I was lucky enough to spend my entire youth in one place, Jonesboro, Ark., which I called “the land of milk and honey,” mainly because you could not find any alcohol there. My formative years not only rooted me in one city and in one house but also with one church.
As a lifetime member of First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, I grew up in a nurturing environment with one pastor, one sanctuary and, most importantly, one youth minister.
His name was (and still is) Jim Burke. He was everything you want a leader of young people to be: friendly but authoritative, funny but clean, inspirational but not ham handed. He led not by simply spouting off scriptures but by living a life that we as youth should emulate. Many times I thought the phrase should be “What Would Jim Burke Do?”
He loved watching the Georgia Bulldogs, playing basketball and listening to Styx. Yes, my youth minister loved a band who named themselves after the river in Hades.
During my senior year, Jim would come to the high school for lunch. He didn’t bring a Bible or a devotion book. His time at the school was not for soul conversion. His time there was for bonding, for visiting with the kids who were constant attendees of FBC, with those who showed up less frequently and with those who made their only stops at church on major holidays. The lunchtime conversation revolved around sports, movies, music, classes, clothes ... anything but John 3:16.
I think back and remember what a cool person he was to come and spend his lunchtime talking to a bunch of acne-covered, parachute pant-wearing, anxiety-ridden nerds. He spent his time listening to problems, laughing at jokes. What he didn’t do was hold an impromptu bible study while we were trying to force down our soyburgers and fruit cups.
Being a Baptist, I knew that we had Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night and any other church-sanctioned event to fill ourselves up with the Holy Spirit. A mere 30 minutes before my chemistry test, I don’t really want to have a quick lesson about Mary and Martha. I want to decompress.
As of a few days ago, someone like Jim would not be welcome at Conway Public Schools. A letter from the group Freedom From Religion has stopped that, for now. Their stance that youth ministers (or any ministers) that arrive on school grounds to visit with students infringes on the terms set forth by the Supreme Court which clarifies the distinction of “separation of church and state.”
That story has been reported, and many people have chimed in to us, using whatever portions of knowledge they can to drive their point home. Some say that no harm was being done, that those who came to the school only did so to see students they already knew. Others have refuted that, saying that their experiences with religious visitors at school have resulted in evangelizing and uncomfortableness.
What is the truth?
Certainly the cafeteria of a public school is not a place to hold a tent revival. I would also surmise that pamphlets or brochures would and should be inadmissible. Even an invitation to a student not normally in the group could be seen as an intrusion. I mean, what if a Catholic minister was available delivering certain teachings that are not consistent in Protestant backgrounds. What if your child came home asking about the teachings of Buddha or, say, L. Ron Hubbard? I’m sure you would prefer they came home asking about algebra or the Revolutionary War.
It’s an easy stance to be upset at the administration’s decision, even if it may only be temporary. But some of the instant reaction sounds as if these people have lived a life of repression. Trust me, Christianity in America has never been in the minority. We don’t know anything about being repressed.
I wonder what Jim Burke would do? He may have been upset. But he may just tell us, “I’ll meet you to shoot some hoops after school.”
True ministering can happen anywhere.
Richard Duke is the Editor of the Log Cabin Democrat. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/editorduke.