Listen to Charles Foster Johnson speak for a few minutes and you’re not surprised when you learn he is a Southern Baptist minister. There is the tell-tale baritone full of enthusiasm and cheerfulness. You know a good story may come forth at any moment. I am reminded of my late friend, Rev. Bob Baggott.
And though he has lived in Texas for decades, listen closely enough and you may detect a tad of south Alabama as well, due to his boyhood in Monroe County, AL
Charlie’s Baptist pedigree shows stops at churches in Nashville, Fort Worth, Lubbock, San Antonio and elsewhere. But it is his most recent ministry that got my attention. He founded Pastors for Texas Children in 2013. You can learn more about the organization at their web site.
Below is a summary of what they are about and why:
“Our mission rapidly expanded and we soon became an independent 501.c3 non-profit organization. In four short years, we have attracted over 2000 faith leaders representing over 1000 Texas churches of all denominations. As a non-profit, especially a Christian ministry, we are publicly monitored and value openness and transparency.
We believe public education is a provision of God’s common good. Our faith leads us to this conviction. All children, regardless of race, religion, or economics, deserves a quality education. It is the great democratic equalizer in American life.
Therefore, Pastors for Texas Children promote the improvement of the local school by the involvement of the local church, and the formulation of good school policy in state government. That means, quite simply, this: we want every single local church to be involved in every single local school, and we want that church and her leaders to influence Senate and House members to support pro-public education policies.
First, we assist the principal and teachers with school supplies, mentoring and tutoring, facility maintenance and spiritual support—all while honoring our American civil tradition of church/state separation. Second, we support full funding of our neighborhood and community public schools, oppose all policies that divert public funds to private schools, and affirm quality pre-kindergarten education.
We are pastors and congregational leaders trying to make Texas a better place for everyone.
So, we must confess that we are taken aback by the acrimony and bitterness on the part of some public policy stakeholders toward our mission. We have been accused of being “in the pocket of the teacher unions” (we do not have unions in Texas), a “front organization for the Democratic Party” (most of our pastors are from rural communities well associated with the Republican Party), and “fake pastors” by a sitting member of the House of Representatives (overworked pastors know all too well how “real” our calling is.)
Now we are being labeled as “corrupt pastors” and a “fraud” by a group active in Texas policy debates.
We have not responded to these attacks. We are seasoned pastors accustomed to criticism. Our Lord counseled his disciples, “Beware when all speak well of you.” Last we checked, our 8500 public schools, 5.4 million Texas schoolchildren, and 750,000 plus public school teachers and employees need us focused on them—not on a few naysayers.
But, we are compelled by the truth of God and the integrity of God’s mission for us now to confront what is a ludicrous lie. Can we not have a debate about school funding, vouchers, our social contract, and the public trust without this sophomoric name-calling?
We are simply congregational leaders trying to protect and preserve public education for all Texas children, as the Texas Constitution in Article 7, Section 1 clearly spells out: “It shall be the duty of the Legislature of this State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” It is to this constitutional conservatism that we as faith leaders are committed.
Churches are no more perfect than any other of society’s institutions. Pastors of those churches are flawed humans, as are our political, medical, media, educational and business leaders.
This is why we must make our public discourse more civil, our policy debates less personal, and our legislative process more open and inclusive. “Come, let us reason together, thus saith the Lord,” is the call and command of Holy Scripture through the prophet Isaiah.
We are in a dangerous season in our national and state life when we view the “other” with suspicion rather than trust and cooperation—especially clergy dedicated to the work of ministry and the rule of God in the world. To demean ministers with personal invective and derogatory language is beneath every self-respecting Texan.
Let’s quit this childish practice. It gets us nowhere in solving the vexing problems and challenges we face. Let’s have a robust debate on the merits and demerits of school policy—not ad hominem attacks. Let’s model for our fellow citizens how persons of divergent viewpoints can engage productively on difficult issues.
We are Texans who still believe in our Lord’s moral teaching: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
We can do better. We must do better.
Powerful words. Reasonable words. Could any minister or church have a higher calling than caring for the children of the communities they serve?
I visited with Charlie in Austin last spring. He would welcome the opportunity to share his story with ministers in his native state of Alabama.
If you know one who might be interested, please get in touch. (firstname.lastname@example.org) I will take it from there.
Editor’s note: Jennifer Berkshire is one of the country’s leading education bloggers. She recently spent time with Charlie. It’s an insightful read.