Here in the Bible Belt we know there is power in the word. And Charles Foster Johnson is the kind of preacher who can make you want to holler.
The guest speaker at last week’s organizational meeting of Pastors for Tennessee Children, he’s an anomaly in an era where education reform is big business and conservative politicians are trying to channel taxpayer dollars away from public education, often with the blessing of pastors looking to start their own schools.
“We are in this strange season of making commodities of our children,” Johnson said.
This longtime Baptist minister is the executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, a pro-public education non-profit that has grown powerful enough to defeat school voucher bills in the Texas Legislature for two successive years. Johnson’s Knoxville visit was sponsored by SOCM and the Tennessee Public Education Coalition, supported by SPEAK (Students, Parents and Educators Across Knox County) and hosted by the Church of the Savior.
He came to Knoxville to share his message with a group of local ministers and faith workers – Baptist, United Methodist, Episcopalian, United Church Christ, Unitarian, Metropolitan Community Church – and convince them that they can become more effective advocates for children by working to strengthen public education.
“Pastors stand before congregations and congregations vote,” he said. “There’s a power in the moral message … we make social justice warriors out of fundamentalist Baptist preachers – we’re constitutional conservatives – and the constitution of the state of Texas requires the funding of public schools.”
But he warned that these organizations, if they are to be successful, must be inclusive, because privatization isn’t a partisan issue. “If the privatizers were only Republicans, we’d be in better shape. Let’s put down party and take up Jesus.”
Johnson said the first step in his own journey was to visit the school closest to the church he was pastoring in Fort Worth, and to ask the principal what he could do for her.
“Make an appointment with a principal and ask, ‘How can I help you?’”
He convinced her of his sincerity when he drove up to the schoolhouse door with a truckload of supplies.
SPEAK facilitator Dave Gorman, a longtime teacher in Knox County Schools, said he started hearing about Johnson a year or so ago, and immediately got interested in learning more.
“He’s doing great work and having great success, spreading the word that vouchers are an assault on public education,” Gorman said. “There’s a constitutional provision to provide free public education, and he believes that to do anything other than that is sinful. He’s had great success with a crowd you’d think might have been clamoring for vouchers. Travis Donoho (with SOCM) had the idea of bringing him here, and Pastor Johnson is interested in exporting his ideas.”
Pro-privatization leaders in Nashville have announced that they won’t be sponsoring a voucher bill this session, although several attendees at last week’s meeting expressed skepticism.
Hear his message here.