Several dozen neatly uniformed third graders march single file through Seattle's infamous drizzle, headed to the school cafeteria. They're happy and boisterous, yet perfectly behaved. Two boys at the front of the line hold open the glass doors while the others pass through one by one. Suddenly, though, one little girl breaks ranks. She runs, arms outstretched, toward a man just emerging from his car in the parking lot. Ten seconds and one big bear hug later, she's back in her place, disappearing into the cafeteria.
It's a fairly unremarkable scene, except for two things: The bear-hugger is the principal of this school--not a position that normally elicits an outpouring of positive emotion. What's more, given the school's location, most people would expect this principal to maintain order with security guards and metal detectors, not smiles and hugs and pats on the head.
Despite its rather elitist-sounding name, Zion Preparatory Academy isn't in one of Seattle's tony suburban neighborhoods or island enclaves. Indeed, it seems worlds away from all that's typically Seattle. Visitors to Zion can't see the Space Needle from the school's campus; gangsta rap is more popular here than the city's native grunge rock; and even Starbucks, Seattle's seemingly ubiquitous coffee house, hasn't penetrated this part of town.
What has penetrated this multi-ethnic urban neighborhood, thanks to Zion, is discipline, personal responsibility, high academic standards, and the gospel of Christ. In a part of Seattle where family breakdown is even worse than the nation's abysmal average, children find a loving family at school. An unusually high proportion of teachers at all grade levels (Zion goes from preschool to eighth grade) are men, two of them former professional football players. They often become father figures for children who lack one at home. Teachers call the children "Dear." Children call the teachers "Brother" or "Sister," followed by a first name. In all that it does, Zion tries hard to create the atmosphere of a big, strict Christian family.
The family concept is often found in education these days; it's just the Christian part that's normally missing. In many urban public schools across the country, black children are taught to identify themselves primarily by their skin color and to unite against white oppressors. In Oakland, for instance, the school board recently resolved that black students should not be "subtly dehumanized, stigmatized, discriminated against, or denied" by the oppression of standard American (i.e., white) English. The resulting brouhaha over Ebonics captured the nation's attention and drew the wrath of even nontraditionalists like Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
But while Oakland's Ebonics resolution may have gone too far for most tastes, other, equally radical strategies have been quietly introduced into urban school systems around the country. "Afrocentric immersion programs" attempt to build a universal black family identity by convincing black students of their forebears' greatness. Thus, according to educational psychologist Asa Hilliard, one of the pioneers of this approach, "Africa is the mother of Western civilization," the true source of science and philosophy--though white historians later bestowed this honor on Greece. Likewise, African explorers crossed the "Ethiopian Ocean" and reached America long before Columbus did.
Other Afrocentric educators have claimed that many famous artists, including Browning and Beethoven, were actually Afro-Europeans; that Africans invented birth control and carbon steel; that they levitated around the pyramids; and even that Napoleon deliberately shot the nose off the Sphinx so that its face could not be recognized as African.
Despite intense criticism from respected academics across the political spectrum, such Afrocentric approaches have been adopted by many of the nation's leading school systems, including those of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. And once adopted, they can be almost impossible to dislodge, as Leon Todd discovered. Mr. Todd, a black member of the Milwaukee school board, recently accused the schools of "teaching ... fiction as history" and recommended that the Afrocentric curriculum be dropped. In the outcry that ensued, some parents demanded that Mr. Todd be ousted and threatened a recall if his resolution passed. Someone even firebombed his home, causing about $1,000 in damage.
Clearly, supporters of Afrocentric education can be religious in their defense of the approach. Indeed, the very rhetoric of the movement often has religious overtones. One leading Afrocentrist, for instance, has called it "the centerpiece of human regeneration." Around the world, he claims, people of African descent "respond to the same rhythms of the universe, the same cosmological sensibilities.... Our Africanity is our ultimate reality."
Nonsense, says Zion's principal and champion hugger, Doug Wheeler. Although "Brother Doug" does encourage his teachers to find positive black role models for the children and to counteract negative media stereotypes, ultimate reality is not Afrocentrism, but "knowing who we are in God. When you know your meaning, your purpose and your direction, other background noise doesn't take away your identity. The only thing we have control of is to raise our children in the fear of God."
As Mr. Wheeler discusses the mission of his school, he mixes the polish of a professional educator and the passion of an evangelist. "What's happened in our community is that we tried to have peace negotiations with the adversary," Mr. Wheeler says, punctuating his sentences with karate chops into the air. "We go in and compromise with the schools and compromise with abortion and compromise with sex. But this is war. There's no compromise with the adversary. There's only three things the adversary can do: kill, steal, and destroy. That's it.
"Zion has understood that education is a spiritual warfare. So we pray for our children. We lay hands on our children. We hug our children. We correct our children. Those are the things that make a child realize that somebody does care."
It's not just the children who have seen something different at Zion. Donors have been generous, allowing the school to keep tuition down to just $2,000 per year. A recent fundraising banquet grossed nearly a million dollars in less than two hours' time. Top executives from Nordstrom and Starbucks sit on Zion's advisory board, though they don't fully understand the school's Christian philosophy. All they know is, it's working.
"God made a profound promise," Mr. Wheeler offers by way of explanation. "He said, 'If I be lifted up, I'll draw all men.' My job description was to lift him up. His job description was to do the drawing. So we just continue to lift him up. When people walk through here, we lift him up and they're drawn in. They don't even know why. Sometimes they'll say, 'I don't know what it is, but there's just something different here ..."
One thing that's different at Zion is the message. Both in the classroom and in the daily chapel services, students learn that they can't blame society for their own shortcomings. "In the inner city today, we don't have a whole lot of control over what a student's environment is going to be like," Mr. Wheeler admits. "We can't go in and change every home. But we found out that if we make a child responsible, then parent support is a bonus, not a necessity. So if I'm in the fourth grade, I know I must do my homework. Single-parent home is not an excuse. Parents on drugs is not an excuse. Race is not an excuse. God has told us the same thing. He said, Be accountable for yourself. Worry about the beam in your own eye. We tell them, It's about you. It's your responsibility. This is what we want our children to understand."
Our children. That's how everyone at Zion refers to the students. They're always our children, not merely the children. Being surrogate parents as well as teachers is important to the school's mission of showing Christ to inner-city youths. "I feel that a lot of our children, because of their single-parent situation, have not been able to grasp the concept of their Heavenly Father. When you mention 'father' to them, they think of anger or drug abuse or sexual abuse or whatever. So when you try to witness about our Father God, they don't understand. That's why the church needs to step in and play the role of father for them."
Half a continent away, in Indianapolis, at least some churches are trying to do just that. A winter storm has blanketed the city in eight inches of snow, closing down almost everything on a Sunday night. The Apostolic Church on the corner is dark. The road has been plowed as far as the Methodist Church, but it, too, has canceled services. A few hundred yards up the street, however, "Victory In Jesus" is ringing out a capella from the Greater Northwest Baptist Church. Only several dozen members have made it through the snowdrifts, but their worship is enthusiastic enough to make the fellowship hall seem much fuller. The church, which normally runs about 250 in attendance, draws its membership from all corners of the city. Young couples and entire families drive up to 25 miles each Sunday to learn how to apply biblical principles to the problems of inner-city life.
Like Zion Preparatory Academy, the church's traditional, biblical approach runs counter to the view in parts of the black community that government programs still are the solution to urban decay. At Greater Northwest Baptist, the enemy is the devil, not white neighbors; racial reconciliation comes as individuals are reconciled to God through Christ.
The fact that this message is repeated all over the city is partly a tribute to Baptist Bible College of Indianapolis, which has trained many of the pastors, assistants, and Sunday School teachers at predominantly black churches in the area. A. Charles Ware, BBCI's 47-year-old president, believes that biblically obedient black pastors are the key to rescuing America's inner cities.
"We have the edge for gaining attention in the inner city," Mr. Ware argues. "We have an understanding of the urban plight so that we're willing to address these problems while not forsaking the foundations of Christianity."
To do this, students conduct outreaches in prisons, rescue missions, boys clubs, and the like. They go on to apply their firsthand knowledge of urban needs in their own churches, offering tutoring and job training, for instance, or operating a food pantry or clothing distribution center. Mr. Ware believes such ministries are valuable on two levels: Most importantly, they provide an opportunity to share the gospel with people in need. But they may also help to wean inner-city residents from dependence on the government programs, which Mr. Ware calls "incredibly wasteful. While I believe that government has a role to play, it is detrimental for black people to see government as their deliverer. We've got to stop seeing ourselves as welfare recipients. We should be leaders in the power of Christ."
Like Doug Wheeler in Seattle, A. Charles Ware doesn't like excuses for the personal failures of African-Americans, and he's tired of hearing the woes of black America blamed on some sort of white conspiracy. "White men are not impregnating young black women. White men are not killing young black men between the ages of 18 and 25 in appalling numbers. White men are not keeping us out of colleges now, so why don't we further our education? The gospel should invade us and give us hope and the courage to take personal responsibility for our choices."
Such a message of orthodox theology and personal responsibility doesn't always make Mr. Ware popular with black religious leaders, who have accused him of being a pawn in the hands of whites. Although he rejects the charge, Mr. Ware does understand the emotion behind it. "The sad reality is that many of the white conservative religious leaders were also supportive of segregation and racism. So when [black Christians] look at history, they see that it was the liberal seminaries that accepted blacks and spoke to social ills. The Democrats and the liberals, they're the ones who helped us. So to be in that [conservative] group, you must be an Uncle Tom."
Many conservative Christians have not helped their image in urban America by retreating to suburban churches and ignoring souls in the inner city. In that regard, Mr. Ware believes white Christians need to accept some personal responsibility of their own. Though he acknowledges that whites may not be welcome in many inner cities, he nonetheless sees opportunities for creative partnerships between believers of all races. "A lot of times you've got good people in the inner city who've got the know-how and the commitment to produce effective programs, but they do not have the financial ability."
Church planting and school planting are often seen as two different domains, but they are one and the same: Strong biblical churches awaken among parents a desire for Christian schools, and vice versa. In both endeavors, suburban Christians can leverage the energy and know-how of inner-city believers by partnering with their brethren--providing not only finances but physical resources and talents as well. But only if the relationship is based on respect, Mr. Ware cautions.
"If you don't respect your inner-city partners, then even if you've got money they might not take it. Look at it as consulting. People will pay several hundred dollars an hour to a consultant because he's got information they need to make the business work. Well, there are people in the inner city who understand it well enough to show you how to invest your money so it'll profit. Look at it as a business transaction so that you can respect them like a consultant. Then your money is not just a gift or a handout; it's a partnership for the glory of God."
BBCI itself is an example of just such a successful partnership. The college was started in 1980 by two white missionaries and a black pastor, who also served as its first president. The majority of BBCI's financial support comes from predominantly white churches and white-owned businesses, including a multimillion-dollar matching grant that allowed the college to move last May into a 40,000 square-foot facility, quadrupling its former size.
As government continues to throw good money after bad in the inner cities, such partnerships between black and white Christians may be the key to reversing the hopelessness of city life. But ultimately, Mr. Ware stresses, hope comes from neither downtown nor suburb: "My hope is in God. If God would be pleased to send us an awakening and a revival, there is hope. Urban America is really an intensified picture of the whole American culture, and immoral thinking is pervasive everywhere in that culture. The only hope I see is that we who know the Lord will give him first place in our life, live by his Word, and have a passion to communicate it by life and lip."