For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
– T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Last year on a sunny September day, I recall entering the Love, Power, and Grace Church on what seemed like a once busy, but now desolate street named Boston Road. We were in Morrisania, Bronx Community District 3 that day, traveling on one of the 803 miles of the streets in the borough. Going from church to church, we hoped to talk to a member, caretaker, or pastor before the Sunday sermon. What we found in the Love, Power, and Grace Church (Amor Poder y Gracia Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal) was certainly more than what we expected. In addition to the leaders of the church, we caught the Sunday school class and all the cute little ones dressed in their Sunday's best. What a sight and what an experience!
Rich, one of the elders, said that the church has been active since 1995 with a large population of Guatemalans and Puerto Ricans. He introduced me to Wanda, the Sunday school teacher, and she walked me downstairs to the classroom to meet and greet the children, who were trying hard to quiet their excitement for the start of church activities.
Each child had a Bible, in the form of a comic book, set on their table. Every Friday, Wanda explained, the children get quizzed on the Bible as a form of a contest. That Sunday the quiz happened to be about Noah's Ark. Wanda mentioned to me that it was uncertain who won. I could feel the suspense in the air among the kids as they overheard her. They were eager to break into our conversation!
At each of our stops we ask four questions: What is unique and special about this place of worship; what kinds of impact are you having on your community; what is a specific example of that impact in the last couple of weeks; and if you were mayor of New York City, how would you change the city? The kids interjected their answers to the fourth question that I poised to Wanda.
Sierra, a 7 year old Hispanic girl with pigtails and a maroon dress, said that if she was mayor of NYC, she would change people's lives by “spreading the word of love and compassion.” Another child said he would stop people from “polluting, robbing, lying, and drinking.”
It was clear from their alert answers that the children's ministry in this church was making a positive impact on the kids by teaching them to be upright members of the community. Sierra explained to me that the children's ministry “changed [her] in how to listen to God, to obey him and act like him.” Beyond the Biblical scope, the children's ministry also “makes it easier for children to interact with adults,” as one child astutely stated.
According to Wanda, there are 40 children enrolled in the community Bible school, even though only 12 were present on this Sunday. Summer tends to be a slow season for churches, particularly because of vacationers. The church took this time to practice the children's upcoming winter production of the Sunshine Christmas Carol. As we took photographs of the children, who were all enlivened by having visitors see the dramatic results of their hard earned efforts, it dawned on me how fearless and friendly the children were. For a moment, I didn't feel like a stranger; I felt like family.
Such interactions resulted in my contemplation regarding the transformations within people that encourages them to apply beliefs towards actions. What compels people to act and do what they teach and preach? How does a Sunday school lesson come to affect a life? The Love, Power and Grace class emphasized learning through active participation. Perhaps, true learning is one that is integrated in the form of daily habits.
I draw a distinction between religious beliefs and religious practices. Religious beliefs are world perspectives; religious practices are physical manifestations of what is believed. The difference between the two is that beliefs are internal and go through a process of internal validation and reaffirmation. Religious beliefs include the emotional sentimentality of religiousness, understanding of morals and ethics, and connectedness to a higher world.
Religious practices are external activities that are grounded upon a worldview. Religious practices take off on their own and have independent repercussions. These activities include community outreach and development, and long term and short term programs. Beliefs and practices create a dynamic interaction between the past, present and futue and the private and the public.
The kids were practicing what it means to be a religiously-cultured human being. They were learning the Bible and the drama of the birth and life of Jesus. They were learning that religious life can be fun. They experienced the care of the adult world for children, thereby learning trust and the importance of relationships. For years to come they will have memories of this Sunday school as a nostalgic resource of the “good days.”
Recently, social scientists have been discussing the role of culture in the educational progress of school kids. For a long time educational thinking was dominated by organizational and monetary concerns. Now, there is a feeling that greater scholarly attention needs to be paid to values, beliefs and ideas. There was a conference last year at Harvard University to discuss the state of our knowledge on culture, kids, and poverty. Two approaches to what culture provides children are : culture as narratives about life; and culture as repertoires of action and ideas. The first approach believes that the stories we learn and tell ourselves are good predictors of our future paths. The second approach is more like the approach of the Book of Proverbs which gives insights, parables, and advisable actions for different situations. At the church both types of cultural resources were being provided to the kids.
On the one hand, the kids at Love, Power and Grace Church are learning a grand narrative of hope as portrayed in the Christmas story. Such a large narrative links together all parts of one’s life into a story of hope and progress. Sometimes, kids learn a different type of narrative, one of futility and failure. Recent research indicates that children who believe that their education is leading to a better place do better in school and are more likely to stay out of trouble. Perhaps, the Christmas story provides a cultural resource for kids to see hope and persevere despite difficulties.
The children were also learning a repertoire of faith, discipline, and rewards for good work that can guide expectations in school. In his book Soulside, the anthropologist Ulf Hannerz called these type of cultural resources modes of action and meaning. The kids at Love, Power and Grace were learning to deploy good habits as a way of meeting life’s challenges. Ann Swidler at the University of California at Berkeley coined a great way to describe faithful and moral things which the kids were learning as a cultural “toolkit.” Some researchers found that a toolkit among Mexican immigrants that includes belief that work is good and pays off meant that they also were adverse to relying on welfare unless there was really no choice. In fact the mostly successful experience of our “welfare-to-work” reforms relied on a belief and respect for the fact that most poor people have a pro-work ethic.
Kids’ tool-kits, of course, include contradictory ideas and repertoires of action. The church and family are only two of many sources of their cultural tool-kits. Kids may not respond to a frustrating situation with hope and determination but with an acting out, anger and cheating that they learned from someone else. Researchers are still studying why kids decide to use one cultural repertoire rather than another in their tool-kits. Knowing what goes on in a kid’s head is not easy. The past and present experiences and future hopes and fears mix in unpredictable ways. Kids really say and do the darnest things, and the damnest too!
If you are interested in more information about Love, Power & Grace Church, call 718-542-5056. Located at : 1455 Boston Road.