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Cutting Edges: Child Advocacy and Public Theology

By Dr. Virgina Lee, Associate Professor of Christian Education

At President Lallene J. Rector’s inauguration, Rev. Dr. Mark Dennis, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Evanston, challenged the seminary to become more involved in the life of the Evanston community. One of the ways that we are doing that is through our work in child advocacy, which is one of the focal points of Garrett-Evangelical’s work in public theology. The Garrett-Evanston Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools Program is our first initiative in child advocacy. It is one of the ways that we love God and love neighbor and one of the ways that we follow in the long Wesleyan tradition of concern for children.

As a former public school teacher, an ordained deacon who is called to ministries of compassion and justice, a seminary professor, an aunt and great-aunt, and as a Christian who tries to live out my baptismal vows, I have a great concern for children – all children. I identify with a quote from Mercy Oduyoye, a Methodist woman, who is often acknowledged as the “mother of African women’s theologies.” She said, “I am not a mother, but I have children.” This quote expresses my own philosophy and theology about caring for children, and it echoes words and phrases I have often expressed. All children are created in the image of God and are my children and your children.

The most recent data from the Children’s Defense Fund indicates that one in five or almost 22 percent of our children are poor, which means 15.5 million children live in poverty. Poverty is defined as an annual income below $23,000 for a family of four. And more than 40 percent of these 15.5 million children live in extreme poverty, which is an annual income of less than $12,000 for a family of four.

As a teacher, I am concerned about the education of our children. Sixty-six percent of fourth grade children in the United States are unable to read at grade level, and 59 percent are unable to compute at grade level. Early childcare and education are important for all children and especially so for children living in the stressful environment of poverty. Many young children do not benefit from high quality early childhood programs: 96 percent of all eligible infants and toddlers are not served by early head start due to lack of funding.

To address some of these concerns, Garrett-Evangelical has worked with a number of partners in the local community to sponsor the Garrett-Evanston CDF Freedom Schools Program. Some of our partners include Evanston/Skokie School District 65, the Evanston Community Foundation, the Fifth Ward of Evanston, Friendship Baptist Church, and Evanston Own It.

This six-week daily literacy and creative arts program is designed to help children fall in love with reading and to help prevent the summer reading slide. My faculty colleague, Reginald Blount, and I are the co-executive directors of this program. Patricia Efiom (G-ETS 2015) is our project director and Theresa Lee is our site coordinator.

The program is held at Friendship Baptist Church on Foster Street in the Fifth Ward of Evanston. The Fifth Ward is the only ward in Evanston that does not have a school within its boundaries. We have reached our capacity of 50 children/scholars who will be in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades next year. The primary leaders and facilitators of the program are Servant Leader Interns who are young adults between the ages of 18 and 30. We have hired four college students and three Garrett-Evangelical seminary students. While the program helps children learn to love reading, it also provides leadership development skills for young adults.

We invite your prayers for the program – for our children, the staff, and the community. We also invite your financial support of this ministry. Your gift to Garrett-Evangelical can be designated specifically for this program to support its annual operating cost.

To learn more about the Garrett-Evanston Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program, go to www.Garrett.edu/freedomschoolsprogram.