As most of you know, I am concluding my tenure as Head of School at WDCS here at the end of the school year and so this is my final blog post. When I was offered the opportunity to serve as Headmaster of West Dallas Community School, I viewed it as a calling from the Lord, something for which He had been preparing me for most of my life. As such, I imagined myself being a part of the West Dallas community for decades to come, especially on that opening day of school my first year in August of 2012. After the students left morning assembly, I remained in the chapel alone – awash in the light from the stained glass, looking out toward the Dallas skyline, the room still echoing with the heavenly strains of the children’s voices, and was overcome with gratitude. I knew how privileged I was to be a part of the West Dallas story; I saw with poignant clarity the unique power of the WDCS mission; and I felt as if I had come home.
So you can imagine, this has been an extremely difficult decision for me. Sadly, the burdens of leadership at West Dallas Community School, along with raising my own children, have grown too great for me to bear simultaneously; believing that I cannot do both with the excellence and dedication that each deserves, I sense God calling me at this time to step away from West Dallas and give more of myself to my family. As much as I love this community, as passionate as I am about the ministry and mission of WDCS, as convinced as I am of the mighty work God is doing here in our midst, I see my first calling as a husband and father. It is clear to me now that during this season of my life, with five children between the ages of 3 and 15, I need to focus more of my energy and attention on my first home.
But I will always be a champion of West Dallas Community School because it’s mission is so dynamic and unique. It is a ministry of mercy and justice.
WDCS is a ministry of mercy in that we introduce our students to the love of God. While we offer a challenging, classical academic program, we also provide our students a nurturing environment, saturated in the Word and worship. As we fix our students minds and hearts on those things that are good, true, and beautiful, we pray that they would ultimately come to love the author of all that is Good, True, and Beautiful. We are distinct from most urban school alternatives in that we are Christ-centered. The greatest needs of our students is are love, atonement, forgiveness, and to be reconciled to God. It is what we all need. The work of WDCS extends beyond its students to the families, faculty, and volunteers as well. We are all lost sheep. We are all prodigals. And all of us need to come home; to know the “running, embracing, forgiving, accepting, celebrating, dancing love of the Father.”
Time and again I have heard from students, parents, and grandparents how they have come to know this love at West Dallas Community School. I, too, have experienced WDCS as an instrument of God’s mercy in my own life. I have come to know of His provision and love in fresh and profound ways. For so many, it is a special sort of “home” where they are known, challenged, cherished, and loved. WDCS is a ministry of mercy.
DISD is one of the poorest districts in the state and the zip code we primarily serve, 75212, is disproportionately represented in the penal system, as critiqued in this School-to-Prison Pipeline study. A recent study exploring disconnected youth (people between the ages of 15 and 24 who are neither in school nor working) ranked West Dallas as one of the most economically disconnected neighborhoods in DFW with 34.4% of youth disconnection. By most measures, it appears that the achievement gap in schools is widening and the deep historical inequalities in our country persist unabated. Pastor Wilson felt called by God to represent the Lord’s heart for justice and mercy in this part of the city that had long been forgotten. So, in a very simple sense you can say that West Dallas Community School is a ministry of justice. –Refusing to accept the narrative at a child’s zip code determines their future – we are seeking to create the conditions here where people created in the image of God can experience full human flourishing. That is what drew me to WDCS.
One of my most cherished memories, now shared with five classes of 8th graders, is visiting the Washington National Cathedral and pointing out the ornate stone pulpit that served as the very spot where Dr. Martin Luther King preached his last Sunday sermon just a few short days before his fateful trip to Memphis. Many of Dr. King’s most memorable phrases were employed that Sunday morning, and among them, my favorite, and included at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This quote resonates with the story the scriptures tell us, that God has vanquished the enemy and that sin and death were conquered on Calvary.
We are closing out this school year singing one of my favorite hymns, This is My Father’s World. The original final verse states, “Jesus who died shall be satisfied and heaven and earth be one.” The story of our world ends in justice and those belonging to God’s family are called to work to that end. It is one of the great mysteries and marvels of the universe, that though God does not “need” us, He nonetheless chooses to use us and to call us into creative partnership in His master plan of redemption. Remarkable though it’s true – we are the plan. There is no plan B. We are called to be God’s Ambassadors, reminding and revealing to a watching world that God as expressed in Jesus is a God of compassion, mercy, and justice. Towards the end of Dr. King’s sermon, he reflected, “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”
This school is truly a remarkable place, with a rich history, an uncommonly wide and enthusiastic support base, and a strong philosophy and identity. WDCS is blessed to have a board and staff filled with some of the most faithful and gifted people I have had the privilege of knowing, they are those “persistent and dedicated individuals,” God’s co-workers representing the Lord’s heart for mercy and justice in Dallas and beyond.
For the many of you I have come to know, thank you for your partnership and support. This ministry would not be possible without the generous and sacrificial giving of God’s people. For those of you who have not visited the school or do not regularly give to our mission – please prayerfully consider joining this exciting work. For God’s kingdom is on the move in West Dallas. His name is being lifted up. People are being healed. Children are coming unto Him. Lives are being changed. I bear witness to these beautiful things and look forward to what God does in and through WDCS in the years to come.
Head of School
“All studies, philosophy, rhetoric are followed for this one object, that we may know Christ and honor Him. This is the end of all learning and eloquence.” – Erasmus, 1530
As I enter my final months serving as Head of School for WDCS, the Psalmist’s prayer “Teach us to number our days” takes on fresh meaning and urgency. What are the things left undone? Are my relationships here in proper order? What does it mean to finish well?
Numbering my days prompts a daily stream of questions that I seek to turn into prayers, chasing after a “heart of wisdom” for the challenges of each new day. As I sit down to write I ask, “What have I not said that I feel needs to be communicated, or perhaps, what bears repeating?
Pondering these questions, I keep coming back to the uniqueness of this place. We are unabashedly Christ-centered. We are missional and urban. West Dallas Community School was founded in 1995 to serve the families of West Dallas, offering a college preparatory Christian education for children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade to an area that for decades had been an underserved and forgotten part of the city. Truly, we are a rare breed of school, both in our city and across this nation and I pray that no matter the challenges or financial pressures we might face in the future, WDCS remains true to its original vision and mission. There were several factors that attracted me to this school (its expression of God’s heart for justice, our curriculum which is a classical education model guided by the philosophy of educator Charlotte Mason., the enrollment and size of the student body—to name a few) but what mattered most was our Christ-centered commitment.
Some of you might be unclear about the difference in, or perhaps unconvinced about the value of, a Christ-centered education. Few express this more forcefully than Charlotte Mason herself:
“This idea of all education springs from and rests upon our relation to Almighty God-we do not merely give a religious education because that would seem to imply the possibility of some other education, a secular education, for example. But we hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that the Lord, the Holy Spirit, is the supreme educator of mankind, and that the culmination of all education…is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection.”
Mason was British and much of her work was done in the latter part of 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century; her six volumes on education can be challenging to read as her prose is a bit dense and antiquated, but it is well worth the effort. In the quote above she makes two important points. First, she argues that there is no such thing as a “secular education.” Mason’s perspective comes from the “common grace” concept in theology, the grace of God that extends to all mankind. In her understanding, all knowledge and wisdom “discovered” across the centuries is a gift from God above and thereby education is “religious” because its source is divine. I would add, that over the last century so-called “secular” education is in truth a “religious” education, albeit in a different way: while some argue for its neutrality on things religious, our contemporary model of education has its own set of creeds and dogmas. One of my mentors used to say, “No education is value neutral – it unfolds in either obedience or disobedience to the Lord of creation.” What I ask you to consider is Mason’s assertion that all education is “religious” in nature.
Mason’s second point is what I want to emphasize most, that the desired “telos” or end of education is this: that each student would gain “personal knowledge of and intimacy with God.” This is what gets me out of bed each day. I enjoy the privilege of observing our amazing teachers at work as they reflect the love of God to our students and acquaint them Jesus. It is a textured, multi-layered and incarnate process which I wrote about in past blogs back in the spring of 2015, here and here. But in brief, we seek to provide them with knowledge of God through the study of scripture and the singing of hymns. In our curriculum we set out a banquet of riches, those things which are Good, True, and Beautiful. And while we aim to nurture our students’ affections towards this classical trinity, our ultimate hope is that they would come to love the Author of all that is Good, True, and Beautiful. But a good curriculum and school culture can only take you so far: ultimately, education is an incarnational enterprise.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel captures this best:
“Everything depends on the person who stands in the front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from whom intellectual beverages may be obtained. He is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil to the promised land, he must have been there himself. When asking himself: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? He must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything is textpeople not textbooks. The teacher is the text the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.”
Our teachers are sincere, dedicated followers of Jesus; they serve as a witness to the goodness and love of God as expressed in Christ Jesus. It is the daily interaction, the “life on life discipleship”, the relationship between student and teacher that is so profoundly powerful. Ultimately, it comes down to our students being known. Imagine the impact of being in a small school like WDCS for 10 years where you and your family are known by name, loved, and cared for. When our students leave at the end of 8th grade, we don’t hold a graduation, rather, we have our “Ceremony of Blessing” where each student is called to stage one by one and “blessed” by one of their teachers. The blessing is not a generic prayer but a concrete expression of their being known and loved. As I’ve said before, these things are hard to describe adequately, you just have to come and see. Please consider joining us this year on Friday, May 19th, 7PM at the West Dallas Community Church sanctuary and witness this remarkable event first hand.
When our 8th graders were asked to reflect on their journey with God, here are a few of their comments:
“My relationship with Jesus has become stronger over the years at WDCS.”
“God has changed my life for the better at WDCS, and I know I’m on the path He wants me to be on.”
“God, to me, means forgiveness, love and faith. God means the world to me.”
“I’m thankful. I believe. I love. I listen. I pray.”
“Jesus is my God, my Lord, my Salvation …my Shepherd. He’s always there by my side. He’s a friend I can turn to.”
“This school helped me learn more about God. To me, He is like a refuge and He gives me strength.”
“Jesus loves me unconditionally.”
In a very real sense, WDCS is hallowed ground. I’ve wondered as times if I should remove my shoes before entering the school as conscious, visible act of recognition that God’s spirit is at work among us. Broken and stumbling pilgrims as we are, lives are being changed in our midst. What an honor to be a part of the West Dallas Community School story these past five years and see our students come to know Jesus and understand their position, their core identity, as a children of God. As Erasmus said, “This is the end of all learning, that they may know Christ.”
Head of School
Soon our 8th graders will start reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s been my experience while teaching this novel over the years, that students would gladly trade their iPhones, Xboxes, and over-managed lives to enjoy a taste of the lazy summer days and free-form, imaginative play that typified the lives of Scout, Jem, and Dill. While Lee’s setting of Maycomb, Alabama, is fictional, it captures the life and ethos of many small Southern towns during the Depression era; it might even seem vaguely familiar to many adult readers, reminding them of elements of their own childhood. But for today’s youth, the home of Atticus Finch and his children seems a strange and foreign land. I recognize that it is impossible to turn back time, and perhaps it’s a foolhardy desire, but I think Lee’s novel shows us that we’ve lost something worth recovering. Here are a few ideas, humbly offered, on how we might be able to find our way back to mythical Maycomb.
Meals & Family Time: Some of my favorite scenes from this novel occur around the dinner table. Mealtime was a metronome keeping the rhythm of their lives. No matter where the kids were, Jem and Scout knew their presence at supper and dinner was required. And it was here, around a hot meal, or at bedtime, that life was discussed, the day’s events processed, and wisdom gained. It was often at the table that Atticus taught his children about life, be it the pain of prejudice, loving your neighbor, irrational racism, or the importance of justice. He didn’t sermonize. Rather, by his non-anxious presence Atticus was available, during this protected, honored and unhurried mealtime, to discuss and process what the children were experiencing. Today, mealtimes have been sacrificed by our harried pace of life and untold commitments: be it school’s demands, parents’ careers, or athletic activities, to name a few. This is truly a grievous development, for when honored and used effectively, the dinner table can be the sweetest source of fellowship and spiritual nourishment a family enjoys. In fact, at WDCS, we honor meal time by practices and habits that remind students of the sacredness of breaking bread together. We seek when possible to have a teacher seated at every table, in relationship with the students, engaging them in conversation. Avoiding the stigma of a “cafeteria” and knowing the significance of the names we choose, at WDCS it is our “Dining Hall.”
Reading: While Atticus proved a source of wisdom, it was literature that formed Jem and Scout’s moral imaginations (Vigoun Gurian, author of Tending the Heart of Virtue, describes moral imagination as the power of the best stories to communicate faith, morality, and civic virtue). Atticus valued the written word enough to have a collection of books in his home, and he provided an example of someone who finds refreshment in curling up with a good book (even if they were law books) showing them that knowledge is attractive, and wisdom is a necessity. Not only did he read for his own pleasure, Atticus read aloud to his children, sharing the experience of a good story. Wisely, during the reading, he allowed for questions and discussion to help Scout process the language and ideas. Readers beget readers. Is it so strange? And it was the stories Jem and Scout read that helped them comprehend their own life’s events by providing them with context, a vicarious form of prior experience. They were making constant connections between their own story and the stories they found in books. To Kill a Mockingbird closes with Atticus putting Scout to bed with a good story, a story that helped Scout make meaning of the events surrounding Tom Robison, Bob Ewell, and Boo Radley. As for literacy and the value of reading in today’s households, well, in the words of the late Neil Postman, “we’re amusing ourselves to death.” There’s not room here to make the case for reading and I trust I’d be preaching to the choir, but this is a practice worth recovering as noted by articles in recent years in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Our school is fashioned in the classical tradition: we boast an impressive library with over 14,000+ titles. In the classrooms, we read and read often, seizing every opportunity to read aloud great books. This past summer, a dear friend of the school funded a unique program we called “West Dallas Community School Reads the Classics”: every student in our school received ten beautiful, hardback editions of a classic age-appropriate book carefully selected for each grade level. At WDCS, we’re doing our best to build life-long readers.
Unmanaged Play: Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill, did not have summer camps, sports leagues, or electronic media to keep them busy or enrich their lives. Largely they were out of doors, making up games, putting on plays, reenacting novels and movies, and occasionally getting into trouble. They were largely “free-range” kids in today’s parlance. While they were unfettered geographically; more significantly, they were free to travel as far as their imaginations would take them. Lee’s characters found that unmanaged play strengthens the imagination. The Finch children also obtained “boredom management skills.” Like all children, they got bored, but nobody panicked, nobody rushed in to rescue them by structuring their play; Jem and Scout were provided a valuable opportunity to learn how to entertain themselves and interact with their environment. Lastly, by virtue of being largely unsupervised, they had to learn to resolve conflict, compromise, share, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. Jem, Scout and Dill came to the realization that playing peacefully together was the most fun form of recreation. There is no arguing that the world is a more dangerous place today, but perhaps at times we let our fear get the best of us. I think we need to find ways to allow our youngsters a bit more freedom to play in God’s creation, get a little bored, and deal with it imaginatively. One of my most cherished images is that of our younger students at play on our playground at recess – it isn’t quite the freedom Harper Lee describes, but for 21st century kids growing up in an urban environment, it closely approximates the joys found in Maycomb.
Like most great novels, To Kill A Mockingbird is a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. If you’ve read it before, it is one of those novels that deserves a second look. And for those of you who have never enjoyed this classic, please consider joining our 8th graders and reading it this Spring; it’s a worthwhile investment of your time. If nothing else, you’re modeling something powerful for your own children or grandchildren: the deliberate act of slowing down and reading, just for pleasure’s sake.
Head of School
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Though written nearly a century ago, these lines by the poet William Butler Yates aptly describe today’s state of affairs. While God’s Kingdom offers meaning, wholeness and integrity, our world advances senselessness, fragmentation and alienation. From Madison Avenue and Wall Street to Hollywood and all points in between, on Facebook and Twitter, and even in America’s schools – the dominant voices propagate a hollowed-out, unsustainable vision of what it means to be human. John Taylor Gatto, a veteran of New York’s public schools for over 25 years and winner of New York State Teacher of the Year, offered the following critique of America’s education system:
The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach dis-connections…Even in the best of schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions.”
WDCS is therefore boldly counter-cultural in our mission, because that mission is predicated upon a ‘centre’ in Christ Jesus and commits to an education that promotes wholeness and integration. And yet we are not unaware of the cultural forces at play. As we seek to fulfill our mission statement, namely, that our students will “know, love, and practice that which is true, good, and beautiful” we try to avoid a chief pitfall: the further compartmentalization of the spiritual life. If we fail to make meaningful connections between biblical faith and learning, we run the risk of promoting a faith in Jesus that is largely pietistic, privatized, marginalized, and therefore utterly irrelevant to a student’s experiences in this world and with concrete reality. So how do we connect academics and faith, the head and the heart? We set out to nourish a sanctified imagination.
One might be skeptical about the relevance of the imagination to matters scholastic or spiritual, but great minds, both intellectual and spiritual, have spoken to the necessity of the imagination in matters of learning and faith. Albert Einstein boldly asserted,
“Imagination is more important than knowledge, for while knowledge points to all there is, imagination points to all there will be.”
The brilliant physicist also wrote,
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not, who can no longer wonder, can no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”
C.S. Lewis, echoed these ideas. In his An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis said, “The special gifts of childhood which cannot be quenched are a tireless curiosity, a taste for marvel and adventure, and readiness to wonder, pity, and admire, and an intense imagination.”
I find it remarkable that two towering intellects of the 20th century would both offer the imagination such high praise. Additionally, both men list a certain set of almost childlike affections and dispositions that fuel the imagination. Wonder, Awe, Mystery, Marvel – words that, interestingly enough, could also describe the act of worship. Both Lewis and Einstein get me thinking about what Jesus might have meant when he said, “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I’m certainly not the first to ruminate on this passage, but perhaps Jesus had the imagination in mind when he said we need to be like children—an imagination that promotes wonder, amazement, curiosity, pity, and awe; an imagination that opens the eyes to “all there will be.” Maybe it is this childlike imagination that is the key to faith, for both Romans 8 and Hebrews 11 speak of hoping for “things not seen.”
As we honor the imagination at WDCS, we promote these childlike qualities in our students that schools too often blunt and all but ignore, and we encourage the students to approach their academics with sense of grateful reverence, thankful for the wonders of this world so lovingly provided by our creator God. But in nurturing the imagination we accomplish so much more in the lives of our students. The imagination opens their eyes to the connections between the heart and mind and stokes the fires of their faith.
In her book, The Preaching Life, author Barbara Taylor Brown writes, “The church’s central task is an imaginative one…in which the human capacity to imagine is both engaged and transformed…It is a matter of learning to see the world, each other, and ourselves as God sees us, and to live as if God’s reality were the only one that mattered.”
All that we do at WDCS is filtered through the lens of scripture. In our Nature Studies program, our youngest students are privileged to explore the beauty in our surrounding neighborhood, learning to observe, name, and appreciate God’s imaginative creation – the plants, trees, birds, and insects alike. History, literature, art, music, and mathematics are taught from a biblical perspective. Poetry, literature, and art have a special ability to nurture the imagination. But regardless of the subject matter, we are instructing our students to see the world, themselves, and their neighbors through God’s eyes.
For my money, nobody articulates the power of the imagination better than Eugene Peterson, translator of “The Message”
“A major and too-little-remarked evil in our time is the systematic degradation of the imagination. The imagination is among the chief glories of the human. When it is healthy and energetic, it ushers us into adoration and wonder, into the mysteries of God. When it is neurotic and sluggish, it turns people…into parasites, copycats, and couch-potatoes. The American imagination today is distressingly sluggish. Most of what is served up to us as the fruits of imagination is, in fact, the debasing of it into soap opera and pornography. Right now, one of the essential Christian ministries in and to our ruined world is the recovery and exercise of the imagination. Ages of faith have always been ages rich in imagination. It is easy to see why: the materiality of the gospel (the seen, heard, and touched Jesus) is no less impressive than its spirituality (faith, hope, and love). Imagination is the mental tool we have for connecting material and spiritual, visible and invisible, earth and heaven.”
Connecting heaven and earth—that’s what we do when we nurture the imagination. Connecting—it’s there in our mission statement, tethering together knowledge and love, excellence and service. Our aim is to engender integrity and wholeness in our students, offering them a seamless vision of faith, calling, and vocation in a fallen world, and equipping them with the skills to faithfully serve God and neighbor in that world. This is a vision of education that promotes meaning, not confusion. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” These words might accurately describe much of what passes for education in America, but at WDCS our center is in Christ Jesus, of whom Paul writes in Colossians 1:17, “All things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Head of School
I am grateful for MLK day. Admittedly, it is great to have a long weekend with the family so quickly upon the heels of Christmas; but mostly I am grateful for this national observance because it reminds me to pause a moment and focus my attention on his life and work.
Our Class 8 students were in Washington DC last month and visited the impressive MLK memorial. They stood next to the ornate pulpit in the Washington National Cathedral, the spot from which he delivered his last Sunday sermon, and so he was freshly in my mind. This year I chose to read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and was struck by two things in particular.
While Dr. King is known as a gifted orator, this response to a group of clergymen in Birmingham demonstrates that MLK was also first-rate thinker with an impressive intellect. The “Doctor” wasn’t an honorary title: he earned his PhD in Theology from Boston University. Employing a “Natural Law” line of argument, King draws on examples from history and references some of the great minds of the church and the West, such as Augustine and Aquinas, to defend his position and the peaceful protests against unjust laws. From his youth through his time at Morehouse, Crozer Seminary, and Boston University, King honed his use of logic and rhetoric, read widely, and studied philosophy and theology, eventually employing those gifts to champion justice and equality. In a sense, one could argue that King enjoyed a classical education, much like we offer to our students today at WDCS.
Many of us have probably heard the “thermostat and thermometer” metaphor in a sermon or talk on leadership, but it is rarely attributed to MLK. And yet he employs that language in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Here is the passage that struck me with particular force this past week.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”
His words cut to the quick; admittedly I am too often comfortable with the status quo and I sense a growing internal cynicism, that our culture and nation are in steep decline and things are unlikely to change. But a hope founded in the God of scriptures, as King’s was, has the true north of a resurrected Jesus and the future promise of the New Jerusalem: it operates like a thermostat.
For 2017, my prayer for myself, for the church, for WDCS, is that we would employ the wisdom promised by God and thoughtfully critique the “ideas and principles of popular opinion.” I pray for the humility, resolve, and courage to resist complacency and instead function as a thermostat that can “transform the mores of society.”
Head of School
It was my distinct privilege to accompany our Class 8 students as they explored Washington, D.C. this past week. Having moved to our nation’s capital right out of college and calling it “home” for 13 years, I was flooded with memories—from ice-skating at the Smithsonian Sculpture Garden (the site of my first date with my wife Dorothy), to the sirens and terror that marked 9/11. It was a privilege to see DC through our students’ eyes and share with them the things I love most about that city.
One of my favorite spots will always be the National Gallery of Art. Though our time in the NGA was cut short this year due to poor planning (I should have read that bus schedule a little more closely) several of the students still listed it as one of the highlights of the trip. As our curriculum is rooted in the classical tradition of studying the enduring things that are good, true, and beautiful, several of the more famous pieces on display in the gallery are familiar to them.
The NGA has an impressive collection of Renaissance Art and the only DaVinci on public view in the Americas. As 1st graders our students learn about Giotto, often called “The Father of the Renaissance,” and they paint a copy of his Madonna and Child. Though perhaps not their favorite painting, nor mine, it is remarkable to stand in the presence of a work of art created in the early 14th century and to know the significant role the artist played in the history of western civilization.
There are other studies of the Virgin Mary on display, several of which I prefer to Giotto’s, such as Raphael’s Alba Madonna. Seeing them all in a span of several minutes during Advent, with the city awash in tinsel and lights, got me thinking of Mary and her cosmos-changing response to Gabriel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
I want to be more like Mary: child-like faith, quick to respond, open to receive. willing to suffer.
My favorite reflection on Mary is offered by the poet Luci Shaw. Good poetry doesn’t require commentary or editorializing, it moves by the power of its own words and imagery, so I leave you with Luci Shaw’s poem “Mary’s Song” and wish you a Merry Christmas.
By Luci Shaw
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest…
you who have had so far
to come.) Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world.
Charmed by dove’s voices, the whisper of straw,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed
who overflowed all skies,
Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.
Head of School
Though West Dallas has changed dramatically since our school first opened its doors in 1995, over the last month the Dallas Morning News has reminded me that we still serve a neighborhood of need whose residences are susceptible to the caprices of poverty and violence.
First there was news of the mass evictions in West Dallas, a major disruption in the lives of over 300 families. This battle between a larger corporate landlord and city hall has impacted several of our school families, leaving them panicked and scrambling for a new place to call home. One of our families paid rent on their property for nearly 30 years.
Then there was this. Despite the efforts of ousted DISD superintendent Mike Miles, even with dedicated local campus leadership (whom I’ve met and greatly admire), and regardless of the support of The School Zone, three of the schools in our neighborhood were flagged as multi-year “Improvement Required” campuses of major concern. There are five other schools with the same designation in DISD which triggered a stern warning from the Texas Education Agency, threatening possible school closures or a “temporary dissolution of the school board.”
Lastly, our community was set to enjoy our annual Fall Fair a week ago. The weather was ideal, with bounce houses and games at the ready, and hot dogs and Kool-aid pickles on the menu. I was preparing for a fun-filled event when I received a phone call alerting me of this development. We promptly cancelled the fair as the police were promptly on the scene investigating a possible homicide. The man’s body (whom we now know was 64-year old Bolivar Salazar, murdered for his debit card) was found not 10 yards from our property, clearly visible from our playground fence.
The violence, the failing schools, the evictions (and growing suspicions by some that the city is culpable and hoping for accelerated gentrification), they all add up, leaving our neighbors suffering from “toxic stress.” But I’ve seen that it also leads to an erosion of trust in the civic order. In moments of despair our families are likely to feel forgotten: neglected by DISD, the Dallas Police Department, and City Hall. This past week, in the wake of the election, I saw the fears that are borne out of their experience. Some might fear deportation of a loved one. Others fear loss of benefits and fewer opportunities. Cutting across racial boundaries, fear is the common experience. You can argue whether these fears are rational or not, but they are the felt reality of many in our community.
This past month has convicted me afresh that there is still significant work to be done here in our neighborhood. The articles, the election, conversations with our students, they serve as a potent reminder that political solutions and government programs are not enough; the church has a significant role to play, we are to be the “light of the world.” West Dallas Community School is a daring response to God’s call to seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) and to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God (Isaiah 61:1,2 and Luke 4: 17-21).
If you feel fatigued after this election season, if in the midst of rising racial tension and social unrest you wonder how to wisely and meaningful respond, if you worry about the role of the church in our culture and society, then please consider partnering with West Dallas Community School. We provide a Christ-centered education of excellence to the families in the 75212 zip code. We provide community. Here, children are more than a number or even a name. Our graduates experience a small, tightly knit community for 10 years; it is a community that seeks to encourage strengths and strengthen weakness. It is a school that views education as “life on life discipleship” where students learn to face their failings and the sin that is common to all human beings, as well as their God-given uniqueness and the imago dei inherent within them. In short, our students are known, and here they come to know their worth as beloved children of God.
Several years ago, sometime before I arrived at WDCS, the school adopted the tag line: Changing Lives for Generations to Come. After nearly 4 and half years, I can confidently proclaim that this is true. By God’s grace children’s lives are being changed, their parents’ lives are being changed, their grandparents’ lives are being changed…those of us who work here and serve here as volunteers and Board members, our lives are being changed. Join us, and be prepared to have your life changed.
Head of School
I miss him. Now, more than ever, I miss him. In a nation increasingly divided by politics and race, I wish I could visit Tom and call upon his insight and wisdom.
It was the winter of 1990. As a junior at the University of Texas, I flew to Washington D.C. to attended the National Prayer Breakfast, and afterwards, the National Student Leadership Forum. We heard from some familiar speakers and personalities: Vice President Quayle and Tony Campolo among them, but all these years since, it is Tom I remember most. Here was this hulking giant of a man with a warm, disarming smile, a charismatic personality, a rich, resonant voice with a touch of an accent that was hard to place. But most significantly, I remember his fiery, prophet-like intensity. His name was Tom Skinner.
Little did I know that two years after I first heard Tom speak, I would move from our state’s capital to our nation’s capital. Around the same time, Tom and his wife Barbara were moving from New York to Maryland. This would afford me the privilege of hearing his teaching regularly, dine at his table, serve at his leadership center, and share one particularly memorable meal at an IHOP in Lynchburg, Virginia. I count it one of the great graces of God that I was able to benefit from Tom’s godly wisdom, and prophetic passion before he went to be with our Savior after a brief battle with cancer in 1994.
I wonder now why I had never heard of him before that day in 1990. Tom’s story was compelling enough to generate a comic book in a series I used to read as a kid (no DC or Marvel in the Craft house, we were limited to comic versions of The Hiding Place, Through the Gates of Splendor, and The Cross and the Switchblade). Raised in one of New York City’s more notorious boroughs, Tom was a Harlem gang leader when he had a radical conversion experience, committing his life to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Not too long after that, he was leading crusades in the Apollo theater. He authored several books and in 1964 founded Tom Skinner Associates (eventually known as Skinner Leadership Institute), which operated out of New York City until he and his wife, Barbara Williams-Skinner, relocated to the DC area in 1992. At 28, he was selected as a plenary speaker for the 1970 Urbana gathering, InterVarsity’s missions conference, where he addressed a crowd of over 11,000 college students. This was quite an accomplishment for a young black preacher and a seminal event in the predominately white evangelical world of parachurch missions. Imagine the scene. This was only five years removed from “Bloody Sunday” and the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Our nation was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King only two years before. What did those gathered expect from this ex-gang leader and his message entitled, “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism?” You can listen to his address here – it is remarkable how timeless his message is, and with the exception of a few particular references, he could just as easily be speaking to us and addressing our race problem today. Without a doubt, he was one of a kind. And during his life, Tom mentored countless future leaders of the church such as John Perkins and Tony Evans.
They sneak up on me – these moments of overwhelming and profound gratitude that often move me to tears and always prompt a, “Thank you Lord!” And so it was a few weeks ago as I stood in the WDCS chapel recounting my blessings, namely, the privilege and honor of being included in God’s healing and redemption work that is West Dallas Community School. In the midst of this moment of spontaneous praise and thanksgiving, I asked myself, and God, “How did I get here?” I live in a city I never thought I’d call home (I’m a native Houstonian) working in a profession I once abandoned (a long story for another blog.) As I traced God’s movement in my life, from Houston to Austin to Washington D.C. and eventually back to Texas, I realized, perhaps for the first time, or maybe more clearly with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, how profoundly Tom Skinner had impacted my life.
Here is what Tom taught me. First, he showed me that there are over 3,000 verses in the scripture about the “poor” – the 2nd most common topic in the Bible after “money.” He taught me, in words and in action, the importance of caring for the poor in our discipleship to Jesus.
Second, I remember him clearly proclaiming: “All Truth is God’s Truth.” Though these words were not original to him, Tom Skinner was the first person I heard preach on this concept, and it was liberating, impacting not only my view of God’s kingdom and the world, but also my understanding of vocation, ultimately shaping my view of education.
And then there was that night at an IHOP in Lynchburg. We were white. We were males. We were privileged. We were naïve. There were maybe six of us around the table with Tom. Fresh out of college, and enrolled together in a discipleship program, we were excited to grow spiritually and didn’t know what was about to hit us. Over the course of several cups of coffee, into the wee hours of the morning, Tom challenged, if not dismantled, our tidy, comfortable worldviews and attitudes about race in the U.S. Tom offered a sort of historical survey of race and American history, explaining how the political, economic, and religious systems of the 15th and 16th century upheld slavery that had lasting, negative consequences that reverberated over the next few centuries. Before that evening, we were all fairly naïve to ways in which the color of our skin, along with the social and financial capital accrued by our families over several generations, placed us in a privileged position. These were privileges not enjoyed by all, particularly not young black men. But Tom wasn’t trying to shame or guilt us into anything – he was trying to help us recognize that there was still work to be done by and in the body of Christ to roll back the curse of slavery. Race wasn’t Tom’s central message – his major concern was preaching the kingdom of God and the Lordship of Jesus. But what I began to understand more clearly in that IHOP was the powerful witness of racial reconciliation in a world hostile to the gospel. Tom helped us see that without a deeper understanding of the legacy of slavery, without a greater sensitivity to our African-American brothers and sisters, we would falter in the broader ministry of reconciliation St. Paul writes of in 2 Corinthians 5: 18-21: God reconciling the world to himself in Christ.
Care for the poor, All Truth is God’s Truth, Racial Reconciliation: Tom marked me with his teaching. It was a great joy that my wife, Dorothy, knew Tom as well and later formed a friendship with his widow, Barbara Skinner. Dorothy and I attended his funeral together. She went on to focus on domestic hunger issues for a season and later we felt God calling us to join a small, African-American church in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington D.C. The seeds Tom sowed in our lives shot down roots and God ultimately brought all three of them together in full flowering at West Dallas Community School.
Tom often said, “The role of God’s people is that we become the live expression on earth of what is happening in heaven.” We should pray “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” but we should also demonstrate what that looks like for a watching world. I believe that is what we do every day, by God’s grace, at West Dallas Community School.
Shortly after his death, Tom’s image graced the cover of a 1996 edition of Christianity Today under the title, “Movers and Shapers of Modern Evangelicalism” – his photo among only a handful of others including J.I. Packer and John Stott. He clearly shaped me. Yet at that time, I had no idea the manner of man that I was privileged to know. In only the span of only 18 months or so, Tom boldly and incisively spoke into my life, as I later learned he had done for countless others. I only wish I could thank him for the time he invested in me and for impact he had on my life. And I sure wish I could share a cup of coffee at an IHOP and ask him his thoughts on the current state of affairs of the church and race relations in America. But as I think more about it, he wouldn’t say anything different today – his kingdom focused preaching was timeless. I think Tom would encourage me, would encourage all of us, in the ministry of West Dallas Community School as a work of racial reconciliation and an expression of the Lord’s heart and God’s Kingdom here on earth.
Head of School
Over these past few months, I have been thinking a good deal about the many problems we face in this world and questioning what difference a little place like West Dallas Community School can make. From Minneapolis to Nice, with tragedies in Orlando, Baton Rouge, and Dallas in between, this was a difficult summer. During such times, tensions rise, hope fails, and cynicism seems to take hold. As we leave the high temperatures of June, July, and August behind, race relations continue to simmer, faith in our public institutions wane, and patriotism appears to be on the decline. It feels as if the things that divide us are prevailing over that which binds us together and I wonder, what can be done? I lack the wisdom and insight to diagnose the nature of our problems or to analyze how we got here as a nation; clearly it is complex, and this blog doesn’t seem the appropriate place to wade into the debate over quarterback Colin Kapernick’s national anthem protest or the Black Lives Matter movement. But I remain convinced that West Dallas Community School stands as a light on a hill in our city, providing an excellent educational program and a thick web of nurturing relationships that sow seeds of character and hope in our students. Perhaps more than any one event, the speeches offered by President Barak Obama and former President George W. Bush at the memorial service here in Dallas reminded me how much our city needs West Dallas Community School and our unique mission, to nurture young people who will “live purposefully and intelligently in the service of God and man.”
In the midst of our own grief here in Dallas, President Obama and former President Bush heaped praise on our city in their addresses at the memorial service for the slain officers – timely words that offered healing and comfort. Each in their own way sought to bring solace and hope. Former President George W. Bush remarked,
“Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose. But Americans, I think, have a great advantage. To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit, by shared commitments to common ideals. At our best, we honor the image of God we see in one another.”
Bush starts by calling out self-righteousness and urging humility. At WDCS we have five core values known as “The Warrior Way” and among them is humility. In the age of the selfie and cheap self-esteem programs, this virtue is trampled on the way towards self-realization and individual fulfillment. But in God’s economy, humility is at the center of a life well lived. In both the Old and New Testaments, the authors bear witness to humanity’s need to recognize our frailty, our dependence, our sinfulness, and in humility recognize our need for God’s mercy and the kindness of others. Our society has birthed a generation of Social Justice Warriors, virtue signaling at ever turn, burning with righteous indignation, ready to protest every slight, but it lacks a key ingredient: humility. The prophet Micah challenges us to pursue justice, but he reminds us that it must be accompanied by mercy and humility. At WDCS we seek to nurture this in all of our students.
The former president also challenges us to remember our values, our “shared commitments to common ideals.” But I wonder, if we polled older students and young adults today, would you find a consensus around any set of values and “common ideals,” or would you find sharp disagreement or vague moral platitudes? Here I think our schools bare a share of the blame because we lack the vision and courage to teach the shared commitments and common ideals that birthed our nation. Our curriculum at WDCS is rich in ideas; the study of history is held in high regard, both as a source for inspirational biographies to be sure, but more so to understand our present moment. I have written about the importance of teaching history before so I’ll refrain from offering more on this topic, but here too humility is key to cultivating gratitude and wisdom from the study of our past. One of my chief concerns for our country today is that we have forgotten the common ideals that galvanized our founding fathers, inspired our Constitution, and fortified them through the long years of revolution. Not so at WDCS. We equip our students with a robust understanding of our nation’s complicated, imperfect history through a study that includes our founding documents so that they can contribute to our country’s unfolding story and be the kinds of citizens former President Bush has in mind.
President Obama’s words also offered a comfort and a challenge; honoring the fallen officers and the rule of law, but also calling for greater understanding towards those who still experience the effects of racism today. Those are the students and families whom we serve. But towards the end of his speech the President turned to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.
“But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. “I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.” That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens. That’s what we’ve seen in Dallas these past few days, and that’s what we must sustain. Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes.
Yes, a new heart. I do believe there is such a thing as “systemic” injustice and racism, and I believe it is the call of each and every generation to summon the courage and wisdom to recognize it and challenge it. But it is the heart which is the “heart” of the matter so to speak. What President Obama is calling us to here, open hearts filled with empathy, this also requires humility. More than that, I believe what both Presidents Obama and Bush are calling for require Jesus – to enable this change of heart. Two other presidents make this point – our nation needs a citizenry led by the Lord.
In closing I offer the reflections of two other presidents. John Adams wrote in 1789,
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Writing nearly 150 years later, Woodrow Wilson’s last published words were,
“The sum of the whole matter is this, that our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually. It can be saved only by becoming permeated with the spirit of Christ and being made free and happy by the practices which spring out of that spirit.”
West Dallas Community School has a bold mission: we seek to cultivate wisdom and virtue in students from one of the most historically underserved neighborhoods in Dallas by providing a rich banquet of ideas, nurturing the souls of our students on that which is good, true, and beautiful – with the prayer that they will come of love the author of all that is good, true, and beautiful. As we like to say, all of this is for “The good of the city of the glory of God.”
Hours after President Obama and former President Bush delivered their memorial addresses, I received a text message from a former West Dallas Community School teacher. A proud Texan, he is also a proud native Dallasite. Here’s what he wrote:
“Hey Bentley, I’ve been thinking about you and West Dallas all day today. I’m thankful for the work you do. There are no easy solutions, and there are no complete answers now, but the work you and the school do is life for us who get to partake in it and those who receive it. I’ve often said that I didn’t come to love Dallas until I crossed the bridge everyday to work at WDCS. I’m thankful for that more than ever now.”
As big as the problems are, as despairing as I felt at times this past summer, I believe a school as small as WDCS can make a big difference.
Head of School
We should have acted sooner. Clearly something was wrong but with a teenage girl it is often hard to know. Was she going through a phase, feeling a bit sullen, or developing an attitude? Her mom’s behavior was more perplexing. She had always been such a great partner in her children’s education, positive and encouraging, but now she seemed to avoid us, not even giving eye contact in carpool. Who likes to go looking for conflict? But knowing how critical that home and school partnership is, especially during the late middle school years, and wanting to live into the “community” aspect of our school name, we reached out to the mom and expressed a desire to meet. Thank God we did.
Every few years I go back to the monastery. Not literally so much, though I have visited several monasteries and draw great peace from their ministry to the world, but more in the ideas or “rules” that govern monastic life and in the many of the prayers of medieval saints. Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk and Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, are two books that seek to purposefully draw upon the wisdom of early monasticism for 21st century application. They have served as great sources of wisdom and encouragement for me, both personally in my spiritual life, and for ideas about leadership and the shared life of community.
In recent months the blogosphere has been abuzz with Benedict and heated discussions around an idea called “The Benedict Option.” Fascinating though that is and perhaps deserving of a blog post or two of its own, my interest lies more in what is known as “Benedict’s Rule” and the principles that governed the ways in which the monastery practiced hospitality, relationships between the Abbot (the leader) and those he lead, and lastly promoted unity among the monks.
Benedict wasn’t a blind idealist; he was well acquainted with the frailty of the human condition and how vulnerable…precarious…relationships are to misunderstanding, hurt, and unaddressed conflict. “Let peace be thy quest” is one of the most famous lines in his “Rule.” Benedict knew that peace, either with God, or in human relationships, did not come easy; it had to be something we purposefully pursued and fought for, like a knight on a quest. Perhaps this is why he required the monks to pray the Lord’s Prayer twice daily. With the lines, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” it was a regular reminder of the essential practice of forgiveness. Esther deWaal sums it up beautifully when she says, “the heart of community is forgiveness.”
With Benedict in mind, we met with the parent. We certainly had our own set of broad concerns as well as specific incidents with her daughter that we wanted to address, but our aims were tempered both by Benedict and a later figure of the medieval church, St. Francis. Over the years I have tried to make it my practice to pray the prayer attributed to him at the start of a potentially contentious meeting. It’s his line, “Oh divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand,” that reminds me to reframe my approach. If I engage a parent with a stubbornly set position, the meeting likely won’t go well. But if I can embrace St. Francis’ prayer and genuinely desire to understand the parent’s position, it helps me in practical terms to practice what St. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “In humility, think of others more important than yourself.” It is the interests we share in common, for the good of the child and the glory of God, that should govern our conversation, not our particular positions on a given day.
We started the meeting with prayer, as we always do, but it felt a bit perfunctory and ineffectual. The atmosphere in the room was tense. The mother was cool and aloof – gone was the warmth of years past. After briefly laying out our objective for the meeting and summarizing our concerns with the daughter’s behavior, we started with something like, “We sense that we’ve disappointed you and that perhaps you are somewhat angry with us. If there is anything we have done to lose your trust, I pray you will forgive us.” I guess that was all she needed. The floodgates opened and she catalogued her hurt and frustration. It stemmed largely from one incident, and in all earnestness, we were able to apologize for our mishandling of this particular situation. We explained our thinking but didn’t justify, for we acknowledged that she held a valid position, and we justifiably needed to apologize. An apology with particularities and specificity always goes deeper than a vaguely offered mea culpa. And the words, “Will you forgive me?” are more powerful and healing than “I’m sorry.” She forgave us. And then the real miracle happened. She asked us to forgive her…for harboring her anger, for allowing it to spill out over her daughter and impact the way she too was viewing the school and responding to authority. When someone shares vulnerably like that, recognizing and admitting their faults, how can you not quickly offer the forgiveness they seek?
Once we firmly re-established the partnership between home and school, we invited the middle school girl to join us. She witnessed a united front. She heard of apologies offered and hearts changed. Her heart changed too and that meeting served as the solid foundation for a great year.
West Dallas Community School is a unique place with a bold mission. We’re not quite as radical as a monastery, but I think St. Benedict and St. Francis have plenty to offer us if we have ears to listen. The early monastic tradition was mostly comprised of individual hermits living isolated lives in the desert. Benedict knew it was simpler and perhaps easier to be a saint alone; it is never easy to live with other people. In the shared spaces of family, or church, or friendships, or school, we hurt each other. It is inevitable. But what we lose in isolation is the personal growth that comes from forgiving and being forgiven, and how that instructs us about ourselves, our need for redemption, and the vast, unmerited love of Jesus. At WDCS we offer a challenging, classical, educational experience, but students here are learning so much more that what is described in the curriculum or classroom syllabus.
We are West Dallas COMMUNITY School and “the heart of community is forgiveness.”
Head of School