This blog post was written by Samuel Acevedo, Pastor and Executive Director of Boston HERC, the Local Leadership Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts.
I often ask God, “What is the role of the church and faith-based institutions – what is the role of ‘people of good faith’ – as we seek to serve and love the youth of this increasingly skeptical city? How do we make it a playground for our young people? We certainly have a role in convening ‘people of good faith’ and ‘people of good will.’ But is there more? Should there be more?”
In the summer of 2015, the Boston School Committee asked me to serve as the Co-Chair of a body called the Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Task Force. Of the 19 members of the Task Force, I was perhaps the sole person of good faith (as a vocation, anyway) among some of the brightest, most committed people of good will I have ever worked with. Two weeks ago, the Task Force, with great relief, presented to the Boston School Committee the results of our twelve months of toil. We had competed our revisions – really, a thorough re-casting – of a ten-year-old policy aimed at closing the gaps in academic performance afflicting Boston’s primarily black and Latino youth as long as anyone could remember. This achievement gap influences, more than anything, the long-term likelihood these youth will ever achieve a college degree, break into a profession, or earn a decent living.
The goal is that Boston would be the first city in America to close these gaps. It is perhaps the most ambitious challenge the School Committee has taken on in decades. Whether we achieve it, however, may depend on the role that the church (Boston’s “people of good faith”) plays in the days and months ahead.
What should that role be? What is the role of people of good faith in addressing the challenges facing black, Latino, and other children of color? Indeed, what was I, a Pastor and Executive Director of a church-based resource center, doing co-chairing this Task Force to begin with?
Four years earlier, the Boston Foundation (one of our city’s leading philanthropic institutions) launched this conversation by convening fewer than a dozen of Boston’s “Black and Brown” clergy. They gathered us around the idea of finally reversing what they referred to as the “underperformance of black and brown boys.” I had the privilege of being in the room that morning.
But why the clergy? I posed this question to the Foundation. I am not sure that even they realized why this, decidedly-secular, institution felt compelled to begin this conversation with a gathering of the city’s clergy. One reason the Foundation may have been interested in the clergy was the sense that they have an important constituency; these clergy men and women are significant “civic leaders.” But that only begs the question — what makes them “civic leaders”? Is it purely a manifestation of Black and Latino historic tradition? Or is there more than mere tradition at work here? Is it that our community’s churches and religious institutions possess a unique galvanizing and life-transforming power that could be harnessed to reverse the destructive trends that would otherwise claim another generation of our young men and women of color? And if we were to discover that they do possess such a life-transforming spiritual energy, would Boston have the courage to do what is necessary to unleash it?
There is actually a good amount of social science indicating that church involvement is one of the factors contributing to the success of those youth who grow up in “high-risk neighborhoods,” and still manage to complete college and achieve great things. (One seminal study- by no means the only one- is the federally-funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. After studying 13,500 adolescents in 80 communities across the nation, the study concluded that youth living in “high-risk neighborhoods” were far more likely to stay in school and do well if they attended church regularly, than if they did not. See: http://www.baylorisr.org/wp-content/uploads/ISR-Making-Grade_071.pdf)
But determining the proper role of the church in attempting to close the achievement and opportunity gaps haunting our youth is not so simple a thing as merely following the data. There is a sense (shared even among those who do not consider themselves religious) that a kinetic energy is locked in our houses of worship that could be unleashed to transform the lives and vision of our failing youth and the shape of our cities. But the “governing community” – the government, philanthropic institutions, corporations, etc. – is nevertheless reluctant to unsheathe that energy as a consequence of legitimate, countervailing considerations such as the separation of church and state, or a host of other issues emanating from operating within a diverse, pluralistic society. Releasing that spiritual energy, at least in its purest form, may be too high a price to pay. Even if we knew it worked.
I continued to contemplate these questions and ideas as I drafted the preamble and much of the language of the six core goals of our new Opportunity and Achievement Gap Policy. I think what Boston is attempting is truly heroic and noble. I pray for its success, and would be honored to contribute whatever time and energy is needed to arrest and reverse these trends that have clouded the future of our youth for far too long. Something has to change; whatever is broken needs to be fixed.
But the “fix” may require that Boston – and its carefully-assembled collaborative community of “people of good faith” and “people of good will” – implement solutions too unsettling for our current comfort zones. Solutions that allow the church to be “the Church”; the Church assuming the soul-saving, life-transforming role that it was created for, but has all but forgotten. To work for both its social and spiritual renewal, so that the city can truly become a playground. A role for which our broken cities, and our lost youth, have no substitute.