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‘I am a Presbyterian, and that’s what we do’

Panelists share their abiding love for education during a Matthew 25 online gathering

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photograph courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — These days she’s the Rev. Dr. Rebecca L. Davis, who teaches seminarians about education at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte, North Carolina, campus. When she was 9 and growing up in West Virginia, that role would have been difficult to fathom.

As Davis told the story to a national Matthew 25 gathering on education Wednesday, all her life her father had told her that for girls, college is a waste of money. At 9 her family moved next door to a Presbyterian church manse, and she got to know the pastor and his family very well over the years. When she was in high school, the pastor asked her one day where she planned to go to college. She parroted the words her father had always told her. The pastor stood up, put his hand on his hip, and told her, “You are going to college. You are a Presbyterian, and that’s what we do.”

“I skipped across the yard and said to my dad, ‘I am going to college. I am a Presbyterian, and that’s what we do,’” Davis told the more than 80 people hanging on her every word. “Dad said, ‘Fine, but you’ll pay for it yourself,’ and so I did. I sold my car and went to college.” She earned two degrees, pastored a church, obtained her doctorate, and launched her seminary career.

The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Davis

“If someone had asked me what is going to happen in your life, I couldn’t have even dreamed it,” Davis said. “That church gave me an identity so strong that it has kept me going all these years.”

Joining Davis on the panel hosted by Bryce Wiebe, director of Special Offerings and the Presbyterian Giving Catalog, were Tracy Dace, the founder and chief executive officer of DREAAM (Driven to Reach Excellence & Academic Achievement for Males) in Champaign, Illinois, and the Rev. Dave Brown, a member of the PC(USA)’s Education Roundtable who’s retired from ministry having most recently served Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington.

“I am the proud son of an educator and civil rights activist,” Dace said. “I was under the wisdom of a woman who understood the intersection of education and justice.”

Tracy Dace

Many evenings while Dace was growing up, his mother was away at meetings. “Why do you go to meetings and leave us at home?” he’d ask his mother, later realizing “what mom was showing me is you have to stand up and advocate and agitate systems in order for Black children especially to have access to higher education.” Dace appeared Wednesday from his mother’s Mississippi home.

His mother, he said, was a math teacher who “demanded perfect grades and perfect citizenship” from her children.

Six years ago, Dace partnered with the church he served as mission coordinator, First Presbyterian Church in Champaign, to engage the congregation to launch DREAAM, which seeks to help boys and young men ages 5-24 to reach excellence in achievement, engagement and behavioral health. “First Presbyterian Church is part of the story because they were there from the beginning,” Dace said, offering DREAAM financial and human resources and prayer support. “They made it clear,” Dace said, “they wanted to support our vision but not manage our vision.”

Dace offered a final word of thanks to his mother, who “poured into me skills, knowledge and experiences” to help him “be just like her, a person on the battlefield connecting church and classroom.”

Brown said he’s spent “most of my career being a passionate advocate for public education.” It’s imperative, he said, that the world knows that Presbyterians “care about our schools, about quality education and curriculum.”

His persistent efforts have not gone unnoticed. While he was still serving in ministry, teachers would approach him during coffee hour with tears in their eyes. “Nobody ever told me,” said one, “that my work was blessed.”

“It is so darn simple,” Brown said, “and it makes such a difference in people’s lives.”

The Rev. Dave Brown

Nowadays, he’s landed a part-time gig introducing bands playing at a Tacoma ballroom. He manages somehow to say a good word about the Church’s views on education before introducing the next band. “I want you to know,” he tells the educators in the crowd, “that the Presbyterian Church thinks you are doing God’s work. Everywhere I go I am an evangelist, letting people know the denomination cares about education.”

Then Brown offered a warning: We’re entering a time “where there will be attempts to get rid of critical race theory and challenges on the ability for kids to use a wide variety of pronouns” to describe themselves, he predicted. “Presbyterians need to show up and say we want curriculum that tells the truth about America’s racist history and for students to use the pronoun that means the most to them.”

“You’ve got to love kids,” Wiebe said, “before you can teach them.”

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, who coordinates both the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People and Educate a Child, Transform the World, and the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the Associate Director of Advocacy for Compassion, Peace & Justice Ministries, also spoke to the gathering.

“I am Presbyterian because a Presbyterian minister told me I was smart enough to go to college,” Johnson said. “He sat with me while I read John Calvin in church at age 16. My mother asked me, ‘Who is this John Calvin and where does he live?’”

“We are called to respond and recognize that these young people are our people,” Johnson said, offering up examples of just such responses in Rochester, New York and Louisville, Kentucky.

“Attend school plays, concerts and performances,” Johnson suggested. “Let young people know you love them and you care for them.” Learn more about how to engage through this Educate a Child toolkit.

Advocacy, according to Hawkins, who directs the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., is “very achievable. We encourage Presbyterians to be advocates for education, starting locally to find way to communicate with their school board.”

“What you are engaging in,” Hawkins told those attending the webinar, “is a calling from God. We are witnesses to Christ in the public arena.”

Presbyterian congregations “are filled with educators, and they are under-utilized,” Hawkins said. “Encourage the gifts and talents we have sitting in our pews.”

And don’t, he urged, “allow your church to sit there six days of the week. We have got to open the doors of the church Monday through Saturday” by offering neighborhood children mentoring and after-school programs, he said.

Brown recalled performing baptisms and then walking the baby up and down the aisle in the sanctuary, “reminding people they are responsible for this child’s world. It became a teachable moment for people to look beyond the church walls.”

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, spoke to Triennium participants in 2019 about the Matthew 25 invitation. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, talked about educational outreaches made by the congregations she served during 33 years of parish ministry in cities including Oakland, California, East Orange, New Jersey, and Greensboro, North Carolina.

“At every place, education was a key,” Moffett said. “These were urban churches dealing with all the issues the system produces. We provided access and did it in the name of Jesus. It felt good to pour into those young people’s lives.”

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