catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 2 :: 2008.12.15 — 2009.03.15


Being good neighbors

Christian schools and our calling to restore neighborhoods with shalom

I believe we can only be adequate to the earth if we are adequate to our neighborhoods
Scott Russell Sanders

Item: Southwest Chicago Christian School Association recently discussed a plan that includes closing their Oak Lawn and Tinley Park Campuses (which serve increasingly racially diverse communities) in favor of building a new campus in the further outlying suburb of New Lenox, and a new school next to the existing Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights. There are sound financial reasons for this move, but at a meeting about the plan, many constituents expressed frustration and disappointment that the schools they support and send their kids to were planning to leave their neighborhoods.

Item: Faced with concerns about declining enrollment, CSI schools in the Pella, Iowa area hosted in-services last year that gave both their faculties and school boards the opportunity to consider ways to make their schools more welcoming to families in their neighborhoods that might be unfamiliar with traditional reformed Christian schooling.

Item: Illiana Christian High School in Lansing, Illinois, has struggled with whether to move the school further south. New locations discussed by the board would provide for a shorter commute for some students from outlying areas (some of whom need to travel over an hour every day), yet such a move would also pull the school further away from both the educational resources of Chicago, further away from the residences of those who chose to locate closer to the existing school, and further away from several increasingly racially diverse communities.  

Item: Calvin Christian School in South Holland, Illinois, also dealing with declining enrollment and a changing neighborhood, hired two public relations/development staff to seek support and students from the community around them. The school has recently experienced enrollment growth for the first time in several years and has gone from having primarily white students from around 20 mostly reformed churches, to having a racially integrated student body from over 70 churches from various denominational backgrounds.  


Call for shalom

Each of these schools or school systems has at least two things in common. The housing choices of the parents and the way the community is defined both have a huge impact on the location of the school; and the location of the school has a huge impact on the members of that community. Schools affect the neighborhoods in which they are located and vice versa. What does this mean for Christians? What responsibilities do we have toward our communities and neighborhoods?

For Christians with a reformed worldview this responsibility involves the work of justice and participation in cultural tasks related to reshaping social structures, social institutions, and social relationships that reflect God’s kingdom on earth (Breems, 2006). This work of justice and peace is called shalom. Nicholas Wolterstorff (1969) describes the concept of shalom in his book Until Justice and Peace Embrace

In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice. Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature. (Reference to Isaiah 11: 6-8). But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself. Shalom is absent when a society is a collection of individuals all out to make their own way in the world (p. 69).

Right, harmonious relationships with God and delight in his service; right, harmonious relationships with others and delight in human community; and right, harmonious relationships to nature and delight in our physical surroundings, are all included in our call to seek shalom. How can we apply this mandate to work for shalom to these current discussions about the location of our schools? 


Negative trends

Most of us are familiar with the changing urban landscape that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the phenomenon known as “white flight.” We may also be familiar with the systemic (macro) reasons or policy decisions that contributed to this mass migration, such as the Federal Housing Administration programs and policies, and the policies and programs developed with regard to transportation, and local zoning codes and land-use policies (Hardy, 2006). We may also be familiar with mezzo-level actions, including but not limited to, redliners (lenders who draw colored lines around safe, questionable, and unsafe zones in which to make loans), panic peddlers (when real estate agents hired African-Americans to walk up and down targeted streets so current home buyers would panic and want to sell their homes), and blockbusters (the real estate community pegging a neighborhood as white or black and steering who they bring to see the neighborhood or tell about the neighborhood based on their skin color: Suarez, 1999). And finally, we may be familiar with micro-level reasons for leaving our urban communities which for some included the fear of crime and safety for their children, better schools, and cheaper and more spacious housing. 

The consequences of these actions were a decline in urban population, a decline in urban services, resources, and strong urban neighborhoods; an increase in racial segregation and class stratification; and, an increase in automobile use and urban sprawl (Hardy, 2006; Suarez, 1999). How did different classes respond to these macro and mezzo level changes? As Suarez (1999) states,
“The poor saw themselves as stuck. The rich could surround themselves with physical barriers, continuing to live a charmed life in a declining city. The middle class lacked the cash to insulate themselves from the diminishing quality of services, but they had the one thing the poor did not: mobility” (p.7). Today the poor have been forced to move out of our central cities as a result of the demolition of public housing projects. They have been granted mobility through housing programs and forced moves.


Greater freedom of movement

It is important to remember that economic status does not equal ethnic identity. It is unreasonable to assume that if an ethnic minority family moves into your neighborhood, that family is economically disadvantaged. Recent legal challenges to long established discriminatory practices have resulted in a growing range of freedom for ethnic minority families of all economic levels to purchase homes where they wish. In addition, the growing existence of an African-American and Latino middle class has made home purchases possible for a growing number of families. All of these factors have resulted in changing neighborhoods and many of these neighborhoods are where our Christian schools are located. How are we responding to our new neighbors? How are we, as Christians trying to live in shalom, welcoming our new neighbors into our communities? 

What do we do, for example, when racism rears itself and families living in these neighborhoods move away because of the fear of declining property values? Or what happens when new neighbors move into a neighborhood only to be shunned as previous residents talk about how “the neighborhood changed.” 

What can we learn from our history to help us in our response to building neighborhoods with shalom? How can we work for right, harmonious relationships with God and delight in his service; right, harmonious relationships with others and delight in human community; and right, harmonious relationships to nature and delight in our physical surroundings? How can we, as Breems (2006) states, “be hopeful and vigorous in applying our knowledge toward realizing peace in culture: shalom”? What message are we giving to our new neighbors when we make the decision to move our schools?

Regardless of why we are moving, how will our neighbors interpret this move? How should we as Christians define our communities and define the communities which serve our Christian schools? Who are we called to serve through Christian education?

These are questions that Christian schools need to consider, not only because declining enrollment and commitment by traditional supporters is forcing schools to open their doors to the wider Christian community, but also because in keeping with the concept of shalom, it is important to consider what is right and just.



Breems, B. (2006, August). From the garden to the city: Devotions and response to Clinton Stockwell and Michael Sider-Rose’s presentation of the “New Chicago”. Paper presented at the meeting of the Trinity Christian College Faculty Association Orientation, Chicago, IL. 

Hardy, L. (2006). Dysfunctional Cities: Where did we go wrong? Christian Reflection: Cities and Towns, 11-19.

Sanders, S.R. (1993). Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World.  Boston: Beacon Press.

Suarez, R. (1999). The old neighborhood: What we lost in the great suburban migration 1966-1999. New York: Free Press.

Wolterstorff, N. (1969). Until justice and peace embrace: The Kuyper lectures for 1981 delivered at the Free University of Amsterdam. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

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