Here’s how churches can play a crucial role in the anti-racist formation of children and youth

The wave of white Christian nationalism sweeping through various levels of government in recent years is showing up prominently in education. Proposed and passed legislation constrains or prohibits public schools from teaching children about our nation’s history of racism and racialized violence and how society can address racial inequities and racial justice. Books have been taken off public library shelves.

In the face of these realities, what can churches do to infuse their spiritual formation curricula for children and youth with a robust anti-racist theology? I’d suggest three shifts that churches, faith leaders and volunteers can and should make to be more explicitly anti-racist: epistemological, material and structural.

Epistemological shifts

Before making any material or structural changes, those involved in spiritual formation must make some epistemological (or cognitive) shifts in their own understandings of race and racism. This means beginning to evaluate their unexamined assumptions of race, how racism works at individual and societal levels, and how predominantly white culture influences the reading and understanding of the Bible.

First, they must learn what “race” is and how race categories shape people’s life experiences. There is an abundance of materials out there that can assist in accomplishing this. One resource I’ve found helpful is “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. This book is easy to read and addresses many common questions around race and racism with a targeted yet graceful poignancy.

Second, those involved in spiritual formation must begin to see the relationship between interpersonal racism and structural racism. One of the definitive studies on children’s socialization into race is “The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism,” by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin.

Van Ausdale’s research shows that children as young as 3 use race and skin color to categorize, include and exclude other children in play. Further, she found that young children learn to employ racialized rhetoric from the larger culture beyond the direct influence of family and school.

Third, spiritual formation practitioners must learn how their cultural standpoints shape their reading and understanding of the Bible. Esau McCaulley’s “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope” challenges readers to see the Bible through the lens of Black church tradition to connect messages in the Bible with Black experiences and questions.

As churches, faith leaders and volunteers do the work of shifting their perspectives on race and racism, they become better equipped to tackle more material shifts in their formation practices.

Material shifts

My research has found an overwhelming lack of diverse racial and ethnic representation in illustrations, pictures and media. Further, Montague Williams shows in his book “Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.” that conversations about race and racism are typically either avoided or restricted within youth formation spaces.

Among the simple things churches can begin to do: diversify their materials. This goes beyond being “historically accurate.” Through the centuries, multiple cultures have depicted biblical characters and stories through the lens of their own ethnicities. Alongside white representations of Bible stories, those involved in spiritual formation can include renderings that are African American, Korean, Guatemalan, Navajo, etc.

They can draw from Bibles and storybooks with different racial, ethnic and cultural representations in illustrations and perspectives. These materials can easily be found through searching online or reaching out to diverse networks of practitioners in spiritual formation.

In addition to diversifying representation in materials, churches need to normalize conversations about race and racism as part of spiritual formation. There have been scant attempts at creating lessons that deal specifically with race and anti-racism. While any such attempts are a good start, anti-racist conversations must go beyond special topics or series.

Anti-racism needs to be woven throughout the practice of spiritual formation. As churches teach through the Bible, Scripture must be allowed to speak for itself on issues of race, racism, anti-racism and racial justice. They may find it helpful to use supplemental materials like “The Gospel in Color,” by Curtis A. Woods and Jarvis J. Williams (there are versions for kids and parents).

Finally, churches can tell stories of racially marginalized Christians, their histories and their experiences. Churches predominantly made up of racially marginalized people can tell their own stories of encountering God as a racially marginalized group and how their racial and ethnic identity forms them spiritually. Other good sources for stories include materials like People of Color Who Inspire, from the Godly Play Foundation.

Structural shifts

After doing the work of making epistemological and material shifts, churches need to implement some structural shifts to sustain anti-racist spiritual formation practices beyond the immediate public crisis we find ourselves in.

These structural shifts include creating external accountability to maintain anti-racism as part of the explicit spiritual formation curriculum, such as joining or creating networks of racially and ethnically diverse spiritual formation practitioners. This has become easier in the past couple of years as we’ve navigated a steep learning curve to connect virtually in various ways.

Another structural shift is to include racially and ethnically diverse voices in the leadership, teaching and oversight of spiritual formation. Predominantly white congregations can seek out such diverse voices, through books, podcasts, trainings, etc., can spiritually form and influence how congregations approach the spiritual formation of their children and youth.

Most importantly, churches need to pray for God’s help to make these shifts. They can pray for wisdom, courage and insight on providing youth and children with a robust anti-racist theology in their contexts. They can pray for opportunities to stand alongside parents as they partner in the spiritual formation of children and youth. They can pray against the sin of racism in their communities and for ways to push back on the forces that would erase the experiences of racialized minorities in the public square.

Anti-racism needs to be woven throughout the practice of spiritual formation.

The concussive pops rang through Uptown Baptist Church one evening in August 2013. The Rev. Michael Allen didn’t realize the noise as gunfire at first. Busy greeting the familiar faces and newcomers at the church’s Monday Meal program, the minister thought it was perhaps late summer fireworks.

Then he opened the church door. He saw five men bleeding at the bottom of the church steps. One man, shot in the head, later died; the other victims recovered from their injuries. Uptown has higher rates of violence than many other North Side Chicago neighborhoods, but this was beyond anything Allen had ever seen.

“We can’t allow this,” he thought. He had long been focused on urban ministry and justice, and this latest violence underscored his neighborhood’s critical need: What could be done to help the victims as well as keep the would-be perpetrators from getting to this point?

“How can we minister on both sides of the gun?” he asked himself.

prayer walk
Faith leaders march downtown during Hands Across Chicago, which mobilizes people to host “united prayer and positive community presence” in the city.Photo by Scott Parker

A year and a half later, Allen met David Dillon, a tech entrepreneur who had grown up the child of Baptist General Conference missionaries in Japan and later moved to Chicago. The two discovered they were focused on the same issue.

Staggering rates of gun violence in 2016 spurred Dillon to try to find an approach to the problem. He invited his friends, business peers and pastor contacts to pray and brainstorm.

In 2017, Together Chicago was born of faith, strategy and collaboration, with Dillon and Allen as co-founders. Its goal is to improve communities on Chicago’s near West Side and address what Together Chicago board member the Rev. Jon Dennis calls a “racial wound that hasn’t been healed yet.”

Collaboration and collective impact

Gun violence is just one outcome of the interconnected problems of economic disenfranchisement, systemic racism, high incarceration rates, violence, substandard educational resources and demoralization.

Together Chicago tackles it all. Inspired by a 2014 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Allen and Dillon designed the nonprofit as a “collective impact” organization. Collective impact is “an intentional way of working together and sharing information for the purpose of solving a complex problem,” according to the National Council of Nonprofits.

What partners do you invite into conversation when you face what seems like an intractable problem?

panel discussion
Faith organizers speak at at a training hosted by Building Blocks of Peace, a Together Chicago partner. Photo by Gabe Lerma

Gun violence overall in Chicago isn’t as rampant as some might think — Chicago isn’t even the most violent city in the Midwest. However, its gun violence is highly concentrated in certain neighborhoods: between 2017 and 2020, 15 of Chicago’s 77 designated community areas, concentrated in the city’s South and West sides, accounted for over 50% of all shootings.

The West Haven neighborhood, where Together Chicago focuses, includes the United Center (the house that Michael Jordan built). It’s close to the downtown Loop and is a mix of rapacious gentrification and generations-old public housing.

In order to address the web of interrelated factors that contribute to violence, the leaders set up the organization with five focus areas: violence reduction, education, economic development, gospel justice and faith community mobilization.

Together Chicago’s reach and impact is expanding as the organization grows.

In 2020-21, volunteers and staff worked with about 3,000 schoolchildren; offered legal aid in 19 churches; trained 28 volunteers and faith leaders to “interrupt” violence; helped local businesses become suppliers to major industries; and engaged more than 100 churches in prayer gatherings and other efforts.

Together Chicago works with local universities to track its impact. The work is slow and long term, but the group can point to successes.

Andrew Papachristos is a Northwestern University sociology professor who studies gun violence and has researched nonviolence outreach groups. He has worked with Together Chicago partner Communities Partnering for Peace.

Papachristos said the data collected so far indicates that efforts of outreach programs by Communities Partnering for Peace could be linked to 383 fewer homicides in 2021.

“That’s not 5,000, but that’s not zero, either,” he said.

Violence reduction

Dillon and Allen call each other co-CEOs (also sometimes, in presentations and interviews, “twin sons of different mothers”). They note that business acumen is essential to managing an organization with so many priorities and stakeholders.

Together Chicago resisted thinking about gun violence as a stand-alone challenge, appreciating the ways it is interconnected with economics, racism and other injustices. How would such an approach to discernment invite you to think differently about your ministries and their impact?

Dillon and Allen
David Dillon and Michael Allen, co-founders of Together Chicago.

“We’re over a $2 million organization now,” Dillon said. “There’s just a ton to manage in terms of complexity. We’re audited by every agency that gives us money to do work. We report, literally, sometimes weekly on our activities to various agencies. It’s a huge amount of overhead and red tape.”

The organization, which has 50 employees, is funded by grants from foundations, churches and individuals, contracts with local businesses, and government grants for services related to violence prevention and reduction.

Like other business leaders in 2023, Dillon and Allen understand the importance of data and how to use it.

With access to data on crime, education and other metrics through partners like the University of Chicago, North Park University and the Department of Education, they track their efforts. That includes the number of students in volunteer programs, the number of parents in the Parent Champions program and the number of school/church combinations, Dillon said.

Beyond thoughts and prayers, metrics let them know whether they’re heading in the right direction and what goals to set.

“We’ve had some double-digit reduction in violence last year [2021] compared to the year before, but we’re still not back to pre-pandemic numbers,” Dillon said, reviewing data from the University of Chicago Crime Lab portal, which tracked gun victims on the West Side in 2021 (nine) vs. 2020 (16).

The city experienced 695 homicides in 2022 — still some of the highest numbers since the 1990s, but lower than the 804 in 2021.

Watching numbers like those provided by the portal in real time helps provide a more granular picture of spots to focus on in the areas they serve.

“We’re not doing as well this year as we did in ’21, but we still are seeing a reduction,” Dillon said. “At the end of this year, we’d love to see another double-digit reduction in homicides and shootings.”

How do you measure success? What partners might help you learn from your efforts and pivot for greater effect?

prayer service
People gather at First Baptist Congregational Church for Chicagoland United in Prayer.Photo by Nate Tubbs

Interrupting street violence

Tio Hardiman, the executive director of Chicago’s Violence Interrupters program, supervises Together Chicago’s street outreach team. Former gang members, people who have been incarcerated and gunshot survivors serve as community liaisons to keep local at-risk youth out of prison or the morgue.

“We provide the training so they know what it takes to become a credible messenger and how to prevent conflicts on the front end before any shots are fired,” Hardiman said.

“They don’t just meet with the guys on the streets; they actually have a relationship with different community stakeholders like church leaders, community residents and community leaders, which is very, very important.”

One strategy is to interrupt bad actions through volunteer peacemakers who engage in “positive loitering” to change street dynamics. Another strategy is to interrupt bad actors through personal visits and messages of hope.

Derek Wright is a West Haven resident who learned about Together Chicago’s street outreach program because of its network. His brother knew Charles King, a former gang member who now counsels local guys like him.

Wright said that King helped him get a job with the city of Chicago, when previously he had been “hanging on the street.”

“It’s not just he got me a job; he got seven other people jobs. He helped the community,” Wright said. “[Charles] has been involved in my life for a minute. When life has its ups and downs, I give him a call, and we work it out. Not everything is peaches and cream.”

In other situations, the Chicago Police Department shares names of local youth most at risk of landing in prison, possibly repeatedly, with the group’s anti-violence leaders.

“The commanders give a message of warning to these guys,” Allen said. “We give a message of hope and help to them: ‘The police will stop you if you make them; we will help you if you let us. Give us a call when you’re ready to put the guns and drugs down. We’ll show you a better path.’”

The Rev. Joe Cali, a North Side minister, has a list of 100 families of “acute offenders” he checks in on as one of the organization’s volunteer counselors. He considers it a success if any of the youths indicate they want to hear what he has to say. Not everyone he counsels stays out of jail, but he can still help them if they don’t.

“We went to one young man’s house three times because he kept being on the Top 10 list,” Cali said. The young man finally reached out after landing in prison for breaking into cars.

“He started calling me almost every night from jail: ‘Pastor, I’ve got to change.’” He has been staying out of trouble since he got out.

“We just took him to the Blackhawks game last night,” Cali said. “He’s a different person now. He’s smiling big.”

What skills are essential for your ministry? If your team doesn’t already have those skills, how might you develop them?

neighborhoods working together
Pastors and leaders commit to prayer and action in their communities at Apostolic Faith Church.Photo by Mandy Pelton

Gospel justice, education and economic development

Together Chicago’s focus areas are informed by the needs left in the wake of Chicago’s documented disenfranchisement of minorities on the West Side. After several formal and informal listening sessions among community members, Allen says, it was clear there was a need for legal assistance.

“People said, ‘We’ve got so many families involved in the justice system. How do we help those people solve some of their civil issues before those civil issues become criminal issues?’”

Together Chicago, in partnership with the legal aid organization Administer Justice, runs Gospel Justice Centers in 19 churches. On Saturday mornings in primarily South and West Side churches, local volunteer attorneys offer legal aid clinics to advise clients on civil cases, typically involving family, housing, probate court or tax issues.

Together Chicago also seeks to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by working with schools and families and developing the economy in the city’s marginalized neighborhoods.

To improve education, Together Chicago pairs with Chicago Public Schools to help churches and other organizations “adopt” schools to provide resources and help they may lack.

Some efforts are focused on student learning, such as tutoring. Together Chicago also trains mentors to work with students and recruit churches to help build a “village of support” for their families.

This support ranges from training volunteers to donating money and furniture and, in one case, preparing an end-of-semester meal for staff at Doolittle Elementary in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

The Parent Champions program offers counseling for stressed-out parents with the difficult task of raising kids in a tough environment.

How do you practice listening in your context? Whose voices are loudest? Whose are missing? Are you paying attention to needs, hopes, gifts or something else?

new grad and family
Damien Howard, director of education initiatives for Together Chicago, visits with graduates of its mentoring program.Photo courtesy of Together Chicago

“I know Together Chicago’s work is paying off when I see a kid like Camden,” said Damien Howard, the director of education initiatives at Together Chicago.

“He was a young man with behavioral issues at school. He took to [our] Social Emotional Learning training that was not just happening at school, but it was happening at home as well because his mom was taking part in it too.”

Camden Woodley, a third grader, said Together Chicago’s SEL training made a big difference.

“[The training] helped me take control of my emotions and make better choices and be a better friend,” he said.

Once students graduate, Together Chicago wants them to be able to find jobs and live in economically healthy communities. Much of this effort involves job placement, but the group’s economic development work is broader than keeping people out of prison.

In one case, the nonprofit worked with a nearby health care system that purchases $100 million in goods and services, helping it identify local businesses.

“They asked us to find local businesses that are minority-owned that they can use to do various services for their hospitals,” Dillon said. “We found IT companies and attorneys and repair companies and all kinds of companies that are minority-owned that are now doing services for Rush Hospital.”

The role of faith communities

None of this work would happen without faith community mobilization. In late January, the group was preparing for its annual Prayer Gathering event, in which 170 churches across Chicago pray virtually and in person for peace and thriving communities. It’s organized by Chicagoland United in Prayer, a sister organization. They even offer a special guide to prayer for each of the city’s neighborhoods.

“What’s really cool about these prayer gatherings is it’s very racially integrated,” Dillon said. “It’s a very visible way to show that the body of Christ really can unite, as in the Bible in John chapter 17. We pray together. We train together. We learn together.”

Prayer Gathering event
Participants form “prayer huddles” at Apostolic Faith Church during a Chicagoland United in Prayer event.Photo by Jantzen Loza

However, many of the spaces Together Chicago advocates for and works in — gangs, public schools, courts, law enforcement — are not necessarily places of faith.

Allen and Dillon say they follow a general philosophy: they lead with but do not force religion on anyone, especially members of the street outreach team, several of whom are Muslim.

“We have a statement of faith, the core values that we want everybody on our staff to live out in their day-to-day work,” Allen said. “It’s a work in progress. Most of our staff, even among the street outreach team, have no problem with our core values.”

Prayer gatherings, including this one at The Moody Church, are intended to foster seasonal rhythms of prayer and action throughout the year.Photo by Mandy Pelton

But sometimes, Dillon said, a faith connection grows where there was none before. When police officers depart, a young man might develop a rapport with a visiting minister who lingers to talk. Or a client who steps inside a church looking for affordable legal counsel might find something more.

“It’s meeting a legitimate, everyday need that they have that then sparks a faith journey,” he said.

There are many more intimate, less scalable ways the organization helps the community.

Shortly before Christmas, 16-year-old Kimberly Campbell was indoors on the West Side when she was shot in the head by outside gunfire. She later died. Together Chicago helped raise funds for her mother to spend some time at a hotel away from the triggering pressure and sadness of the neighborhood.

Cali, the volunteer counselor, said he once counseled the mother of a young man in jail for accidentally shooting and killing his best friend.

“I asked the family, ‘Do you need anything?’ The mom said, ‘I just broke my last pan.’ We bought her three new pans so she can cook her food.”

Looking ahead

Together Chicago’s goals for the year ahead are ambitious. The double-digit reduction in gun violence. More locations for the Gospel Justice Centers. And some signed truces between rival gangs.

In the spring, local gang factions will leave their guns behind and meet for several hours with the street outreach team to talk about what peace in the community might look like.

“They will be offered food, fun activities and noted hosts or participants who are well respected on the streets. These peace circles promise some ways and means out toward safety and prosperity,” Allen said.

No amount of data or funding can build this type of trust, he said. It takes solid partnerships built over time, a person-to-person model Together Chicago aims to reflect at every level.

“When we do get asked to come into a community,” Dillon said, “before we do that, we sit down and say, ‘How can we really coexist well together?’ If we can’t do that, we have no business even being in existence. It’s really core to our whole DNA.”

Questions to consider

  • What partners do you invite into conversation when you face what seems like an intractable problem?
  • Together Chicago resisted thinking about gun violence as a stand-alone challenge, appreciating the ways it is interconnected with economics, racism and other injustices. How would such an approach to discernment invite you to think differently about your ministries and their impact?
  • How do you measure success? What partners might help you learn from your efforts and pivot for greater effect?
  • What skills are essential for your ministry? If your team doesn’t already have those skills, how might you develop them?
  • How do you practice listening in your context? Whose voices are loudest? Whose are missing? Are you paying attention to needs, hopes, gifts or something else?

When the house next door to the parish hall of Grace Episcopal Church came up for sale, it created the opportunity for more than a real estate transaction.

The Rev. Karen Hunter, the vicar of the Nampa, Idaho, parish, had already recognized the need for a local ministry to help support single mothers. With buy-in— both financial and philosophical — from the right people, she believed that the unassuming building could help them serve a new set of neighbors.

Vicar with children
The Rev. Karen Hunter saw the need for ways to support single mothers in the Nampa area.

Although the church had owned the property once before, when Hunter and other members of the congregation went to take a look, they discovered a much larger floor plan than they’d realized. Knowing that Grace could not afford to buy the house outright on its own, Hunter reached out to her sister and brother-in-law and pitched them on the purchase with the hope that the church would pay them back eventually.

They agreed, and the plan was discussed further at a congregational meeting.

“There were a number of people who surprised me in being supportive, because something like this is a big undertaking,” Hunter said. “We had so many people who had experienced being single moms, or had people close to them who were, I think it really resonated. It was clear that this was a time in people’s lives when assistance is really important.”

With an eye to housing families led by single mothers who were pursuing their education, the parish established a committee and a board, both of which got to work. The planning for what would be aptly named The House Next Door began in earnest, with next steps that would be familiar to any housing nonprofit: applying for 501(c)(3) status, hiring staff members, bringing in furniture along with the bits and pieces of daily life that would make the empty house a home.

What resources to address a problem are so close that you might have overlooked them? If those resources seem unattainable, what are some creative options to overcome those hurdles?

The 1930s-era house is next door to Grace Episcopal Church.

Learning as they go

The House Next Door went on to open in 2015 and has since provided rent-free housing for 16 mothers and 27 children, five of them born while their families were in residence. The qualifications and application process have evolved over the last seven years, mostly in response to new information and unexpected considerations, including deciding what qualifies as pursuing an education.

One of the first residents was pursuing her GED diploma rather than a college degree, as had been stipulated. In response, that requirement was broadened to include any kind of education — from GED studies to heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) training to an apprenticeship with builders to learn how to frame houses.

Nampa, with a population of roughly 100,000, is located 20 miles west of the state capital of Boise. The city is home to the annual Snake River Stampede Rodeo, abundant parks and walkways, and other attractions. It is also among those municipalities faced with a growing need for affordable housing. For single parents trying to improve their families’ circumstances through education, housing insecurity is an additional burden.

Meredith Greif, an assistant research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, said that supporting housing stability and parental education benefits families and communities.

“Anything that can be done to help people to advance their education is going to go a long way in terms of their ability to gain jobs that are helpful to their families, income they earn and, similarly, the housing they’re able to secure,” said Greif, whose research focuses on race, space and housing.

“Kids will 100% only benefit from that, from the stable environment their parents provide,” she said. “Parents are best equipped to be supportive of their own kids when they, too, are in a mentally stable place, when they perceive their quality of life to be good and they’re satisfied with their environment. Having parents feel good about themselves and feel engaged in the world and confident only is going to spill over to their kids.”

How do you respond when realities shift and your expectations for a project need to change? How might you reframe those changes as opportunities?

kids playing
Since 2015, 16 mothers and 27 children have lived in THND.

The application process for living at THND includes a list of general criteria: mothers must be 18 or older or legally emancipated; they must be enrolled in educational programming at least part time and be working toward a degree or certification; and they must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA.

All residents must also agree to abide by the list of house rules, which include no smoking, no drugs or alcohol, and no overnight guests. Mothers with a prior history of addiction must be in recovery for a minimum of six months prior to applying.

Living in the house

The 1930s-era house blends into the neighborhood, with only a small yard sign displaying THND’s name and logo.

Thanks to a donor, the house’s interior and exterior have just received a fresh coat of paint —bright white inside and out, with teal accents and shutters.

In addition to the four bedrooms and three bathrooms split between three stories, there is a kitchen, dining room, living room, study room and separate playroom. Amenities include a washer and dryer, Wi-Fi, and a large backyard with a patio, storage space, a playground, and an aboveground pool.

Two mothers residing in the house recently spoke about what the experience has meant for them. (The mothers requested that their last names not be used.)

Residents live rent-free but pay $80 toward utilities. They also pay for their own food and personal expenses.

Carolina, 26, has three daughters, ages 2, 7 and 9. Originally from Honduras, Carolina speaks Spanish as her first language, and her interview was conducted through a translator.

She heard about THND through pastors in a church where she and her family had been in a shelter, and they helped her connect. Her family moved into the home in early December 2021, and she has been working on English classes and getting her GED certificate since then.

Jamilet, also from Honduras, learned about THND from Carolina through their work harvesting grapes. She is 22 with a 1-year-old and a 6-year-old. Before moving into THND in early February, Jamilet and her children were living in her aunt’s living room. She already has her GED diploma and is taking English classes so she can attend college and pursue a career in nursing.

Jamilet said she feels safe and at peace living with her daughters at THND. She is glad the people there are helping her succeed. She also said it was challenging at first to establish a routine in the house between school, working, taking care of the kids and other responsibilities but that she feels more established in the home now.

The communal living established by THND is intentional, as it means more help with child care, house cleaning and general support. All are important factors while trying to juggle school and single parenthood. Each family pays $80 per month toward its share of the utilities and other necessities of the house. Residents also cover their own costs for food, insurance and personal expenses.

Building supportive relationships

When have you been surprised by someone’s generosity, compassion or empathy? How can that shape your vision for what is possible?

Melinda Romayor became executive director in March.

Melinda Romayor, who became THND’s new executive director in March 2022, has a background in advocacy against sexual violence through the Women’s and Children’s Alliance. She has almost a decade of experience running shelters and advocating for clients, a background that is useful for leading the work of The House Next Door. While THND is not a shelter for women affected by domestic violence, many who stay there have had similarly traumatic experiences.

Romayor’s arrival came during a time of staff turnover, in both the executive director and the house manager position.

“There was a lot of change for the residents in terms of someone checking in,” Romayor said. “They were used to just living there, doing their thing and not really being supported.”

Romayor has been working to change that relationship, visiting with the women and helping them utilize all the resources THND has that they might not have been taking advantage of before. She has also been working to get the community more involved in opportunities for engagement, like sponsoring a room or a service project, such as the recent house painting, so that more people feel a part of THND and its success.

The residents live communally, helping each other with child care, house cleaning and general support.

Each project done to renovate and upgrade THND — from replacing the 80-year-old original windows in 2016 to renovating the downstairs after a flood in 2017 to installing a new HVAC system in 2020 — has been through the support of volunteers, donors and grant money.

Grace Church has managed to secure funds for THND through a variety of endeavors, including a social enterprise to make priest’s stoles and annual fundraisers, together with donations and grants.

The organization’s budget goes primarily to maintenance of the house, Romayor’s and the house manager’s salaries, insurance, and the mortgage. They rely heavily on volunteers for supportive roles, especially for babysitting. Then there are the little things throughout the year that don’t necessarily cost that much but have a big impact, such as gift cards for the residents on their birthdays.

There seems to be a natural rhythm to those coming and going from THND; there have been a few times when someone was wait-listed, but typically, as one woman moves out, another happens to apply. Grace Church and THND have received many requests over the years to open a house for single fathers. But for now, given the price of real estate in the area and the need to finish paying for the current house, the focus remains on the small home in Nampa, making a difference in single moms’ lives.

Who are the people you need to bring on board for your next big project? What are some ways you can contribute to a larger endeavor in your community without being the one in charge?

Questions to consider

  • What resources to address a problem are so close that you might have overlooked them? If those resources seem unattainable, what are some creative options to overcome those hurdles?
  • How do you respond when realities shift and your expectations for a project need to change? How might you reframe those changes as opportunities?
  • When have you been surprised by someone’s generosity, compassion or empathy? How can that shape your vision for what is possible?
  • Who are the people you need to bring on board for your next big project? What are some ways you can contribute to a larger endeavor in your community without being the one in charge?

At an airy school site in southeast Washington, D.C., several children gather around an outdoor planter filled with espresso-colored dirt. It’s about 3:30 on a bright summer afternoon, and the students have been there since morning.

They began the day with harambee, a high-energy ritual that lets students pull together and celebrate themselves, before going into a sewing exercise and then a nutrition lesson. Now comes the gardening, where they learn a handy fact — how lavender can repel mosquitos — and start to grow their own plants.

As these students — known here as scholars — congregate, a college-age instructor (also known as a servant leader) watches over them while parents and other site staff linger outside and inside the school.

All of this is part of a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools six-week summer session. And since CDF’s mission is “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities,” this program is key.

children's activity
Harambee is a high-energy start to the day as the scholars celebrate themselves and pull together.Photo by Carol Guzy

In fact, CDF Freedom Schools, also offered as after-school programs, are the “heart and soul” of what the Children’s Defense Fund is doing for children and their well-being, said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, CDF’s president and chief executive officer. Through CDF’s partnerships and work with children, families and communities, Wilson said, the program “helps us to prioritize what we’re speaking about, what we’re advocating around, and the policies we believe families need to create the conditions for their children to thrive.”

A program with history

CDF has a record of helping communities. Civil rights pioneer Marian Wright Edelman, credited as the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, founded the nonprofit in 1973 after dedicating her early career to defending the civil liberties of people who faced poverty and discrimination.

Today, the CDF Freedom Schools program is offered to students in kindergarten through 12th grade around the country in community centers, schools, juvenile justice centers, churches and other settings. In 2021, more than 7,200 scholars participated in programs in 26 states and 75 cities.

Freedom Schools have their origin in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which gathered college students to work for justice and voting rights for Black citizens. Back then, these college students volunteered to teach younger students traditional subjects like reading, math and science, along with Black history, constitutional rights and other topics not covered in Mississippi public schools, said Kristal Moore Clemons, the national director of CDF Freedom Schools.

How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?

music class
Scholars practice a song to be performed at their end-of-summer celebration.Photo by Carol Guzy

The early Freedom Schools were established to build the next generation of voters, Clemons said, noting that leaders thought that if they could “crack” Mississippi, they could do the same with other Southern states.

“Our faith-based partners have always played a role in the movement,” she said, explaining that most of the original Freedom Schools operated in churches or community centers.

CDF started its Freedom Schools program in 1995 to help children who lacked access to high-quality literacy programs. Each year, many students — especially those from historically disadvantaged groups — experience summer learning loss. Recent literature on this loss has been mixed, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution report, but one theory cited in the report suggests that lower-income students might learn less over the summer because “the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but not for students from advantaged backgrounds.”

To support students, the CDF model has five components: high-quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.

How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?

kids looking at a doll
Scholars play together between Freedom School activities.Photo by Carol Guzy

Since its start, more than 169,000 children have experienced Freedom Schools, and more than 19,000 young adults and child advocates have been trained on the model, which offers a research-based and multicultural curriculum. The majority of students in 2021 identified as Black/African American (68.4%), with the second-most represented group identifying as Hispanic/Latino (13%).

Because the schools are free to families, parents and guardians don’t incur the expenses they might otherwise have for child care, camps or academic programs. This can be especially helpful in low-income communities.

A vital part of a big mission

School systems vary state to state, and there can be battles over what is offered in the classroom. For instance, some schools now are dealing with banned books and debates about critical race theory, among other issues, Clemons said.

Children also continue to face changes within the system, such as periods of distance learning and isolation, because of the COVID pandemic. Some students are dealing with news of school shootings and racial injustice as well.

“Every year, we choose a different issue that scholars across the country will organize around and take action on,” said Wilson, the CEO. “This year, we’ve chosen climate justice, because we recognize that the planet is a place that our young people will inherit and that climate justice is racial justice.”

How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?

children with protest signs
During National Days of Social Action, scholars take on issues important to them and to their communities.Photo by Ambreia Williams

Scholars come together, discuss the issue and share their ideas for solutions on coordinated National Days of Social Action — and they’re allowed to dream, said Joy Masha, program director for the Washington, D.C., CDF Freedom Schools. Scholars might propose a rally, a call to action to a state council member or the creation of more programs for children in their community, among other means of advocacy.

Because educators may not be able to deviate from state curriculum requirements tied to testing, Freedom Schools historically have supplemented content that traditional teachers could not offer, Clemons said. That includes books featuring people of color — important since fewer than 27% of children’s books published in the United States feature nonwhite children, according to CDF — and educating scholars about figures in history.

How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?

child holding books
Freedom Schools make sure their scholars have access to books that feature people of color. At the end of summer, they each take a stack of books home.Photo by Carol Guzy

“We don’t want to be controversial. Freedom Schools are not here to break down the status quo. We’re here to be in community with people,” Clemons said.

“We’re here to show children that [if] you want to be a scientist, great. If you want to be a yoga instructor, great. If you want to be the next vice president — because we have books on Kamala Harris — you can do that.”

Some parents say they appreciate the programming and the ability to participate via weekly meetings. Rochelle Gibbons has two children enrolled in the D.C. summer program. If she were to send them to camp instead, they’d simply play, she said. But here they read and build relationships as scholars.

Another D.C. parent, Ashley Jones, said she also appreciates the model. Freedom Schools staff care about the children and the environment that families live in, she said, and teach children that they’re not too young to make a difference.

That lesson is big. Because children are listening. Processing current events. And sharing their thoughts.

child with book
Scholars at Freedom Schools across the country focused on the issue of climate justice this summer.Photo by Carol Guzy

Gibbons’ daughter, Dyllon-Rose Gaskin, did just that after her mother spoke at a recent parent meeting in the classroom. The 10-year-old scholar said the program allows her to read books every day and discover new words.

“I learn a lot,” she said, explaining that she’s finding out “interesting stuff” in a fun way.

“Miss Joy has a strong voice, and it helps me speak up sometimes,” she said of Masha’s work at the site.

So what exactly would she speak up about? Dyllon-Rose simply said, “I would speak up about, like, gun violence and different things around the world, like homeless[ness].”

How does it feel to know about these issues as a child?

“People are getting killed … every day, and that’s sad, because people are losing their lives for no reason,” Dyllon-Rose said.

Looking toward a happier future, she shared her desire to be a teacher, a hand model, the vice president, a mayor and “a lot more.”

This kind of exchange, where scholars discuss a range of subjects, is not unusual.

After years of working in the space, Masha said she understands that age does not necessarily determine a child’s experience. Gun violence was the scholars’ issue for 2021.

“As we see more gun violence here in D.C., we know that we can have these conversations with our young people, because our model allows us to do that,” she said. “So if gun violence is a topic that young people want to not only talk about but address, then we explore that solution with them and help them put it into action.”

Within integrated reading curriculum lessons, Freedom Schools use books to explore particular issues and allow scholars to analyze each plot and connect it to the community. Schools also offer parents resources for talking with children about these issues.

Along with academics, scholars build relationships and learn they aren’t too young to make a difference through Freedom Schools.Photo by Alpha Artistry

The faith connection

To make an impact, CDF partners with various institutions and organizations. To run a program, would-be executive directors apply on CDF’s website and learn about the training, fiduciary and programmatic requirements that accepted sponsor organizations must maintain.

CDF recommends that, at a minimum, facilities be licensed to serve children. Programs then do their own fundraising to bring Freedom Schools sites to fruition, with CDF recommending that programs cover costs for at least 30 scholars.

Since faith communities have a long history of social action and advocacy work, this connection continues to resonate.

Wilson, who also serves on the Duke Divinity School board of visitors, references Jesus’ words with respect to CDF’s work and notes that defending children is “a religious commitment that is resonant with the call of the Christ.”

“For an audience of clergy, I say, ‘If Jesus did not walk among us, then Jesus has less capacity to connect with us,’” he said. “The God that I serve is one who took up flesh and walked with humanity.”

It is this walk that others also highlight.

Starsky Wilson
Freedom Schools are at the heart and soul of what CDF does for children and their well-being, according to the Rev. Starsky Wilson, CDF president and CEO.Photo by Alpha Artistry

The Rev. Dr. Van H. Moody II, founding pastor of The Worship Center Christian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, said his church has offered Freedom Schools for several years. He said children in communities of color may not have access to early childhood education, which can put them “behind the eight ball” when they start school. Added to this, summer learning loss can have cumulative effects. But Freedom Schools can help.

“It’s a beautiful program that really checks a lot of boxes that we’re passionate about,” Moody said, noting that it helps kids grow academically, helps them become more well-rounded because they gain a historical foundation, and helps empower them to become conscious changemakers.

His church began supporting the program through funds dedicated to missions, and in recent years has funded it via an endowment, along with public and private partnerships.

“Our faith informs us about how important it is for us to make sure that the next generation not only knows God but that they are prepared to continue to really stand on the shoulders of the preceding generation and to carry the mantle forward,” Moody said.

Birmingham has both a high murder rate and a high violence rate, and many kids are coming from communities where they haven’t seen themselves in a positive light. With these schools, the pastor said, scholars can see the possibilities of what they can be.

“In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is often taught to talk about the goodness of God and their faith principles with their children and their children’s children,” Moody said. “For us, pouring into the next generation, making sure that the next generation is educated … and prepared to live their best life and affect society in a positive way is an extension of what we believe God has called us to do.”

What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?

Questions to consider

  • How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?
  • How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?
  • How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?
  • How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?
  • What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?