Picture children in a rundown Detroit neighborhood known for high unemployment and low incomes as they slip past abandoned houses on their way to school. Visualize classrooms of students watching their shot at a bright future slipping further out of reach. Then imagine an army of volunteers from two dozen suburban evangelical churches showing up en masse to remodel the school and fix up its surroundings.
This picture from Cody High School in Detroit is real and, increasingly, what Christian "mission" looks like as a growing movement of evangelicals stop arguing about school prayer and evangelism prohibitions and jump in simply to support students and teachers.
Off limits to explicit forms of religion, public schools might seem the last place evangelicals would want to tread with their passion for proclaiming the Gospel "good news." On the contrary, it's entirely fitting for evangelicals to support public schools, whose work matters so much to the kids' and communities' futures. And school officials are wise to welcome the church people's contributions, provided they stay on the right side of the constitutional line against direct promotion of religion in government settings.
The thought of evangelicals showing up in force at public schools is bound to make some people squirm. Doesn't their very presence violate the separation of church and state? Don't we all know that their real agenda is to proselytize?
Not so, say evangelicals such as Chris Lambert, who believe that service to those in need might be the most powerful public expression of their faith. As if to demonstrate the point, Lambert and his non-profit, Life Remodeled, are organizing the massive Cody High makeover, which is set to take place this summer with the support of school officials and millions of dollars of funding help from General Motors, Quicken Loans and other sponsors.
One church has already entered into what it hopes will be a long-term relationship with the high school. Volunteers from Oak Pointe Church are beginning a mentoring program for ninth-graders, a sports booster club, and a summer internships and training program. A paid church staff member reports to the school each day to coordinate the volunteers. "Detroit is on the rebound in so many ways," Oak Pointe Pastor Bob Shirock says, "and the church is in the thick of it."
The church's partnership with Cody High School is just getting started; it is obviously too soon to say whether the church will be able to sustain the work and abide by a no-proselytizing stipulation set in place by the school district. Also tricky are the race dynamics. Can largely white church volunteers work effectively with the predominantly African-American students? Clearly, close monitoring is needed.
A similar, 6-year-old project in Portland, Ore., suggests this can work, and is well worth a try. In the Portland metro area, a large-scale partnership between the public schools and evangelical community, coordinated by the locally based Luis Palau ministry, recently passed the 250-school milestone. The churches have made tangible contributions to the students' lives and educations; no complaints of improper evangelism have surfaced.
Nationally, this form of "servant evangelism," as Christianity Today calls it, is getting more airtime at conferences and in conversations among evangelicals looking for new, non-political ways to represent their faith and serve their communities. Beginning with Portland, church-school partnerships have sprouted in Houston, New York, Anchorage, San Diego and, of course, Detroit. Rather than condemning public schools as bastion of godlessness -- a featured trope over decades of culture war -- the Christians involved in this work are remembering there are real human beings teaching and learning in those schools, often in adverse circumstances. They deserve respect, and support.
Here's wishing success to this form of evangelical outreach. Christian volunteers can bring a lot of good to public schools in resource-strapped, urban areas. The financial struggles of Detroit and its schools are well-known -- yet hardly an isolated case. Schools are facing short funds and long odds in innumerable cities across the country and, frankly, can use all the help they can get.
As long as the churches play by the rules, let them be part of the solution.
This post originally appeared in USA Today, May 19, 2014.