Everyone is familiar with “Teach for America”, where individuals are placed in underserved urban public school settings to live and teach for two years. This program attracts a variety of folks but holds an especially strong appeal to new and recent college grads, often from prestigious schools, who sincerely desire to use their gifts and skills to impact their world for the better. It is not a Christian program by any means, but I know many Christians who are attracted to it and who have chosen to participate.
The Teach for America vision is not that every participant is going to choose a career path in urban education. Rather, the expectation and hope is that, as participants move on to graduate schools and professions ranging from law to medicine to movies, they will carry with them a changed perspective on poverty and education as a result of their two year immersion. And as these folks move into positions of power and influence in their communities and in our nation, they will be “lifelong leaders for expanding educational opportunity (from the TFA website).”
There is another program that this reminds me of, and I don’t know if it is still around. It was big during the Clinton years so my guess is it has gone by the wayside in the changed political climate of the last few years. It was called “Americorps”, and the idea was that an individual, after or before college, could do some sort of community service-related job for a year. After the year was up, that individual would receive a stipend that could either be used for tuition at a college or university, OR it could be used to pay back student loans. I have a few friends who greatly benefited from this program, saying nothing for the communities where they diligently served!
With these in mind, I would love to see some wealthy individual, family, or institution take a cue from the secular world and initiate a new program called “Preach for America.” This program would encourage seminary grads to give themselves in service to churches in impoverished, underserved areas for a specified number of years (five maybe?) and at the end of that time, receive a financial stipend to pay back seminary loans.
Doug and I have struggled immensely as vocational ministers called to serve the poor. We have run into varied prejudices against us, ranging from the expectation that to do so we must be relegated to “tent-making” or “bi-vocational” ministry situations, to the unspoken attitude that the poor don’t really need (interpret deserve?) leaders who are seminary trained. One of the greatest obstacles we have encountered is the challenge of financing a seminary education without taking on a huge loan-load that would require us to seek high-paying ministry posts after seminary. Some of our deepest disillusionment came when we arrived at Fuller and, at repeated junctures, were told by administrators and staff that we just needed to go and find a wealthy church to be a part of–and we watched in dismay as so many of our peers did exactly that. (disclaimer–I received the very generous Menlo Park scholarship and was able to afford three years at Fuller as a result; it was Doug’s education that we were, and still are, struggling to finance)
I wonder what kind of impact it would have if seminary grads flooded our nation’s urban communities for a few years before going to serve on staff for the best and the brightest. What would it do to the missional spirit of these pastors? What breed of humility might emerge for these folks? And how many gifted leaders like my husband might receive the training and education they long for so that they might lay their lives down for the marginal?