This column is devoted to enjoying some of the rich diversity God has blessed us with in the Christian Reformed Church. This month, meet Rev. Erika L. Schemper, an associate pastor of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, Illinois. She teaches religion at Providence-St. Mel School, Chicago.
A few weeks ago five of my students fell asleep during Friday prayers—profoundly asleep. I had to ask their neighbors to nudge them gently when our time for silent meditation was over.
Remarkably, as their religion teacher I did not think the sleeping meant our exercise in meditation was a disaster. Instead it reminded me of these teens’ vulnerability and their need for some downtime. As my good friend and faculty supervisor, Mary, said later, “If they were asleep, God knew that was what they needed.”
North American teenagers are stressed. Life is complicated for all of us, but especially for those navigating the gap between childhood and adulthood. And my students experience pressure beyond that of your average suburban teen. I teach religion at a nondenominational, college preparatory Christian school on Chicago’s notorious west side. During prayer times, students’ requests frequently involve a friend caught up in a gang, a dad whom they never see, a cousin in jail, a sick baby sister, or violence witnessed on the way to school.
Most of these kids will be the first in their family to go to college, many the first simply to finish high school. Almost every student is looked to as his or her family’s hope to reach the middle class. At 15, they’re already family heroes. It’s a huge load to carry. They’ve been told over and over—at home, at school, at church—that they must walk the straight and narrow path. When I ask them to write Psalm 23 in their own words, they are incredibly aware of the perils of the “valley of the shadow of death.”
They are taught to live by Psalm 1. If they keep on the right path, they will be rewarded and things will go well for them. If they stray, God will scatter their hopes and dreams like chaff. And they sincerely believe the truth of this. Follow the rules, get good grades, go to college, and you’ll get the job, the money, and the lifestyle you’ve dreamed of. This view has permeated their souls so deeply, they’re shocked to read about Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors and loose women and to realize that’s the equivalent of hanging out at the bar on the corner with gang bangers and whores.
As their teacher, I’m part of their immersion in Psalm 1. I enforce school rules. I stretch them academically as far as they can go.
But as their minister, I worry I’m not teaching them enough about grace. In reality, the world is messy. The guy on the street who sells drugs has a nicer car. Good parents die of cancer at age 42. Two-year-olds get sicker than they should because the city air is polluted. The world is fallen and corrupted, and Psalm 1 doesn’t always work out.
So before exams each quarter, we pray and thank God for love that lasts even if we fail biology. I pray for the ability to give a “bad kid” a new chance. I encourage the students to recognize the humanity in our principal and dean.
I wish we could pause more to talk about God’s grace, to soak up the beauty of it, and to praise God for it. But we are on a tight schedule. We have four years to make up for low-quality elementary education, four years to bring our students up to the competitive standard we set for them. There is no time for chapel. And even religion class must push them academically and improve their reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. The time we spend praying each Friday is precious. It’s a small window of grace in their week and in mine. And if God knows they need sleep, who am I to wake them up?