The American education system is caught between Church and State


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Dr. Mack T. Flemmings, Sr., the pastor of Freedom, believes a stronger partnership between the faith community and local schools would benefit everyone involved. (Image: NDG)

By Allen R. Gray, NDG Special Contributor

In an American educational system, where bullying, school shootings and threats of violence are a daily occurrence, educators realize they are now obliged to address more than literacy and college readiness. There are social, emotional and even spiritual considerations to face down or surrender to when educating the students. How did we disintegrate to this state of affairs?

David Freeman spent 15 years serving on the Athens, Texas school board and is convinced he knows when public education took a turn for the worst.

“When Madalyn Murray O’Hair took prayer out of school, everything went downhill,” Freeman contends. O’Hair, who won a 1963 Supreme Court decision challenging compulsory prayer in schools, once called religion “a crutch” and an irrational reliance on superstitions and supernatural nonsense.” Freeman believes with the removal of time for spiritual meditation from students’ daily school regimen, left legions of soul-sick and angry students on their hands. The kids do not even know what they are mad at or why.

The difficulties faced by students—Blacks and Hispanics especially—in our public school systems did not begin with a matter of privilege, segregation or O’Hair. There was a time when the relationship between Church and school was a lot less controversial. There was a time when these two entities worked together as one.

The Church mandated free education for the poor as early as 1179. The Boston Latin School, established in 1635, is the first public school opened in the 13 American Colonies. It’s still the nation’s oldest public school. There was not a large population of Blacks at the Boston Latin School. America’s Blacks were forced to pursue their own education and the Black church led the way.

Palestine, Texas resident Joe Bobbie Gray talks of a time when combining church and school was an accepted—even an expected—part of students’ upbringing. Gray, 82-years-old, fondly recalls when around 1930; Johnny Boy and Will Allen Calhoun donated an acre of land for the sake of Blacks living in the Tennessee Colony area of Palestine. They built New Chapel Baptist Church on this donated acre. Behind the church and to the left, they reestablished Union Academy School for Negroes. The school served students from the first through the twelfth grades—one room for elementary, one room for secondary with a kitchen dividing them.

Fast forward to present day when education is left in the hands of the State alone, schools face legislation like No Child Left Behind; and now replaced with Every Student Succeeds Act. The second “fix” is no better than the first. Academics were considered without care of the students’ spirits and emotions.

“What the church provided was an avenue for students to have self-worth,” Freeman says. “That’s what the Bible teaches: that you have to love yourself to love others.”

In the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, the 3600 block of South Westmoreland runs north and south. Freedom Missionary Baptist Church is on the west side of the block, and Justin F. Kimball High School is on the east. Rudyard Kipling said, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

Dr. Mack T. Flemmings, Sr. is the pastor of Freedom, located on S. Westmoreland since 1979. For the past 44 years, Dr. Flemings has looked across the six lanes of pavement diving the church and school. He often considers ways his congregation might support their neighbor. But due to bureaucracy and apathy, those six lanes of roadway seem as vast and deep as the Grand Canyon.

Why can’t those lanes be crossed? NDG asked Dr. Flemmings directly.

Dr. Flemmings suggests there are no lanes of division, but rather “The Wall” constructed by our founding fathers. The intent was to prevent the State from dictating how a man should worship his god. The interpretations of men, after that, have created a broad gray-line between church and state, according to Dr. Flemmings. Laws and governmental restrictions hamper the efforts of the church, but the biggest impediment facing the church is the unwillingness of men and women to get involved.

“There was a time when (Freedom MBC and the schools near it) were close. We’ve given our blood, sweat, treasure,” Dr. Flemmings reflects.

Over the past 44 years, Dr. Flemmings has observed the ravaging effects of urban decay. He points toward rises in bullying, suicide, teen pregnancy, school dropouts and teen fatalities. “I’m burying more than I’m Baptizing,” Dr. Flemmings mournfully declares. He has also witnessed the birth of deep and brooding anger more prevalent in students today.

“It’s really anger from home, and it’s an anger due to letdown,” he suggests. Kids antics are desperate attempts to gain attention even if it is not positive attention. Dr. Flemmings contends the lack of enough adults teaching morals and values is a key factor. It is a result of parents often failing to teach their children boundaries and basic home values. “Everyone isn’t religious, but we are all spiritual beings,” he says.

Dr. Flemmings falls short of saying the mere infusion of the church back into the schools will solve society’s ills, but he does believe, their absence is a part of the problem.

“There is no doubt in my mind that schools are less safe and less productive because of the separation of church and state,” he shared.

If Dr. Flemmings had his wish, he would like to see more young adults mentoring and talking to students in the language only the young can comprehend. “The only answer (students) have is to somehow get Christ back into the schools,” he adamantly contends. “You can do that not by mentioning His name, but by presenting his character through you.”

The six lanes of separation are seemingly impossible to cross. However, the prose of Kipling also offers some hope to those who would but dare to seek hope.

“But there is neither East nor West…When two strong men stand face to face.”