Some of the state’s most prominent religious leaders see the hand of God in the outcome of the long-awaited Abbeville education equity decision, a defining moment that transcends politics.
“I can’t describe how hopeful I am,” said Bishop Herman R. Yoos III, leader of the S.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “God is opening up new possibilities that we haven’t been able to see for a long time.
“This feels very much a moment where God is at work in this state, through the South Carolina justices and through those who have been carrying this journey for a long time.”
Yoos believes the S.C. Supreme Court’s Nov. 12 decision will add momentum to an education initiative and faith-based partnerships that he and four other religious leaders in the LARCUM network (for Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic and United Methodist) launched in May. The bishops wrote an open letter to South Carolina then saying the situation in the state’s poorest schools was intolerable.
In its ruling, the court sided with poor, rural school districts whose superintendents had banded together two decades ago to publicize their economic plight.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Jean Toal said the state had failed in its duty to provide equal educational opportunity to those who, by virtue of geography and poverty, lived in districts that could not generate property tax revenues equal to affluent districts. The districts, many strung along Interstate 95 where cotton plantations once thrived, became know as the “Corridor of Shame.”
The court ordered the Legislature to come up with a more equitable tax structure and retained jurisdiction over the case while lawmakers begin to debate potential remedies.
The bishops say they are willing to have conversations with lawmakers about the moral and spiritual imperative of the work that will take place at the State House beginning in January.
“I think when the grassroots rise up and the people in our communities say that our children matter, we can say to our lawmakers, ‘help our children,’” said Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, bishop of the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church.
United Methodist congregations already have distributed a million books to South Carolina schools through their “One Million Books” effort. Now congregations are embarked on a “One Million Hours” campaign to donate time for mentoring and tutoring.
“The raising up of the gifts of every human being created by God is not a conservative or liberal initiative,” said Bishop W. Andrew Waldo, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina. “As people of faith, and I know many of our legislators are persons of faith, we have to look at the poorest among us, as Jesus calls us, to do and to lift them up.”
Practically, that means “we can’t monkey around with shifting money from one bucket to another and say we are going to do a program and then underfund it,” Waldo said. “We have to be able to commit.”
The LARCUM bishops – including Yoos, Holston, Waldo, the Rt. Rev. Charles Glenn vonRosenberg, bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston – activated their collective 450,000 congregants in May to embark on school-based projects.
Among them, Lutherans are partnering with the University of South Carolina, business and local congregations in Allendale County to develop a preschool model that could serve up to 100 children in a “top of the line pre-school experience,” Yoos said.
In Columbia, 70 tutors from a number of faith groups are preparing to donate an hour a week in January to five Richland 1 elementary schools – Arden, Burton Pack, Hyatt Park, Logan and Taylor – through an interfaith outreach called “Reading Matters.” The tutors have received training from Richland 1 reading specialists.
The bishops hope the Supreme Court decision will launch a great wave of other initiatives to convince lawmakers that the time is right for a solution that transcends politics. And they hope to open conversations with lawmakers that will minimize the political language and maximize the spirit behind the reform.
“I want us to resist the fact that one law will change this,” Yoos said. “There will be compromises and we will learn what works and what doesn’t.”
Guglielmone said Roman Catholic sisters who minister to some of the state’s poorest children have expressed “cautious optimism” to him about the prospects for change in the most depressed districts. But he said he and others still receive letters wondering why the bishops are so committed to the issue.
“Many people are coming out of an experience of what they know is offered in public education,” Guglielmone said. “A lot of folks don’t realize how bad the situation is in these very poor areas.
“My response is that we have to take care of all of God’s people and our kids are so important,” he said. “We don’t simply preach the Gospel in church; we have to live the Gospel in the marketplace.”
Yoos, the Lutheran bishop, agreed.
“We can’t see the full extent of what God is doing at any moment,” he said. “If we are all patient and yet hopeful, and work together, we can be amazed five to 10 years from now. Do we see God at work in this? Absolutely.”