Starting this school was not an easy process. One of the greatest challenges about seeking to implement the Sudbury model as a Christian and within a church context, is accepting that often times the church community may not understand our process of giving young people the freedom and space to “work out their faith with fear and trembling” for themselves. What this means is that sometimes a student may be allowed to express themselves freely and it may be in a way that seems to go against church or Christian standards. It does not mean that we are not a Christian school. It does not mean that we are not teaching our students Christian principles. But we just believe that giving students the opportunity to experience freedom in Christ means that they are given the same right to find Christ on their own, just like an adult has, and that sometimes means that they may do something initially in their personal life that an older, more mature Christian may not do.
At our school they should not be judged, punished or fussed at for that, but a dialogue should happen. Space should happen. Patience should happen. A sanctuary should happen where the child and staff and community can be allowed to explore the decisions the student is making and work through that Biblically, peacefully, organically and graciously. Also on the part of the staff, it is imperative that we are careful not to be so “phariseeical” as to stomp on that student’s freedom in an effort to uphold the holiness of God. It is so important that we also appreciate the growth that is happening in a student as they go through this freedom journey. I do find that in the church, we are so quick to shut down people for the sake of making sure everyone is perfectly following the Word of God, that we hurt them instead of loving them into understanding what it means to walk the Christian walk. Students especially are not where we old church folk are! They need to be given the same opportunity to grow in their faith as the rest of us have! None of us became Christian and instantly started living this consecrated life! Slowly, little by little, we all began to shed those things that may not be what the Bible approves of, as we grew in our faith and LOVE for God….at our own pace…in our own way…through our own interpretation of the Bible.
To better explain what I mean, I would like to share about something that happened recently at our end of the school year prom and talent show. A student of ours who had struggled with low self esteem, extreme shyness and just an overall insecure way about her, has this year started to find her voice. It has been amazing to see. She starred in a play where she stole the show and even got a chance to do an encore performance on a public stage. She was more vocal. She has been walking with her head held high. She has embraced her beautiful thick hair. She has always been absolutely gorgeous to me, but it has been so amazing to see her coming into her self! For the talent show on the very night of the show…just before her time to perform, I found out that she had chosen to do a dance to a non Christian song and according to the student who let me know, it was borderline not appropriate for a Christian setting. The pastor of the church we are renting was there. Other church leaders came to our talent show as well. The positive relationship we have had with them could be affected if she were allowed to dance.
At first I decided not to let her do it. A staff member let her know. I sat there in my seat feeling sick to my stomach. First of all, shouldn’t a committee be making this decision? I felt like was I reverting to that authoritarian way again. There should be a discussion, some dialogue, groups of people…staff and students, talking through this. I was so troubled inside. The whole way this was going down was just not right to me. I felt it deep within. A lot was at stake. Do I shut her down because I feel the dance is inappropriate and she may not fully understand why? Do I choose to make sure the church would be ok with our school by not letting her dance? Or do I choose to let her dance, thus protecting her heart and evolving sense of self?? Then I clearly heard God tell me to let her do it. Her heart was more important. Her soul was more important. God reminded me of all the many people he fellowship with when he walked this earth and many of them were not walking according to the law. At first I had no idea how she took the news that she could not do the dance until I ran around the building trying to find her to let her know that “The show must go on!” When I did, I understood why God spoke to me. She was crying. I got down on my knees and apologized and told her she must do the dance. Whatever the issues are with it, we will discuss it later. I begged her to. And she did it. Was the dance what a church would approve of? Nope. Did I catch some flack for it? YEP! Did I personally feel uneasy and nervous as I watched her do the dance. Yep! But this is not my journey. This is her journey, so I have searched my heart and I have no regrets.
We have been having some conversations about the dance since then and she explained how she saw this dance on a video and by herself, taught herself the dance and performed it. The dance was really good, I must say. As if she’d had someone coach her through it. She explained how she felt that she had tempered down some of the movements so that they were more appropriate. This was a battle and the battle is still being fought and I am hoping that through it all, she has not lost her voice. I am praying that this will not discourage her from expressing herself freely. As a community we have discussed how a talent show committee should be formed in the future where a student lead talent show committee can give feedback on each act before the actual talent show.
I want her to know how much I love her and how proud of her I am, because of what the dance symbolized deeper than what was done on the stage. It showed he courage…her growth in self-esteem…her talent and passion for dance. I also want her to know that Ms. Anika finds herself in a really challenging space of wanting so desperately for kids to be freed to find their voice and to be graciously loved through the process, but at the same time having to honor the Biblical standard and church environment. There are many who would say, “Well that’s not freedom at all.” And it is this dilemma that almost made me shy away from seeking to bring the Sudbury model into a Christian space in the first place. I knew this would be hard and that I would often feel so torn, but I was left with “Don’t Christian children need to experience freedom too?” The church and the Bible and leadership and so many elements often hinder the freedom of a child in a church or Christian school. For most of their whole growing up years they are left feeling so stifled so that when they grow up or go away to college they truly spread their wings and often fly to places they really should not go. Christians and churches refusing to allow our kids to go through this journey of freely charting their faith path could lead to a rebellion that could bring even greater pain to a child. The church and the Christian school, I feel should create an environment were they are working through this in a loving and safe space. I don’t want a school that hinders its students. It is scary. It is hard. Christians love to protect their holy reputations. So I am in the awkward space of trying to let students figure out their faith, while at the same time seeking to honor God. HOnestly, sometimes I don’t know what I am doing! Then I hear God’s voice, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.” That night I feel that God saw a heart that is starting to bloom and embrace who God has created her to be and I feel this is so powerful. So, I choose to focus on that at this time.
I hope this beautiful and fierce young lady understands my heart and my dilemma. I hope she dances again. I want her to know that I want her to dance again and I pray that she will. And I pray that if she does she will not feel hindered as she learns to dance in a way that honors the Christian faith, because that is the environment we are in. That she doesn’t hold back because of fear or feeling oppressed, but that she does it out of respect for the space we are in. Everyone has to learn that. Freedom is not just doing whatever we want, but it is exercising our freedom while also respecting others in the community and on that night we were on a church stage with the pastor and other church leadership sitting in the audience.
This is the dilemma with bringing freedom into a church setting, but I continue to fight the good fight seeking to show how we as Christians are able to have the grace and love of Christ who allowed people to be themselves, all while lovingly showing them the way of Faith. And in time…on their own time they either followed him or peacefully went their own way. For the school I pray that she dances again because she truly has a gift and I pray that while she is with us she will feel free to dance, but at the same time respect the faith that is foundational to the Living Water School.