Sunday, May 26, 2013

At True Lee Missionary Baptist Church: In Protest of the Protest

I prayerfully agonized over it...'Should I go to True Lee, or not?'

The True Lee Missionary Baptist Church, where my good friend Rev. Donald Parish, Sr. is pastor, has been the sight of some controversy for a few days now. Don had invited embattled Superintendent Mike Miles to speak to his congregation and there were a number of people I know who were not happy. In defiance of a call by County Commissioner John Wiley Price for pastors not to expose themselves to Miles' personal pleas for support and understanding, and in spite of threats of pickets and protests, Parish decided to have him anyway.

Good for Donald Parish, good for True Lee and I was proud that I decided to be there in support of my colleague and a wonderful church.

Full disclosure: although Rev. Parish and I have served congregations and communities as contemporaries for decades, our relationship goes back much further than that. In fact our families' have been in relationship with one another for nearly 70 years. Donald's father Dr. Robert Parish and my grandfather were best friends and served as pastors in the same community for more than 50 years. Dr. Parish was moderator of the baptist association of which my grandfather's church was a member. He performed the marriage ceremony for my mother and step-father (50 years ago this year) and preached the funeral for my grandmother.Donald and I served as pastors in the south and east Dallas area for almost 20 years and our work in our respective neighborhoods made us co-workers on several issues. His son even worked for me at CitySquare. So we know one another.

Donald Parish is a thoughtful and determined leader. He's not given to snap judgments and he shills for nobody! He doesn't grandstand. Even on my own blog, I don't have enough time to relate how he has served his community and the city at large. His church has a forward looking ministry and a servant's heart. So I took news of a 'protest' somewhat personally.

As I have said, I understand and on some levels agree with some of the criticisms that Miles' opponents have of him. They articulate certain fears and apprehensions of many. And they have a right - even a responsibility to be somewhat skeptical and voice their concerns. But I draw the line at protesting at church.

What I witnessed, on the inside of this meeting was Pastor Donald Parish, allowing his members to hear - first hand - Miles' defense of his strategy, the personnel decisions he has made, his vision for the schools for which this congregation are most concerned. Miles, in his defense, apparently barred no line of questioning and smart, direct, specific questions were raised.

Miles was direct and forthcoming, most of the time. He deflected some questions and flat out dodged some others (there was the one question, dealing with the instability of his senior administrative staff, which Miles tried to answer by implying it was no more remarkable than any other business with nearly 20,000 employees. That's patently disingenuous). The Superintendent gave some answers I found interesting. For instance he's been criticized for not adopting enough of Dallas businessman Don Williams' signature school reform effort, Dallas Achieves. Miles' likened it to a team hiring a new coach and giving him the old coaches playbook. And it's also clear that he has conflated the communities call that he understand the role poverty has played in creating challenges for principals he is either replacing or who's contracts have not been renewed as being a sign that some believe poverty has been an excuse for not having high expectations of students, their teachers or their principals.

But Miles also said some other things that are important. He has put an additional $8 million in next year's budget for schools in south and west Dallas (essentially restoring cuts made by the previous superintendent. He wants equity (not equality) in resources for those schools. He wants to find a way to help avoid further school closures and to reopen some of the schools that have been closed. And he talks with confidence about the ability to genuinely educate children.

It's a mixed bag. Miles is clearly defending himself, and at some points he is clearly defensive.  But you know what? Donald Parish's congregation deserved to hear all of that from Mike Miles. And as pastor in his community context, it Donald Parish's responsibility to create the opportunity for them to hear him.

I know for a fact that Rev. Parish has reservations about Mike Miles, but he didn't allow those reservations to close off conversation. It shows a tacit understanding that the public school is a democratic institution, as such, policy is a matter of debate, conversation, argument and negotiation. As Miles said, there are some 'non-negotiables' but that is true in any system. But beyond those 'non-negotiables', as citizens, we have the capacity - indeed the responsibility - to create responses to they system that meet the needs, dreams and desires we have for our children. In short, the beauty of schools as democratic institutions, is that they transcend any one person or set of ideas.

Parish and True Lee demonstrated one other thing: as a democratic institution, it doesn't work unless we are all engaged. That means we all have to have information to process and make informed judgments. We don't have to have those judgments filtered for us. The most intelligent opponents of Miles have information regarding his performance in Colorado Springs that we need to be aware of. But we also have to know that we all have a part to play in the education of our children. Mike Miles, the principals of these schools, the students in them and their families won't be successful unless we figure out a way to work with them. Public education isn't a spectator sport. It's an 'all-hands-on deck' proposition. We can never be so critical that we try and decide who should be informed about what and by whom.

For the record, I had friends protesting outside the church and legacy friends inside the church. I decided to be with those on the inside because I think protesting at a church is disrespectful and because I believe that, for all the baggage we've seen come with Miles, 10-11 months is too early to say his failures rise to the level of doing irreparable harm. Most of what he's talking about he hasn't even had a chance to do yet.

But I also believe that no pastor worth his or her salt, should ever be told by anyone outside that church (or inside, for that matter), who that congregation should be allowed to hear. In the black community, we have not only revered, we have depended on the independent voice of our churches. We cannot have that benefit...that blessing, at our convenience. I frankly make no distinction between protesting Miles and protesting the church and pastor who host him. Sooner or later, those same protesters will need that independent voice.

It was an interesting morning. I stayed for the worship that followed. So did Mike Miles. The protesters didn't...

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