Erin Ryono Wener

Erin Ryono Werner

By Erin Ryono Werner

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
 – Paulo Freire

I became a high school English teacher because I believe in the strength of words. Reading moves students to live lives beyond their own. Writing empowers them. I echo the words of Carlos Fuente: “Writing is a struggle against silence.”

Yet, I realize that this is not the classroom many students experience. I remember a hip hop song from my high school days: “Man that school *$%t is a joke. The same people who control the school system control the prison system, and the whole social system. Ever since slavery, know what I’m sayin’?” I didn’t really know what they were saying, but I think I understand a little better now. To some, the classroom is a harbinger of freedom and a better life; to others, it is a bolster of cyclical poverty.

As I consider Lutheran advocacy in the fight against poverty and hunger, I can’t help but picture the classroom. I believe school has the potential to be a great equalizer, and in creative ways, the church can help.

We can continue to support successful programs.

About 40 percent of the children in our school district in Oregon receive free and reduced lunch and breakfast. Kids come to class, for the most part, with full stomachs. In Central Oregon, the Family Access Network, which is primarily federally funded and based in schools, ensures that children receive medical care, school supplies, clothing and rent assistance.

Other programs are at risk and need our help.

Head Start programs promote the school readiness of children from low-income families. Parents who cannot afford preschool send their kids to Head Start so that they might be on an even playing field with their more privileged peers. Under sequestration (and even alternative budget proposals), this program is facing devastating budget cuts — budget cuts that would deepen inequalities long present in our country.

We must defend programs that benefit those already at a gross disadvantage and partner with them in creative ways.

Our congregation, Nativity Lutheran, realized that our building sat vacant for the majority of the week, so in 2010 we opened the education wing to the struggling Head Start Program. A member of our community recognized the weekend nutrition gap for students receiving free and reduced lunch. Every week, her organization sends out hundreds of backpacks full of food for students to take home. We must urge our public officials to prioritize these programs that replace poverty with opportunity for our students. 

We are called to reach out to all people with the love of Jesus Christ. In creative ways, policy and outreach can synthesize to do just that. I’m in the classroom every day, so I’ll start there. Where will you begin?