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December 31, 2000: Saturday Night at The River

November 26, 2000: College athletes minstry emphasizes Holy Spirit

November 19, 2000: Bad weather doesn't dampen spirits of thousands at Detroit's Convoy of Hope

November 12, 2000: International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Church

October 29, 2000: Frontiersman way of life draws men, boys closer to Christ

September 17, 2000: Loving the unloved

September 10, 2000: Changing lives in a big way

August 13, 2000: Church planting fuels growth

July 30, 2000: Full Gospel New York Church targets 500,000 Koreans

July 16, 2000: Running the good race

July 9, 2000: Hispanic church thrives in border town

June 25, 2000: The hand of God

June 18, 2000: HonorBound: Raising an army of godly men

June 11, 2000: Illinois Christian radio stations deliver message of Christ to thousands

May 14, 2000: A/G foster families minister to children

April 30, 2000: Prison revival reaches beyond the fence

April 23, 2000: Harvest Sunday draws hundreds for water baptism

April 16, 2000: Chain reaction

April 9, 2000: One pastor's burden: reaching the 'white slums'

March 26, 2000: Cowboy church rounds up believers

March 19, 2000: Motorsports ministry: Winning souls at the track

March 12, 2000: A dream blooms in the desert

February 20, 2000: Romanian church prospers for 20 years

February 13, 2000: Ministry at a strategic academic crossroads

January 23, 2000: God's Navy

Christian teachers confront inner-city challenges

By John T. Maempa

A cool bite in the late August air signaled the end of summer vacation in the Idaho mountain valley where I grew up. Soon Mom and I would be off to town to buy a couple pairs of stiff blue jeans with plenty of growing room. And, maybe some new shoes. Add a pack of pencils and a box of crayons, and I was set. All that remained was to pull my cowboy lunch box and thermos from summer storage. Mom always made sure I had a hearty lunch.

With pants legs rolled up, I was off to school.

None of us had to check our toy guns at the door, but we did have to keep them inside our desks. We could strap them on at recess or lunch for a lively round of crime fighting or a Wild West showdown. An unthinkable travesty would be to discharge a cap gun during class. The reprimand would be harsh; and worse, the gun could be confiscated for the rest of the day or longer.

And so went the trials of life in my early school years.

Things are different — a lot different — for students and teachers who live and work amid the brick-and-concrete environs of the inner city, far removed from the quiet Idaho farm community. I spoke with six teachers who serve inner-city schools in the Kansas City, Mo., school district — Gary and Vickie Sperling, Sandra Cherry, Robert Ontman, Jim Borden and J.W. and Ernestine Scott. All are members of Sheffield Family Life Center (Assemblies of God), George Westlake, pastor.

Kansas City ranks in the top third in population among our nation’s 100 largest cities. There teachers interact with black, white, Hispanic and Asian students. Faced with beleaguered futures, trapped by circumstances that seem beyond their ability to change, many students are just trying to get from one day to the next. Others are holding onto hope for something better.

Ironically, in our land of plenty, hunger is a common denominator among many inner-city students.

"It’s a very real problem," says Sandra Cherry, who has taught for 24 years. "Every child wants to learn. But before they can learn, we have to help meet their physical needs." A government-sponsored breakfast and lunch program provides nourishment for Kansas City’s inner-city students.

"Attendance is better because of the food programs," say long-term elementary and preschool teachers, Gary and Vickie Sperling. Without the feeding programs, many of the children and youth would have little to eat; and without proper nutrition, learning is difficult.

Violence at home and in the neighborhood also ranks high among the concerns for inner-city children and families.

"Most of my children have been touched by violence," says Vickie. "Many have family members who are incarcerated."

Exposure to so much violence affects the children’s outlook. Gary Sperling notes that while some have definite goals and dreams for their futures, others have a short sense of life span. "So many know of or have witnessed killing or wounding. In one class of 25 students that I taught, 17 knew of a close relative or friend who had been shot. Three or four of the children themselves carried bullet wounds."

A drug house, once located across the street from the school where Sandra Cherry teaches, was a hotbed of violence. During recess one day, children dug bullets out of the school’s windowpanes. "Some of the children sleep in their bathtubs to protect themselves from drive-by shootings," says Jim Borden.

Not only do many children come to school hungry; they are tired from trying to survive at home, school and on the streets. School for some is a safer haven than home, and the children sometimes don’t want to leave.

"Some children cry because they don’t want to go home," says Vickie Sperling. "I have had to literally carry children screaming and crying out to the buses. School offers a sense of stability and safety."

Problems for students and teachers alike are heightened by a lack of parental involvement. Coming from single-parent families or blended families, many children have little sense of stability.

"Out of nearly 30 students in one of my classes, only two or three had both birth parents," says Jim Borden.

"Most of the time when I call a home, I talk to a grandparent or an aunt," says Gary Sperling. "For the most part, parents have little interaction with their children. Those who do interact have significantly less problems with their children."

"So many children live in a constant state of hopelessness and despair because they receive so little care and attention," says Jim Borden. "Often they are left to themselves, to TV, to video games."

Little involvement by parents has not always been the case. J.W. and Ernestine Scott, both retired after some 40 years of teaching in the inner city, remember a time when the worst threat they could make was to tell a student they would call his or her parents.

"I knew their parents, and the children knew that too," says J.W., who served many years as a principal. "They didn’t want me to call. But today if you call the parents, they are likely to ask, ‘What have you done to my child?’ "

Amid circumstances like these, why do talented teachers choose to work in the inner city? Why not move to the safer environs of the suburbs?

"If we take the salt and light out of public schools, we’ve doomed them already," says Gary Sperling, who is in his 19th year of teaching. There is a sense of purpose and destiny among the Christian teachers who have chosen to stay for the long term.

"One interested adult can make all the difference in the world," according to Robert Ontman, who teaches high school. "The students need accountability. They’re not dumb or inferior. They just need someone who will make sure they’re doing the things they should be doing. So many kids just want to go along with the crowd."

Though there are restrictions against overt religious activity in public schools, Christian teachers are able to make a difference both privately and openly.

"For the past five years or so, I’ve gone to the school on off hours to walk and pray," says Jim Borden. "I’ve seen some spiritual breakthroughs." Other teachers at Jim’s school are banding with him for prayer. Some had met for prayer at Jim’s home the night before the interview.

Sandra Cherry also finds strength in joining others in prayer. Just prior to our conversation she spoke with her intercessory prayer partner. Both are praying and fasting for their students.

Gary Sperling believes prayer made a powerful inroad into enemy territory when he encountered a girl with a behavior disorder.

"Some days she would be a terror. I finally got her to sit in a chair isolated from the other children when she first came in to class. If she would stay calm for five minutes, she could join with some friends and work with them.

"One day when she first came in, she was having a really rough time. She fell to the floor and caused all kinds of havoc. Then, at one point, she turned and looked at me, and I saw something unusual in her eyes.

"After the bell rang and the class was settled in, I stepped out into the hall and prayed silently, Satan, I rebuke you in the name of Jesus. Get out of this room and out of my class. I went back in and started to take roll. The girl was busy doing something. Suddenly, she just stopped, turned around, stared at me and said, ‘Jesus, He’s a big dude.’ Then she turned back around and went to work. I know there was no way she could have heard my prayer in the hallway."

Whether engaging in warfare prayer or interceding quietly on behalf of their students, Christian teachers amid the brick and concrete of the inner city are trying to make a difference. As a source of comfort, assurance and love, many children confide in them. This helps the teachers know they are where God wants them to be — teaching and touching lives with the love of Christ.

John T. Maempa is special projects coordinator for the Office of Public Relations.


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