The Kingdom

January 23, 2005

Indications of the Kingdom of God. This is from one of Anemona Hartocollis’ “Coping” columns from the Sunday Times (5-30-2004).

Some years back, Jonathan Kozol wrote a book called Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope. It’s about an elementary school in the South Bronx, the kind of school that Kozol had already written about in another book of journalism/propaganda called Savage Inequalities. That book, as you can imagine from the title, was dedicated to illuminating the disparities in funding between schools in poor neighborhoods and schools attended by upper-class children. An angry, angry book… a good book, but it inevitably left a vivid image of the residents of these disadvantaged neighborhoods as pathetic victims. Kozol’s follow-up, Ordinary Resurrection, from what I understand, flipped the script and looked at these schools from a perspective of hope: observing the beauty and joy of the children and the kindness and courage of their teachers.

Many people probably read that book and were moved. At least one person was moved to act. (I once read: “Is it possible that the loneliest book in the whole Bible is the book of Acts?”) She was a parent of a child attending a private school on the Upper East Side. She got a group of similar parents together to go to the elementary school in the South Bronx featured in Kozol’s book and serving as tutors.

The founder, Florence Rubenfeld, acknowledges the limited nature of their involvement. This is not what some missionaries would call an “incarnational” ministry. Some rich people from the Upper East Side visit the South Bronx, and some kids are supported, and maybe encouraged, in their efforts to learn to read (or to learn other things). As is often the case, the helpers benefit long before the helped do. “Instead of being terra incognita,” Ms. Rubenfeld said, “[the South Bronx] has become a place you can enter… If you’ve never entered a neighborhood like this, you think you’d be shot. What you don’t know is all the wonderful kids and dedicated teachers which you never could see otherwise.”

Now, of course, these tutors are going to be affected by their relationships with the students they meet. And many of the students will derive no small pleasure and educational benefit from the same. One volunteer was struck because a 5th-grade girl she was tutoring, when she assured the girl she’d return next week, said, “Oh, thank God.” Thank God indeed. Thank God as well for the healing power made available to these tutors as they step outside their circle of comfort. “Yes, we can be perceived as elitist,” Ms. Rubenfeld said, “but the alternative is to be isolated.”

May His will be done, and may all isolation be broken by individual and collective steps that lead us out beyond our circles of comfort and into the orbits of others.

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