I recently took a tour of George Wythe High School in Richmond, Virginia, as part of a seminar on faith, justice, and society at the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. The trip was intended to showcase effective solutions to social problems, and in this, it greatly succeeded, highlighting that any such solutions can only be effective insofar as they take into account the comprehensive needs of the human person.
Short form: Pursuing social justice involves a whole lot more than stringing together an assortment of fleeting causes, awareness campaigns, and t-shirt slogans.
The school had recently emerged from a season of violence and crime, ended in large part through a partnership with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, whose Violence-Free Zone Initiative seeks to restore peace and trust to broken communities by equipping local schools with on-the-ground “Youth Advisors” and partnering with local organizations, churches, and law enforcement.
Rep. Steve Southerland, who also joined the tour, provides a brief account of the trip, including a good summary of how the program has benefited George Wythe High School:
This violence-reduction and high-risk student mentoring program prepares students to learn by equipping them through relationships with the skills and knowledge necessary to overcome violence. The Richmond public schools system has worked in conjunction with CNE to create the Violence-Free Zone. Youth advisors who are affiliated with the Richmond Outreach Center, a local church, and who have overcome similar challenges, work as hall monitors, mediators, character coaches, and trusted friends. For the 2009-2010 school year, George Wythe reported a 26% decrease in fighting, a 68% decrease in truancy, and a 63% reduction in dropouts since the inception of the Violence-Free Zone program.
We were also able to interact with several Youth Advisers and local pastors who poured out their hearts, telling numerous stories of reconciliation and restoration with students and explaining how, thanks to the people and programs now in place, many conflicts are being defused just as students are seeing greater success and empowerment—personally, academically, and beyond.
These advisors and pastors are people who sacrifice their lives, time, energy, and personal material resources on a daily basis to invest in kids who are yearning for guidance and mentorship, longing for someone who they can trust. These are people who are working to build relationships and restore order so students can learn, develop, and succeed in areas well beyond what we have traditionally designated to the classroom. These are people who look at the problems of the individuals and communities around them at an individual and community level, taking each student’s unique personalities and needs into account and responding with love and grace accordingly.
This is a solution that gets to the heart of things, focusing on people as people and needs as personal and spiritual, not just material. The program doesn’t pretend that trust can be gained with the whip of a bureacurat’s wand, or that relationships can be restored if the right top-down “opportunities” are manufactured. The Violence-Free Zone Initiative is not about throwing money at the status quo and assigning a few “experts” to oversee it. It’s about combating injustice at its most basic level—broken relationships—and empowering those who find it their life’s mission to be a part of restoring such relationships in others’ lives.
The deeper, spiritual nature of the solution became even more evident as one Youth Advisor began to share his own testimony, talking through his own dark past all the way up to his eventual transformation and redemption. When asked why he chose to serve these kids, he identified with a famous story in Acts.
“I don’t have money,” he said, coming to tears and pausing as he regained composure. “But what I have, I will freely give.”
“Silver and gold have I none.” It’s a refrain that has long been recited across congregations and Sunday school classrooms, yet it’s one that I fear has been pigeon-holed and overly limited in its scope and application in church action at large. For in our attempts to heal brokenness and fight poverty in all its forms, we seem increasingly bent on obsessing over material causes and materialistic solutions. Whether it’s throwing a buck or two extra into the trendiest fair-trade product or checking the ”yes” box next to the latest government redistribution scheme, we tend toward relying on top-down, materialistic pseudo-solutions to solve bottom-up, transcendent injustices. Our response to kids like those at George Wythe has far too often been, “Take some silver and gold and give me a nice big grin.”
If we want to really turn things around—if our aim is to restore human dignity and facilitate human flourishing on all levels and across our society—we should stop focusing on convenient materialistic schemes and instead offer that which we know has been offered to all of us.
Only then will a solution truly be a solution, and only then will we be able to say with all faith and confidence, “Rise up and walk.”