“We now have direct access to the students.” Brother James Allen, associate minister of the First Baptist Church of Holly Springs and president of the Wake Missionary Baptist Association Laymen’s League, likes to be direct. No trimming. No phraseology. So when he says Christian missionaries like himself are being asked to go into North Carolina’s public schools and save failing minority students, that’s just exactly what he means.

And what he means to do. The “achievement gap” between minority students and white ones has persisted so long, and has such profound implications for society, black church leaders like Allen say they have no choice but to treat it as a moral issue. In Wake County for example, 90 percent of white students passed both reading and math end-of-year tests last year, while only 52 percent of black students did.

For the first time in American history, says the Rev. Dumas Harshaw, pastor of First Baptist Church in Raleigh, “the Church must now become a parent within the school system.” By what authority? “By the authority of the risen Lord,” he says.

For those of us raised to view the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as a fundamental principle of democracy, hearing such pronouncements is jarring. But as Harshaw and other participants in a workshop in Durham a week ago made clear, minority students are lagging far behind in the schools, and churches–especially black churches–are being called to the rescue.

Beyond that, leaders of those churches say that when they go into the schools, mere academic tutoring won’t be enough to turn the tide. They’ll need the Bible to instill faith in disenchanted hearts. How they use it will test, and perhaps further weaken, the retreating line between church and state.

Since the 1960s, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school prayer and excessive entanglements between public institutions and religious organizations, Christian groups have been fighting back, arguing that it is about as possible to keep religion and state apart as it is to keep society and state apart.

While it’s nothing new for church-affiliated nonprofits to receive government aid for soup kitchens and other charities, until recently, they were required to serve the soup without preaching. But in 1996, with bipartisan support, Congress allowed for “charitable choice” in programs that help folks survive being thrown off welfare. That meant faith-based groups could get government money for welfare “reform” programs on an equal footing with secular ones.

Now, under President Bush, we have a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and a “Community Solutions Act” being debated in Congress–a law that would expand the list of services for which churches would be allowed to take government funds.

Prominent on that list: School mentoring programs. A big backer of the bill: Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. A big supporter of what Helms is doing: Brother Allen, who prefers not to enumerate “differences in the past” with Helms, but rather to “applaud this faith-based initiative.”

Even if the Bush legislation isn’t enacted (and it has run into considerable opposition in Congress as it dawns on people that funding Baptists means also funding Muslims and others outside the religious mainstream), in North Carolina the fact is as Allen stated it: State leaders want mentors for minority school kids who are struggling, and they’re looking to churches to supply them.

Susan Pennock, one of the leaders of “Hand in Hand,” a nondenominational schools ministry run out of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, says she took on the job after being contacted by the Rev. Hope Ward, wife of State Superintendent of Schools Mike Ward, who heads the conference’s office of Church Connectional Ministries.

Pennock, who lives in Shallotte, says God “hit me with a lightning bolt” in 1994, telling her to get the churches in Brunswick County active in the local schools. She did, and they are–150 churches and all 43 schools. In one school, black and white church folk pray together in the morning before classes as a way of defusing racial tensions. In others, churches supply food, clothing, money (for books) as well as tutors for low-income kids.

Church involvement has made a difference, Pennock told participants at last week’s meeting at N.C. Central University. Reading scores are up and the schools feel like the community is behind them–praying for them, instead of complaining about them.

Prayer, Pennock says, is the first thing church people ought to do when it comes to addressing problems in schools. In Brunswick County, church members are assigned teachers to pray for. She herself has prayed for several whose performance improved. In the case of one dismal teacher, Pennock “prayed for God to soften her heart or, if he wouldn’t do that, to transfer her to Montana.” And that’s where the teacher is now.

Pennock’s “Hand in Hand” program has numerous nonprofit sponsors, as does Allen’s in Raleigh. His involves the Baptist laymen, Hope Haven of Raleigh, a faith-based nonprofit that serves homeless men and women, and the Communities in Schools programs that public schools fund to bring in mentors.

Allen’s program follows a model established by a minister in New Jersey and used for the past year at St. Matthews Baptist Church in Raleigh. It emphasizes that mentoring isn’t just tutoring, it’s “entering into a sustained relationship [that] broadens into the intermingling of minds and morals” between adult and student.

Allen is fully aware of the questions people have about missionaries in the public schools. There is “a fine line” they must walk, he acknowledges, adding that, “kids are impressionable.”

At the same time, however, Allen says churches must do what churches do, and not let the fact that they are receiving government funds stop them from preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As he understands the gospel, that means people must be saved if they are to enter heaven, and it is the job of God’s followers to save them. “That is our commission.”

What happens if godly mentors get carried away and force religion–or a particular religion–on kids?

Bennie Manning, who is working with Allen and is himself a mentor in the Garner schools through the local Communities in Schools program, says parents are the first line of defense. The Garner program seeks to engage parents on a continuing basis. Where parents are absent, the schools and the CIS programs, “will have some monitoring to do,” Manning says.

Critics of church-school mingling raise three main concerns: One, government is a poor judge of “good” religious groups versus “bad” ones, and is likely to favor established churches when it comes to funding, in violation of the First Amendment. Second, counting on churches to teach kids can end up being a subterfuge for underfunding the public schools. Third, and perhaps most fundamental, students need to be taught to question things, not accept them without question, as many religions insist they must.

To black church leaders, however, one other point outweighs these concerns. “The schools are full of young people who have no faith in their future,” the Rev. Harshaw says. So they drop out and turn to drugs and crime. Changing their hearts is a spiritual task. “It’s not just about believing in Jesus,” Harshaw says, “it’s opening up to the transforming power of Jesus.”

To black educators, the question is not whether to mingle church and schools, but how fast it can be done. The Historically Minority Colleges and Universities Consortium, based at N.C. Central’s sparkling new school of education, has made closing the achievement gap by getting black churches into the fray a prime objective.

Says N.C. Central’s Education Dean Sammie Campbell Parrish, a former deputy state schools superintendent: “We really have missed the boat in not tapping into the faith-based community sooner.” EndBlock