Guest Blog: Schools as a Common Good

Guest Blog: Schools as a Common Good

Guest Blogger

Delmar Oberholtzer and Ryan Yoder are board members of Anascholastic Institute . An organization which is dedicated to furthering education and scholarly thought within Anabaptist communities. Delmar is a high school teacher who loves school so much he never left. He has taught in both public and private schools across Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.  Ryan is a missionary under DestiNations International and lives with his wife and two children in Spain. He has studied Arabic institutionally, Spanish independently, and is currently taking online classes with Liberty University.

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The United States Census Bureau recently released the data it collected on public schools for the 2016 year, including the amount of money spent. The data indicates that the public school systems are spending an average of $11,762 per student in their care.1 Private schools generally operate on a smaller budget, but their per pupil expenditures still run into the thousands of dollars.

These types of numbers naturally lead to some common questions. How do we justify such expenses? Are our schools worth the significant amount of money we spend on them? What good is a school, really?

The most common answers to these questions often focus on the good a school provides for an individual student. A school teaches students how to work with people, build social skills, and helps them make friends. A school teaches skills that make students valuable workers, ensuring that each individual will be able to find a job or career. In Christian schools, a school also teaches a student about the truths of the Christian faith and encourages them to make that faith an integral part of their lives and worldview. These are all good answers, but they don’t complete the picture of a school’s value. A Christian school also provides benefits to its community, a value though often overlooked and hard to quantify, is real nonetheless.

A Tie that Binds

The first way in which a school serves the good of its community is through the social ties it creates and supports. A school is never sustained by the efforts of a single individual, it is always the result of a group of people who come together with a shared purpose. Those people include the staff, students, parents, churches, business partners, school board, alumni, financial supporters, and others that have an interest in the success of the school. As the school brings these people together it provides a common experience and a shared value that deepens the connectedness of the community. A school that actively engages its stakeholders can be a true asset by reinforcing a genuine sense of mutual care and camaraderie. In a society where people are becoming more socially isolated than ever before, any implement which brings people together in this way is of great value.

This is especially true for private Christian schools. Because there is no reliance on federal or state funding, all the support is generated by the local church or churches and the community that surrounds them. Likewise, almost all major decisions are made by local leaders and representatives. The church community collectively owns the school and is brought closer together through that shared ownership. While a church is more than just a social grouping, it is indubitably stronger when its members can come together in the type of fellowship and commonality that the support of a Christian school can provide.

A Source of Potential

Another way in which a school serves its community is through the preparation of “servants to the public” from one generation to the next. In a secular setting, this translates into the production of people who serve as anything from paramedics to sanitation workers. Schools make sure that there will always be people who are trained to keep their community safe and functioning.

A church is like a secular community in that it also needs a collection of people who support it through their service. Individual churches are structured in different ways, but they all need people who are willing to serve by preaching, singing, discipleship, performing administrative tasks, handling finances, teaching, and taking care of church property. Even a church that has all of these responsibilities covered should be preparing for the day when the tasks need to be passed on to a new generation.

A school provides the church with a place to identify and prepare individuals who possess the gifts for those positions of service. It is common for schools to encourage the development of gifts such as speech, creativity, and written expression, then display them before the community in the form of special programs or performances. These activities keep the community informed of the potential that exists among its young people and helps them identify those who might best serve the community in a variety of ways.

A Bastion of Values

Finally, and possibly most important, a school provides the church with a point of reference for, and transmission of, shared values and culture. Because a school is generally under the power of the local community as mentioned above, it becomes a reflection of the community’s values and beliefs. Making decisions about the school can force a church to truly evaluate what it believes and how it should be practiced and communicated. Whatever is truly believed by the church will find its way into the school, either in daily operations or in the content that is taught. A school with a healthy relationship with a church community can become an expression of the church, a public example of how its faith can be lived out and practiced.

Not only does the school reflect the church community’s values, it transmits them to the students under its care. The school sets an example and encourages patterns of behavior that have the potential to last a lifetime.  In one sense, a school can serve as a conduit from the church to the students that attend the school, teaching the basic tenets of faith as well as how to apply the Christian faith to daily life and action.

A school that serves a distinct culture will pass on cultural practices and traditions as well as the truths and beliefs of the church. There have always been Anabaptist groups who place a great deal of value in their distinct heritage, whether it has been expressed through clothing, language, holidays, foods, or music. For those who value their cultural background, a school can support efforts to pass on that identity to their children. In these ways the school becomes a tool for the preservation of the beliefs and culture of a church community and promotes its continuation from generation to generation.

What Good is a School?

In an age where schools broadcast their test scores, brag about their graduate employment rates, and celebrate their most successful students, it is important to not lose sight of the larger value of a school. The work it does on behalf of each student in its care is of utmost importance, but a good school can and should be honored for the significant good it can do for the community it serves. So what good is a school? It seems safe to say that the benefit of Christian schools, while significant to each student, also extends to the church, community, and ultimately to the Kingdom of God. 

 

 

 

Guest Blog: The Geography of Loneliness

Guest Blog: The Geography of Loneliness

Guest Blogger

Henry Moody lives at the Danthonia Bruderhof in the wide-open, sun-soaked spaces of the Northern Tablelands region of NSW, Australia where he is a school teacher. He is married to Dori and they have four children. On her mother’s side, Dori has her roots in the Hutterite Anabaptist heritage and blogs at www.Bruderhof.com.

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Across the sparrows and slates of the rooftops of London, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral heard the great bells naming him where he lay in pain and doubt, wrestling with his God. High over the town, the swinging mouth and heavy iron tongue of the Death Knell measured out his days as the dread voice spoke relentlessly into his soul. It reached out like the finger of the Almighty, plucking him from the world of men, a summons to abandon all comfort and joy, take up his sins and stand alone before the Judge.

The funeral bells rang out often over London in 1623 as the Great Plague ran amok through the town. Consequently, when the terrible fevers struck, and the discolored lesions bloomed on his skin, John Donne despaired. The literary genius, ladies’ man, and writer of risqué verse turned ordained minister lay nailed to a bed of pain, suffering, he suspected, the torments of the damned in the hands of a jealous God. And so, when the voices of the bells came in at the open window, they could only be calling him.

Shortly afterwards, however, a tragic procession passed by on the street below, and his mistake became clear: the tolling of the bell was for another man. In time his illness, most likely typhus and not the plague, passed and Donne lived. Yet the moment left him deeply changed. What of the dead manso utterly alone, cut off forever from the affairs of the living, from the small joys and sorrows of the day and those deep ties of warmth and fellowship that run through all mankind? Unable for a time to read or talk, Donne let his pen speak for him in some of the most powerful words ever uttered in the English language. “No man,” he wrote, “is an Iland, intire of itselfe…”1 

“Ah, look at all the lonely people. Where do they all come from?” wondered the Beatles in 1966. Good question. These days we no longer fear the Black Death. Another pestilence, a quiet and desperate sense of alienation, has infected our relationships. Troubling reports of an escalating “loneliness epidemic” have initiated a widespread public conversation. As researchers compile a mountain of evidence, a few disquieting statistics suffice to ink in the shadowy outlines of a silent, invisible scourge: 15-30% of the general U.S. population (including 40% of Americans over 45) experience chronic loneliness.2 Surveys show that over 9 million people in the U.K. “often or always” feel lonely. Worse still, a heartbreaking 200,000 elderly Britons cannot report a single conversation with their family or a friend in over a month.3 Things are so bad the government recently appointed a cabinet level “minister for loneliness” to focus on the issue.4   

Loneliness is the great leveler, breaching even the most exclusive echelons of power, rank, and privilege through the fatal flaw of our common humanity. Everyone, at some time, has looked up and encountered its silent stare. Its pain belongs to the human race: the sorrow of the grief-stricken at the graveside left to carry on alone, the ceaseless heartache of the abandoned and betrayed, the bewildered hurt of the elderly shelved in the flickering light of the talk shows, the thousand tiny wounds of the ignored and overlooked, the midnight place of the suicide whose silent scream of pain gives up God’s breath of life into the void.  

“There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally,”5 wrote G.K. Chesterton, stabbing his broad finger directly down on the sore spot. At its root, the opposite of alienation is far more than mere hilarity, merrymaking, and high times. Misery may lurk at the very center of the crowd, surrounded by the din and blare that keep the black dog at bay. Who can understand the human heart? The waters of the soul run deep. We are born with a yearning for a kindred spirit—someone to confide in and reveal the depths and measureless currents of our inmost longing. Even the Messiah, united with his brothers as with his Father, must have hungered for this special closeness with the apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”6

The American poet Emily Dickinson writes of selecting her soul’s society from an “ample nation” with the delight of a child agonizing over a box of chocolates. Left outside are emperors kneeling on the mat and chariots idling at the gate—all the pomp and circumstance of high society the world has to offer leave her unmoved as stone frozen in the plumbing. Both genius and recluse, Dickinson knew all about isolation. What nameless anguish lay at the root of her self-imposed exile remains a mystery—she simply referred to it as “terror.” At times her pint-sized poems bleed loneliness and hurt onto the page. And so, perhaps taught by the familiar ache of its absence, she knew the value of a kindred spirit best:

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself —
Finite Infinity. 7

The empty, dusty, echoing years between the stars, the blue eternity of the deep beyond the final headland, the valley of shadows that all must walk alone–these are the very crossroads of all human love, fellowship, and warmth beside that other place. Here the soul, this slight breath of God’s infinite Spirit which blows where it will, is turned inward to feed on itself, imprisoned and locked in the eternal ice of never ending winter.

Many well intended solutions attempt to cure such human tragedy with the equivalent of get-well cards, smiley stickers, warm fuzzy robots featuring outsized sympathetic eyes to comfort the elderly, bear-hugging armchairs, restaurants that provide life-sized plush toys to sit opposite solitary diners, even phone holding Ramen bowls that provide consolation with a cheery, nature-themed anti-loneliness app as you cry into your noodles. Obviously, any attempts to heal deep wounds at the surface level are bound for failure. But the Good Lord, as we know, loves to set things upside down and back to front.

Chesterton once defined love as the “loneliness of God”8–a loneliness which became a love so great that it took from the Creator of the worlds his only son and nailed him to a cross as the Redeemer and brother of all mankind. Perhaps the current epidemic is a manifestation of a sort of Narnian winter that has come over society—a distance and chilliness that sets in when love, as prophesied, cools and ebbs away. In some strange and simple way, love will solve everything, turning our loneliness into the loneliness of God, not the human despair that drives us deeper into wintry isolation, but in the direction of a fellow man.

For winter implies spring already on its way. It arrives with the first robin splashing down in the snow like the grace of God. A few days of sunshine soften and melt an entire winter’s load of ice. The first drip begins the break-up. There is a tilting of all things, and the earth turns its face towards the sun.

Like the prophet Jonah—alone in the deep, seaweed in his hair, barred in forever at the roots of the mountains—John Donne knew what it meant to be brought up from the pit. His powerful Meditation XVII holds up a mirror to God’s breathtaking love and makes it his own, a love so great that every border between men ceases to exist:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main;
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind;
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.1

If we share in every man’s death, we also share in his rebirth. The funeral knell gives way to the jubilant bells of Easter morning pealing the Resurrection in unearthly adoration. In his time, Christ, the lonely God, will find each one of his lonely people and every tear will be dried.

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Guest Blog: Poverty and Wealth

Guest Blog: Poverty and Wealth

Guest Blogger

Dorcas Smucker is a pastor’s wife and mother of six. She and her family live near Harrisburg, Oregon in a house that’s been in the Smucker family for over 100 years. Dorcas has been writing a monthly column called “Letter from Harrisburg” for the Eugene Register-Guard for 17 years, and these columns have been compiled into seven different books. Find more of her writings on her blog, Life in the Shoe.

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“We shouldn’t be this wealthy,” I thought.

I was sitting in Halsey Mennonite Church gymnasium with 450 other Oregon Anabaptists, listening to reports about the astonishingly varied and vast work of Christian Aid Ministries and its new satellite program, CAM-West. Medicines, hygiene kits, food boxes, clothing, wells, blankets—the list seemed endless and included, of course, reports of the large financial donations that make these projects possible. There were a lot of deep pockets in that room. Everyone seemed to be listening intently and—I assumed—evaluating whether this cause was worthy of a financial gift, and if so, how much it should be.

For the most part, Anabaptists in Oregon are financially successful. Many families own their own homes and, often, farms and rental houses besides. Mennonite-owned businesses—most of them related to agriculture—abound and thrive. They are also generous. Fundraisers for Gospel Echoes Northwest or a medical emergency are well-attended and raise many thousands of dollars. According to the prevailing theories of poverty and wealth found in financial articles such as The Atlantic, and in books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, we should not be doing this wealthy. What is it about Anabaptists that turns the American economic charts upside down?

For one thing, we are primarily rural; rural America is declining in opportunity and struggling to survive. Also, probably less than half of the conservative Anabaptist adults in Oregon have finished high school, and all the experts agree that lack of a high school diploma is a key precursor of poverty. Yet, Mennonites are able to support their families and fund CAM-West, as well as many causes and charities besides. Why has this community turned the economic tables upside down? Here are some likely factors:

 1. While not nearly as long-established as Lancaster County or Holmes County, the Willamette Valley Mennonite community is over 100 years old. The first Mennonite settlers bought farmland that is, in many cases, still in the family. Farming expertise and equipment were also handed down from one generation to the next.

2. Mennonites have been quick to recognize opportunity. They were among the first to recognize the suitability of this climate for growing grass seed. Frank Kropf, one of the patriarchs, was the first to import a hardier perennial ryegrass from New Zealand. When a harsh winter killed the other ryegrasses, his seed stock became the standard. Frank and his sons invented machinery to harvest grass seed, and many Mennonite farmers established their own seed cleaning businesses. Later, when burning the straw off the fields was outlawed, Mennonites were among the first to bale the straw and ship it overseas, which led to employment opportunities in baling crews, hay presses, and trucking.

3. An old-fashioned work ethic has prevailed. From teenage girls putting in 12-hour days driving combines during harvest, to men who manage large acreages and pastor a church besides, hard work is expected and honored. Being willing to work hard and learn as you go is considered of more value than formal education.

4. Traditionally, practicality was encouraged and foolishness was not. Money was re-invested in farms and equipment rather than in ostentatious houses, travel, or possessions. This factor is gradually changing with young people buying lattes and new pickup trucks. But much of the underlying tradition remains.

5. Connection is important. Nepotism, some would call it. Fathers hire their sons, nephews, and their friends. If you can prove a connection to a potential employer, he is likely to trust and hire you. This means that any local young person with a desire to work can get a job and, if he or she does well, work their way to a better position.

6. Anabaptists recognize that money is not the only, or even the most important, type of wealth. Perhaps it was the isolation of the early settlers, and the vast distance from communities in the East, that made them recognize that people are of enormous value, and they created large families and tightly-knit communities. Today, we still tend to have lots of children, live close together, and show up by the hundreds for weddings and funerals. Spiritual resources are also of more value than money, exemplified by church attendance and lifestyle choices such as taking Sunday off, even when the weather is perfect for harvesting ryegrass. Both of these would no doubt seem, to a secular economist, like a drain on finances. Paradoxically, both have led to an increase in financial wealth.

7. In another seeming paradox, generosity has not depleted financial resources. Tithing is encouraged, and many give above 10%, funding church programs, schools, prison ministries, CAM-West, and much more.

Ultimately, of course, wealth and poverty defy simple explanations, and all that we have is a gift from God. It is His choice to bless or withhold. Living by Christian principles and valuing people, wisdom and the Gospel over money can lead to resources that secular economists will never understand or quantify.