Advocates rally for children in Arkansas
Feb. 9, 2007
By Jane Dennis*
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (UMNS) - Children brought them together.
About 100 clergy, laity and representatives from four diverse and sometimes at-odds groups within The United Methodist Church converged on the state Capitol to endorse legislation affecting children, particularly the expansion of preschool education in Arkansas.
"Specifically we seek the retention of the present standards, maintenance of cost-of-living adjustments for schools and the extension of pre-K education statewide," said Bob Sells, one organizer.
The Jan. 30 rally began in blustery winds on the steps of the Capitol before many moved inside where the 86th Arkansas General Assembly is in session. They urged lawmakers to support key education legislation.
The event was jointly organized and attended by members of the Confessing Movement of Arkansas, a coalition of United Methodists that takes a conservative stand on most issues; Arkansas Methodist Federation for Social Action, which takes a more liberal approach to issues facing the church; Black Methodists for Church Revival, a caucus of African-American church members; and Arkansas Conference United Methodist Women, the organization with the largest membership in the conference.
These groups "found a place of common agreement - children and the support and access for public education in Arkansas," said Roy Smith, the conference's director of ministries. "This is something that really matters."
The sponsoring groups found common ground, Smith said, because "one of the fundamental Wesleyan understandings that we've had as Methodists, since the very beginning, is the care of children, as well as access to education for all of God's children. All of us here care about children."
Sen. Jim Argue, a senior legislator, United Methodist layman and chief executive of the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, said standing up for children and working to improve schools is critical to "living out our discipleship ... and being faithful to the social gospel."
Argue said there is much to celebrate about Arkansas educational reforms enacted in recent years. But education is an issue, he said, that demands constant attention.
"With 96 percent of the kids in Arkansas attending public schools, we know better than to think that our only responsibility is to care for our own," he said. "We're United Methodists, and we know our responsibility and our discipleship demands that we care for a whole community of children, a whole state of children. That's our calling."
'Birthright' for children
Collectively, Arkansas' record in education is "not good," Argue said. "There is example after example of where we had a few years of great progress, and those years are always followed by decades of neglect."
Nevertheless, the state cannot give up, he said. "I know you share with me that feeling that we're living out our discipleship as we reach beyond our own families, our own local churches, and challenge the state of Arkansas not just to do an adequate job of educating children, but to do the best we can in giving kids opportunities."
Arkansas Bishop Charles Crutchfield called excellence in education the "birthright of every Arkansas child" when he addressed the assembly.
"We are here as people of faith to say thank you to the legislature, to Jim and his colleagues and others who have pushed education in this state," the bishop said. "And we are here as people of faith to say we know that the job is not yet finished and we want to see it finished. What a legacy it would be if this legislature left behind for generations to come a legacy of educational excellence, educational opportunity for every child that is born in this state."
United as Christians
Many were encouraged to see the groups working together.
"I think it's a wonderful thing to see advocacy groups come together because I truly believe people forget that we're all Christians," said Ralph Shull of Maumelle, president of the Confessing Movement of Arkansas. "We have our own views related to interpretation of the Scriptures and other issues, but there's no question about it - we're Christians and we're going to come together and we're going to work together."
"All of us have disagreed in other areas," said Carole Teague of Conway, a leader in Methodist Federation for Social Action. "But, boy, when it comes to children, this is one thing we really come together on."
Rally participants described the event as "a first step" toward cooperation on other issues.
"There is always a common ground when you talk about children," said Deborah Bell of Little Rock, president of Black Methodists for Church Renewal. "The diversity and the groups coming together is a first step for us to do more things together, where we can get out of our own personal agendas and work around the common good of all people."
*Dennis is editor of Arkansas United Methodist.
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