the young “scholars”—not students, not campers—in singing Quincy Jones’s gospel arrangement of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and Labi Siffre’s apartheid protest ballad, “(Something Inside) So Strong.” Harambee itself is a Swahili word, meaning “let’s pull together.”
Among the crowd of kids and staff, who are mostly African American, Clifton is conspicuously white. So is the executive director, Jesse Lewis, and the site coordinator, Nate Reisinger. Lewis, Clifton, and two other Freedom School staffers belong to Church on the Rise. A decade ago, its members started meeting with black elders to discuss ways of helping a neighborhood trapped in cycles of crime, poverty, and unemployment. In 2012, they incorporated as Peacemakers Family Center. The factory that once made plastic interior-car-door panels now houses a thrift store, a food pantry, after-school tutoring, a computer lab, GED classes, and the South Rocky Mount sanctuary for Church on the Rise.
The main suburban campus attracts a worshipping community that’s three-quarters white; here on the south side, it’s three-quarters black. With high-energy Pentecostal worship that bridges white and black Christianity, Church on the Rise has been more successful than most congregations in building a multi-racial community. The CDF Freedom School curriculum, delivered by a majority-black teaching staff, dovetails with this effort, swapping typical Vacation Bible School lessons for studies of African diaspora cultures. The church is hoping it can model King’s Beloved Community to catalyze reconciliation beyond its original community.
“At times, the city can be divided, and I’m talking about more than just the railroad tracks,” said Reverend Roderick Tillery, the principal of Rocky Mount Middle School and a black Baptist pastor in nearby Elm City. “Peacemakers can help to bridge that gap. It brings people from all backgrounds together.”
Across the country, faith-related activist camps like Peacemakers are getting kids together to build trust between black and white communities. The Children’s Defense Fund camps started in 1995 to revive the 1960s Freedom-School tradition of black-youth empowerment. Hosted by nonprofits in 30 states from Washington to Florida, CDF Freedom Schools teach literacy, black history, volunteering, and community organizing. While it’s not a religious organization, CDF teams up with scores of churches and synagogues, creating what may be America’s largest faith-based network of justice-oriented summer camps.
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