Education and the Season of Lent, pt. 5

I am grateful to have a guest post by Jantzen Loza, a brother and intern at New Community.  Jantzen can be reached and followed at his blog, http://larksandvultures.blogspot.com/.  Here is the post.

Recently, I heard that the season of Lent, for some, is an opportunity to spiritualize dieting and substitute devotion for self-centered “fasting.” My problem is a little different: I forget when Lent starts. When it does come, that ship toward spiritual bliss sails away and I am left on the dock feeling bad that I didn’t think to give up something for 40 days. Having been raised Catholic, you would think I knew better.

I was reminded that Lent should be a time not only to give up something, but also to give of ourselves: our time, our resources, and our attention. This is also something that I don’t do well. For the past few months, the state of public education has been on my mind. The latest news on Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been the controversy over school consolidations for 14 different schools. Due to the overwhelming deficit ($720 million), CPS called for several pairs of schools considered subpar to consolidate into one large school. This announcement poses a myriad of problems for students, parents and educators: unemployment, overcrowded classrooms, lack of resources, and tensions between rivaling neighborhoods, just to name a few. Should I have a role in this as a Christian? What exactly would the role be? Do I have a responsibility to care for these students, parents and educators that will be soon be displaced? Or does being a concerned citizen only apply if it’s in the same zip code?

With less than a month until Resurrection Sunday, I am just beginning to understand the purpose of the Lenten season. Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus spoke out to a crowd, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). In his plea for humble servitude, Jesus does not condone the tithes of the scribes and Pharisees, which were considered peripheral laws of the Torah. His concern was for their neglect of key Scriptures that called them to care for others where it mattered most. What are the things that I am most concerned about? Is my personal piety and law-abiding more important than caring for the needs of others as I would my own?

The same Jesus who called out the Pharisees also said to His disciples, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14).  This Rabbi invites his followers to join Him in His suffering, to consider the cost of becoming a disciple that demands our very lives. The Lenten season, then, is a call to participate in this high calling of sharing in our Lord’s suffering, who was obedient to the point of death. At the onset of the 1800’s Western overseas missions movement, missionaries would symbolize their commitment to their work by packing their belongings in coffins. Their posture was that of radical obedience to the point of death.

So what does the season of meditating on Christ’s death and resurrection have to do with Chicago public schools? According to the Mitka Challenge, which represented nearly 1,900 students from 46 different schools in Chicago, among the most pressing issues that students voiced were gangs, unsafe communities, sexual assault, and inconsistent quality of education. Many children are growing up in fatherless homes (21.8 million children live in single parent homes nationwide), lacking healthy role models and positive influences in their lives. When I surveyed a number of teachers and community leaders that serve Chicago students, the common thread among all their concerns regardless of grade level were the students’ basic skills including reading and math literacy. If God knows this, would I think that education does not concern Him? How would Jesus respond if I [half-heartedly) paid my church dues but turned a blind eye and the deaf ear to those who are, no pun intended, left behind?

The oppression and injustice that pervades our public education system demands our attention. The Lenten season calls us to share in the suffering of our Lord, and thus the suffering of others. It is not enough for me to understand that the education of children is important as a civic duty. My citizenship in heaven depends on my reflection of Jesus Christ’s radical love and compassion toward neighbor and enemy wherever I am.

The original intention of this post was to integrate some of my experiences in education with the Lenten season. Though social involvement in the public schools is important, even more pressing is a ministry of presence in every sphere of society. This is not an attempt to push a “Christian” agenda or to have ulterior motives of “evangelizing.” A ministry of presence requires listening to stories, improving the quality of life for others as we would want for ourselves, and simply affirming the inherent dignity of another human being by paying attention.

This season of Lent has compelled me to reflect on the implications of being a disciple of Jesus, revealing the areas in that need to be pruned or refined. The message of Lent points me toward this “already but not yet” reality of the Kingdom of God, that even as I continue to work toward social change in public education, I must place my ultimate hope in Jesus Christ who is bringing about the full restoration of all things.

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