On Thursday of last week I traveled 90 miles north to visit with Christian leaders in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I made the journey at the invitation of my son, Matthew Armstrong, the founder and director of Crossroads Kids Club. Crossroads is a ministry that partners with local churches to begin and develop after-school children’s Bible clubs in public elementary schools. These church-based clubs intentionally share the gospel with kids in the public sphere. (It still amazes me the number of Christians who think that this cannot be legally done in public schools but what amazes me even more is the disinterest churches have in doing it even when they realize that they can.) Matt has begun two Crossroads Clubs in urban Milwaukee. Through the development of his ministry in Milwaukee he has been able to forge a friendship with leaders of several similar missions.
In Milwaukee I saw and heard the story of missional-ecumenism in one of America’s more challenging “rust-belt” urban centers. There are about 175 schools in the Milwaukee Public School system, a system which includes all public schools K-12. There are also a number of charter schools in the city and 113 Catholic schools in the archdiocese of Milwaukee. My guess, based on a little Internet research, is that there are more than a few alternative private schools, including several Lutheran, Baptist, non-affiliated Christian and non-religious private schools, in addition to these public and Catholic schools. What was made profoundly clear to me last Thursday is that this urban school context is profoundly challenged by poverty, malnutrition, single-parent homes and the social-spiritual challenges of an urban environment in particular.
This Milwaukee story provides a wonderful context for sharing my vision of what unity in Christ’s mission can look like when the church decides to embrace public space with the good news. I sang as a child, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations.” Well, the nations can be found in urban centers like the city of Milwaukee. But too few Christians know how to respond to this “new” mission context. Some think the only thing to do with public schools is let them die. They are corrupt, inefficient and dangerous. We should give up on them altogether. But what I saw and heard in Milwaukee was the voice of praying, loving and missional Christians who believe Jesus Christ belongs in the center of the whole city of Milwaukee, especially in the schools.
The ministry that hosted this day of dialogue is called BASICS, an acronym for Brothers and Sisters in Christ Serving. BASICS was formed by a small group of Christian business and nonprofit leaders in 1996. They saw that the metropolitan area of Milwaukee was at a crisis point in meeting the needs of its impoverished people, many of whom had been victimized by a sinful society. The primary institutions of urban recovery were fatigued, and in some cases, at the point of collapse.
BASICS was founded to mobilize, collaborate and network with faith-based ministries in all segments of society, and to meet the personal, spiritual, physical and economic needs of people in Milwaukee and surrounding communities. BASICS seeks to strengthen the Christian community in Milwaukee by demonstrating the love of Christ to those who are poor and in need of help. Since its beginning, BASICS has assisted more than 200 church pastors, 100 outreach ministry leaders, and has developed a network of nearly 30 urban contractors to help with construction projects that are required to meet building codes.
BASICS was founded by Arn Quakkelaar. The president of the mission, Mark Mallwitz, leads it now. Mark led the day last Thursday and did a beautiful job of keeping the entire group focused on the central purpose of our gathering – listening to several Milwaukee Public School principals tell us the story of their school, its unique challenges, and how they, as Christian believers living and serving as light in their school, welcome more and more input from capable Christian volunteers inside the Milwaukee schools. We had three principals speak, for about ten minutes each. We had the Director of School Support share with us and the Coordinator for Volunteer Service for one of the large high schools in the city. (I had the unique privilege to sit next to this precious woman and share deeply with her over our meal. We connected in a profoundly Christocentric way!) In addition, the Milwaukee Public School Coordinator for Volunteers shared three specific ways that people in the room could gain legal clearance and get inside the schools to serve kids. She was welcoming and warm toward all Christian help in the city and its public schools.
I will tell more about this story over the next several days but I drew several conclusions from listening and talking to these leaders in urban Milwaukee.
- Public schools are in deep trouble and face incredible problems. Most inside the system welcome the help that good volunteers can bring by mentoring and giving. Christians are not excluded. The only reason we are not there is because we do not choose to get involved. This might be out of ignorance but in many cases it seems to be the result of a privately focused idea about mission and the separation of church and state.
- Christians who work inside our public schools are courageous, challenged and starving for our presence and support. I heard amazing stories of African-American leadership serving inside the schools who regularly pray for their campus, love their students deeply and long to improve the education system by working to shine the light of Christ everywhere possible. These brave and Spirit-filled men and women blew me away. One principal said that every day he went to his high school and prayed: “What would Jesus have me do in this situation?” He told of small gains, like a large reduction in suspensions. He said his school, in four years, was become a far more peaceful and tranquil place. He even connected a prayer movement to improvement in academic testing. He said what was needed was prayer and caring. He said that we need adults who will come into the schools and say, by their words and actions, “I care about you!”
- The Christian leaders in BASICS, and several other ministries that were well represented in the room last Thursday, are clearly committed to partnering with the church catholic, not just a denomination or a brand. They believe in unity and they believe the church must do this mission as one, together in faith. This is the practical spirit and action of what I call missional-ecumenism – Christians and churches of all backgrounds working side-by-side in public space, as ONE, for the advance of Christ’s kingdom in their city. This is happening in Milwaukee and it transcends denominationalism, gender, race and ethnicity. It was beautiful to see my vision actually working and to know that before I entered the room not one person knew me or anything about what I do or why. I am simply one small piece in a growing mosaic of mission across America.
I hope my final sentence might be slightly different a year or two from now. My hope is to go back to Milwaukee and build relationships of love and trust that will allow ACT3 Network to actually partner with BASICS, and other Milwaukee missions, to empower leaders and churches for unity in Christ’s mission. I am already exploring how we can talk to Catholic leaders in the city and thus bring them, as well as these Protestant leaders, together for the advance of Christ’s kingdom and real evangelization in the public square.