This spring I had the opportunity to help select 11 graduating seniors from HISD’s Heights High School to receive $1,000 college scholarships from the PTO. The amount is relatively small compared to the total cost of college, but it is enough to be meaningful. For some recipients it might be all they need to be able to start their studies right away.
My own kids, along with a number of youth from our Luther League, attend Heights High School, but our family is not in any way representative of the student body there. According to the state data, the student body is 93% minority and only 7% white. Around 70% of the students are considered economically disadvantaged and receive free or reduced price lunch. The graduation rate is 97%, which puts it in the top 5% of Texas high schools. But its test scores place it below average for the state. Most likely this is due to the student body being almost 80% Hispanic, with a great number of those students having English as a second language. That is the case for this year’s valedictorian, Emily Ramirez, who is going to Harvard University in the fall, where she will join her sister Bridgette, already a Harvard student studying Regenerative Biology. Their parents provide a stable, loving and supportive home, but do not speak English comfortably. I am not sure what Emily will study at Harvard, but I know that she will major in changing the world for the better for all of us. That is just who she already is and what she already does. I got to know Emily while volunteering in her third and
fourth grade bilingual classes at Harvard Elementary School, a feeder elementary school to Heights High. It was obvious even then that her mind was already eager for the rigors of an elite university and solving the problems of the world.
Of course, Harvard University has plenty of money to hand out to kids like Emily, and she did not need one of our PTO scholarships. Such is the case for all the best and brightest students at Heights High. Colleges with resources throw money at them. So, the PTO scholarships are instead given to the students whose grades and test scores will not win them any scholarships but who have shown the drive and determination to overcome circumstances in their life that would hold them back and prevent them being successful academically. Our applicants typically are in the second quartile of graduates, their SAT scores and writing abilities are below average (again likely due to English not being their first language), and they have demonstrated grit—the ability to overcome obstacles. We strive to be objective in our decisions, which is difficult with these types of students, so our criteria are set as a 6-category rubric with points for each category. But our classification of their qualifications in each category remains flexible.
For example, extracurricular activities points were given for the following: theater, dance, ZIA (a school service club for girls), after school and weekend jobs, getting younger siblings off to school every day because their single mom goes to work at 5:00 a.m., taking care of a stroke-disabled grandfather after school, making dinner for the family every night because dad is an alcoholic and does not work so mom has 3 jobs.
For overcoming obstacles, we had to rate from 1-10 points the following: father being deported twice; failing 4th grade because she did not pass the state test in English but catching up to her original class during high school; never meeting your biological father in person because when she was 12 he died in a car accident the week before she was to meet him for the first time; domestic abuse; a parent in jail multiple times for drug offenses; going back to Central America with a deported parent and then returning to the US a few years later after that parent had abandoned the family; and of course the
aforementioned jobless, alcoholic father. I do not share all of this to evoke sympathy for them, though such feelings brought me to tears as I read the applications. I do not share all of this to draw attention to their circumstances, though the myriad struggles they have already faced in their young lives on an individual, familial, economic, and societal level are pervasive, persistent, and profound—and one might even say pernicious. Nor do I share their stories to show how intertwined are those individual, familial, economic, and societal realms of impacts and causal factors they have suffered, though such relationships are so complex and controlling that PhDs are given in that subject by our best universities every year. I do not share their stories to glorify them personally as remarkable individual examples of overcoming exceedingly rough circumstances to forge a path to stability and opportunity their families have never known, though they absolutely inspire and deserve such praise.
Rather, I share all of this as background to the most amazing fact of all: despite the combination of temporary and long standing obstacles each has already overcome to even utter the words “I am going to college and could use a scholarship,” every single one of them demonstrates an abiding faith and hope not only in themselves but also in our society. Almost all of them expressed a desire for a vocation whereby they help others, whether as nurses or teachers or civil rights lawyers. These kids believe they can support, strengthen, and serve those around them in a way that will make life better than what they and we have thus far known. After helping select such scholarship recipients, I am completely convinced that they—through this holy work they plan to do—will redeem us all.
In its strictest use, redeem means to pay for or exchange for, e.g., redeeming a gift card for a meal. In a religious sense, redeem is used to mean to atone for, e.g., to pay for your sins through prayer or penance or fasting or confession. But for Christians, I think redeem has an even broader meaning. We profess that Christ redeemed the world and that Christ redeemed us from sin. I think we mean that through God’s love and forgiveness, freely given to us by grace alone, we are spared the duty to individually “pay in full” for our wrongs and mistakes. For us redemption means that we are spared suffering the full consequences of our wrongs and mistakes, and instead can accept God’s graceful forgiveness as lived and taught by Christ, moving forward from where we presently are to boldly try again to do God’s will without being held hostage by our past sins. In short, we are justified by grace.
When I say that young people such as our scholarship applicants will redeem our society, what I mean is that they will become the instruments of God’s grace to us all. They will work their and our way to racial and economic and social justice if we will just let them and give them even relatively small but meaningful assistance when they ask it of us. They will save us from suffering the full consequences of our wrongs and mistakes thus far in managing our society—politically, economically and socially—that deprive too many people of justice. Yes, it is these very kids—they who have known too well and too early the struggle with injustices and overwhelming circumstances but who still believe in us all—who will save us from suffering the full weight of our past and present wrongs and mistakes. I can only conclude that they believe in our society in ways that I sometimes do not. That they must believe in God’s promise in ways that I cannot comprehend.
Our history as a nation is that those who themselves demand their equal treatment under the law and in our society do eventually get what they demand. However, even after such rights are officially granted—whether by legislation or court decision—it takes another 4 or 5 generations (100 years) of subsequent struggles, demands, and legal victories for the equality that was originally demanded and granted to emerge fully in the day to day life of our society. 100 years from women’s voting right rights to a woman candidate for president. 100 years from emancipation proclamation to cool desegregation.
It is the rich and powerful—aided and abetted by the reluctant and the complacent—that prevent and prolong that progress. Such a fight against others’ progress makes sense if one lives in the realm of limitations, where a zero sum view might prevail, since for others of us to have more would mean that those of us who have more now would have to have less. But such is not the case for us. We live in the realm of God’s love and grace, where justice is infinitely and eternally abundant, and where my neighbor receiving more also means more for me.
When I was in high school I became enamored with the history of the civil rights movement. To me, it was a time when Christ’s way was followed “IRL” (as young folks now say for “in real life”). It was a time when the work of Christ’s suffering people brought God’s justice to earth and changed for the better the world I know and live in. It was real Christianity to me. Back then, I wanted to believe that had I been born just one generation earlier that I would have eagerly joined the civil rights movement as what we would now call an ally. But being born 6 months after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., I have been left only to wonder what I would have done. Would I have joined the front lines to march? Would I have been a freedom rider as some of our church members I know were? Would I have wanted to but been afraid to? Would I have served behind the scenes? Would I have found some place in a movement that was not mine but was largely about me and the privileges I unequally enjoyed? I will wonder no more. I am joining that movement today. I do not accept or support white supremacy as a philosophy, and so I must reject and dismantle white supremacy as a practice. Jim Shields stated in adult forum recently a brief but powerful truth about what we as the racially privileged have to offer those who suffer racial injustice—our money and our power. I have decided, as a member of the group that any credible political, sociological, or economic analysis of our society would deem the racially privileged rich and powerful, that I will not wait for that justice to come solely by the work of those who suffer racial injustice the most.
I am too old to wait 100 years to see the justice demanded today to come to be fully in real life. I likely will not even survive the next 45 years to see the civil rights movement’s gains from 55 years ago become a full reality. That work must be done now. will find ways for my money and my power to help God’s infinitely and eternally abundant justice roll like a river through our society. I am not yet sure what form this will take, but I am figuring that out today. I see no other option.