Learning to Read with Jesus

We volunteer at a predominantly African-American, deeply heart-felt religious church that feeds the hungry in their very poor community several times a week from their kitchen. Unlike the quiet, cerebral worship of a Quaker Meeting, services here (before, during, and after the meal) are loud and emotional. “Amen!” “Tell it sister!” “Can I get a witness in here!” “That’s right!” Exclamations and applause flow through the congregation like tides, rising and falling, creating their own rhythmic enchantment. Even prayers receive loud approbations of agreement, and songs as often as not lead to impromptu dancing and booty-shaking–to the Glory of Jesus!

We began volunteering on Christmas morning, because it was one of only a few places that welcomes children to help feed the hungry. We’ve gone back because the people are beautiful. They welcome us like old family, embracing the children and matter-of-factly including them in the activities and the chores.

Also, it’s the most deeply different cultural experience I can imagine my children having without leaving the city. Sometimes, I can’t understand everything that is said to me because the dialect is so different from mine. The people walking through the food line are so grateful and also … so different. It’s a stunning reminder of the divided land we live in, and also how isolated our communities are from each other. But also, how deeply human we all are. Everyone is so lovely to us, and gradually we begin to feel at home here.

My children deeply, passionately love this church. They beg to attend every event, cheerily request opportunities to assist, eagerly look for ways to be a part of everything that goes on there.

If you’re a homeschooler, you already understand how all of this is related to the topic of schooling. If not, perhaps this next story will help:

Getting Eli to read anything has always been like pulling teeth. We’ve alternately used: Hooked on Phonics, Click n Read kids, Charlotte Mason approaches, “easy readers,” and miscellaneous activities from books loaned to us by friends. He has made slow, very reluctant progress. But until recently, he had never voluntarily tried to read anything out loud, and always groaned when required to do so.

So, picture this: Saturday night we’ve just finished serving food around 9:30 pm and we’re exhausted. I’m sitting at a computer trying to set up the church’s website. Pastor Stevenson is beside me in her wheelchair, paying half attention to me and half attention to Eli, who repeatedly approaches to ask help. I type & I click & … after a few minutes of this it dawns on me that something important is happening:

Eli is sounding out words.

I turn sharply to see what has caught his attention to such an extent that he is READING aloud. Is it a book on chemistry? A story about Pokemon? A child’s board book with big pictures and simple-to-read text? Ha! He is reading a FLYER that Pastor Stevenson handed him about the event we just served. No pictures, no story, just words that hold a meaning for him–words about an event he felt moved to participate in. Words about his community, words given to him by someone he feels a deep connection with.

So when I say that this is a prime example of a successful homeschool moment, I think the academic aspect here is obvious. But what about this: How often do children have the opportunity to be immersed so thoroughly in a different culture, to be invited in like family and become part of a tradition so very different from their own immediate family’s? To become so connected with it that it motivates them to reach new heights in their learning journey? All while contributing in a meaningful way to helping those less fortunate?

So please excuse me when I laugh heartily on the frequent occasions that people ask me the ubiquitous: “But what about socialization?” homeschooling question.

That having been said, please understand when I say that I have rather mixed feelings about attending events at this church regularly. I love the people, and I love the work we do there. But there are very good religious, emotional, and, yes, cultural reasons why I’m Quaker. I love Quaker worship, the quiet, thoughtful, sometimes almost academic atmosphere. I am Quaker, heart mind and soul. I’m okay with my children making different choices than I do, but attending loud and emotional services espousing doctrines I don’t strictly agree with, is exhausting to me.

But I’m okay with that too, with the mixed feelings and the exhaustion. Life isn’t simple.

Earlier that evening, several members of the church had taken us back to the sanctuary and urged us, with the lights just so, to see the image of Jesus’s head where it had mysteriously appeared in the drywall of an alcove. “It will move you!” Pastor Stevenson had exclaimed. And she was right: We moved all over the place trying to get the right angle.

So it came as no surprise, when I told Pastor Stevenson the significance of Eli reading the flyer, that she turned to me with sparkling eyes and said, “Jeeeeee-sus is in this room!”

And you know what, that’s just fine. JesusĀ was in the room. Feeding the hungry, caring for the needy, taking the good and the bad and the weird and the wonderful in each other and just slathering it all with love: That is Jesus.

Pastor Stevenson gave Eli a book about cats and he has read it about twenty times a day since. Eli is reading, and right along with the amens and the booty-shaking, I’m happy to attribute this to the Glory of Jesus.


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