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
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