I can still hear the sweet sounds of one of the first songs I ever learned:
Yes, Jesus love me
Yes, Jesus loves me
Yes, Jesus loves me
For the Bible tells me so
I was just a toddler in a Sunday School class in a storefront church on the West Side of Chicago. The metal folding chairs our small congregation sat on didn’t match, but they were arranged in perfect rows by solemn, silent, white-haired Deacon Les. We sang about God’s love. We sang about loving one another. We praised and we danced and we sang:
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world
Back then it was unheard of that 11- and 12-year-old Black girls would be shot in the head while minding their own business in two different Chicago neighborhoods during the 7 o’clock hour of a Saturday night.
We played softball in vacant lots, jumped double-dutch rope on the sidewalk and knew to ride our Huffy bikes home when the streetlights came on. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I rarely stopped to think of death. We knew it was coming, but we didn’t worry about it coming too soon.
Sadly, things have changed.
One of the girls injured last weekend in the Chicago shootings, which occurred within half an hour of each other, is a student at Schmid Elementary School, the same place I got my education. The girl’s mother was about three or four grades below me, and we all bandied about the same neighborhood blocks without fear. Now my nephew, who is in the fourth grade at Schmid, is left to wonder if one of his close friends will be alive in the morning.
As the founder and president of Teachers Who Pray, part of my job is to compel educators to be excellent instructors. I encourage teachers to prepare their lessons with the utmost diligence and care, and assess student work with fairness and discernment.
But I also urge educators who believe in God to spend a few minutes each day sending up private prayers for their students. For teachers know all too well that the vast majority of a child’s development is impacted by an ecology of circumstances and systems that are beyond a school’s control.
When I hear people talk about educating the “whole child,” I wonder if they are thinking what I am thinking. To me, the “whole child” means meeting the needs of his body, mind and spirit. Somewhere along the way, public schools stopped investing in the souls of children.
It’s true that the law prohibits public school teachers from praying with students, and I’m not promoting religious activity with kids during the school day. But feeding a child’s spirit may look like reaching out to support his struggling parent, doing a home visit to get to know the family better or even a teacher sharing a vulnerable story from the past to let an anxious kid know that everything is going to be okay.
I believe that in our effort to raise test scores and graduation rates, we inadvertently diminished the greatest teaching tool a school could ever have: Love.
Privately praying for our students is a powerful act of love. Even if we don’t see direct changes in our students, the prayers will change us. And when the walls of implicit racial bias, job dissatisfaction and stress come tumbling down in a teacher’s life, the quality of instruction in that classroom will soar—and so will the student learning.
This Black History Month, I am honoring the role faith and prayer has played in the struggle for Black liberation and in building this nation at large:
- Faith in the Creator caused my enslaved ancestors to sing songs of hope despite their horrid conditions;
- Prayer provided sit-in demonstrators with the steel-like resolve to have ketchup and mustard poured over their heads while calmly asking to be served at the white-only restaurant counters;
- Spiritual songs rolled off the lips and stirred the souls of the Freedom Riders whose bus was firebombed on their way down to Alabama to register Black people to vote;
- Biblical references are ingrained in the profoundly prophetic writings of Dr. King, not just in his most famous one, “I Have a Dream.”
Prayer, faith and love were the lifeblood of the abolitionists who lobbied to end slavery and to the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, which knew that only a self-sacrificing, nonviolent posture could break the relentless strongholds of racial oppression.
I aspire to take the same approach in my work as an education advocate. I feel called by God to lead a spiritual movement that acknowledges the divinity of the work while honoring the humanity of teachers and students. Emphasizing love, valuing relationships with diverse communities, crying out for justice and extending mercy—that’s the legacy of my heritage.
Whether it’s four little Black girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 or two little Black girls shot in the crossfire in Chicago 2017, hate is a spiritual problem that only love can solve. God is love.
Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak but He is strong