The school year has begun for most students in the US.
Supplies have been picked over at Target and Walmart and Staples.
School uniforms still look fresh and new.
Teachers are still energized and excited about their lessons.
White boards are still white.
Textbook pages are still tight and unstained.
Last Monday, August 29th, I spent over an hour welcoming students into the cafeteria of the Westerly Hills Academy here in Charlotte, a high poverty public school that serves both elementary and middle school aged children. Every weekday morning, students arrive at school between 7:30 and 8:00 am for breakfast. Classes begin at 8:15. Along with a gaggle of other volunteers, I sat in the lunchroom giving students their meal codes, the number they would give to the cashiers in order to have their meals provided for them all year long.
Crisp white shirts. Khaki pants. Blue pants. Sweaters.
Hair in braids or curls. Beads and ribbons.
Mothers and fathers accompanied some.
Others wandered in by themselves.
An entire family dropped off the oldest sibling. The youngest child in that family cried vigorously as they left.
Mostly smiles and excitement about being in school that first day.
Some sad, nervous, unsure expressions.
One little boy took his number from me and, as he walked away, tears welled up in his deep brown eyes. Based on his name, I made the assumption that he was Latino, so I switched over to Spanish. When I asked him if he needed help, his eyes brightened momentarily, then he shook his head somberly as he took his leave. A moment or two after he sat down to eat his morning meal, I noticed a man who looked like he was the child's father sit down beside him at the table. At that point, the little guy lost his composure completely. The tears that brimmed his eyes cascaded down his cheeks in torrents. The man rubbed his back and spoke tenderly to him. One of the teachers sat down on the other side of the young student and whispered assurances of her own. As the three of them made their way out into the hallway, presumably to take the first grader to his classroom, I wished him a happy first day and a great year in first grade.
I toyed with the idea of keeping the multi-page handout with all the children's names, grades, and lunchroom codes. That list would have served as a prayer guide for me all year. So many names and faces. So many stories. So much need. So much need. I decided to err on the side of respecting the privacy of the students and left the sheets there. I can and will still pray for those precious children as they work their way through their studies, their fears, and their many challenges. I don't need to know their names. God already does.
Tomorrow morning a new set of new students will begin a new school year.
Tomorrow I go back to seminary for my second year of study.
Tomorrow a new cohort of seminarians will join the journey.
I don't expect there will be many crisp white shirts - other than those on the professors.
There won't be many pairs of khakis either.
And no one will be given a meal voucher code to use at a cash register.
But we will all arrive with our own adult fears and challenges.
We will hide tears - although some will probably shed a few. Myself included.
We will disagree with other students.
We will disagree with our professors.
We will wonder how we could ever have been so naive about so much related to our Christian faith.
We will question and we will doubt much of what we have heard in church all our lives.
And then we will try to figure out whether and how any of these readings and discussions affect the ways in which we live and move in the world, the ways in which we interact with those whose faith is not our own. Those whose lives do not parallel our own. Those whose stories we cannot possibly fathom. We will wrestle with whether our understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ really is good news for the world - and if it is, how do we share that good news? We will wonder aloud about just how much we have corrupted that good news and tried to make it good North American news or good Protestant news or good Presbyterian news or some exclusive form of good news that only the chosen few (us, of course) can understand and benefit from.
There will be blood, sweat, and tears.
And I cannot wait to get there and wade into the fray.
Theology 1 and New Testament 1 - here I come!
School's back from summer.
One of my favorite books of prayer is The Book of a Thousand Prayers, compiled by Angela Ashwin.
This prayer was taken from that book. I have modified it, making it personal by adding "we" and "us."
Grant, Lord, to all of us who study and those who teach us,
the grace to love that which is worth loving,
to know that which is worth knowing,
to value what is most precious to you,
and to reject whatever is evil in your eyes.
Give us a true sense of judgement,
and the wisdom
to see beneath the surface of things.
Above all, may we search out and do
what is pleasing to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
after Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)
Can I ask a favor of you? Whenever you see a school bus, when you see students on public transportation, when you see students being dropped off by weary and wary parents at school, when you see students walking or biking or skateboarding to school, would you say a prayer for all students everywhere? For enough textbooks and notebooks. For passionate and compassionate teachers. For enough food to eat not only during the school day, but also over the weekend when one or two meals per day are not provided by the school. For safety and security at home. For hope in their future. For peace.
I know there are millions, perhaps billions of school-age children in need around the world. I remember the children I saw in the cities, towns, and villages of Haiti, in their brightly colored uniforms, intently pushing their way through traffic and crowds, through fields and down rocky narrow paths to school. Very few of them are likely to leave their villages for college or for a better life. But each of them, all of them deserve just that - a better life. Praying for all children everywhere is a big ask, I realize, but I believe in a big God.
I remember the faces of children in the ironically named "Paradise" in Nicaragua, in Sevilla in Spain, and the faces I saw at Westerly Hills last week. I remember their bright and fear-filled eyes. I remember their ready smiles and their nervous giggles. I remember seeing glimmers of hope in spite of the tremendous and mounting odds that are not ever in their favor. Will you join me in praying for them?