As I sat in the office of the First Presbyterian Church of Sherman Oaks on May 27 answering the phones, I was extremely pleased at the number of people (including several rabbis) who called to voice their support of the change of direction of our nursery school.
This change involves the addition of a 10-to-15-minute-per-day unit of Christian age-appropriate curriculum and a weekly chapel experience. Along with this added curriculum will be the requirement that all teachers subscribe to the beliefs they will be teaching. This change was to take place 15 months from now, in September, 1989.
On the other hand, I was surprised and agitated at the number of calls from persons of many faiths, and persons of no faith, who could not understand why on earth the church would do this. They did not understand why a church wanted its school to be a Christian school and why such a change would require the teachers to profess their faith in Jesus Christ.
The answers to their questions should be obvious and easily understood. The school exists as a ministry of the church and, as such, has the responsibility and obligation to spread the good news of the Gospel. Those required to do Christian teachings must believe themselves in what they teach. It would be inappropriate for those who do not profess the Christian faith to teach it. Teaching faith is not like teaching math. One must believe in the Holy Spirit to honestly teach belief in the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, over the years the church had not taken its proper authority with the school, and the school drifted away from the posture of a Christian school to the extent that it was being represented by the staff of the school to incoming and inquiring families as a nondenominational school. Christmas was Santa Claus, and Easter was the Easter Bunny. The director subscribed to the philosophy that Bible stories are inappropriate for young children. It was felt by the Session (church governing body), after an extensive study of the relationship between the church and school, that in order for the church to continue to have ultimate responsibility for the school, it must also exercise its proper authority over the school. The church and its school always has and always will embrace the community and welcome all children and families of any race, creed or nationality.
The decision was made outside of the personalities of the staff involved, instead focusing on our philosophy of ministry at this church within this community. Many of the church staff and members of Session, myself included, hold much affection for the staff of the school and have said so quite often to them and to others. We believe that because of their love for the children and devotion to their profession we have had a tremendously successful school. Successful for a secular school but not successful as a Christian school.
The teachers' choice to resign as of June 15 is most unfortunate and quite frankly, most surprising. They alone have placed the families of the school in a difficult and heartbreaking predicament. The children may not have a school to attend this fall. I find it hard to believe that the teachers who have professed such love and devotion for these families would take this action and place these families in this situation. I firmly believe that the families who are so openly hostile to the church are misplacing their anger.
The staff did not have to resign en masse. They were invited and encouraged to work through this transition period. The church cannot take responsibility for this action by the teachers but does feel genuine sadness for these families. I am personally distressed that the school staff turned this issue into a media circus. It was most unprofessional and caused exacerbated confusion for the children at the school, my daughter included. The charge of anti-Semitism is not only untrue, it is unfair. This bona fide occupational qualification would apply to any teacher of any faith, be it Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, etc., other than the Christian faith.
Teaching children tolerance of others is undeniably important, but that tolerance must also include the right for churches to teach Christianity, synagogues to teach Judaism and Buddhist temples to teach Buddhism. There will always be opportunities for secular education. If a family desires religious instruction along with academic education, they should be able to obtain it at the religious institution of their choice. They should not be persecuted for this and neither should the religious institution which so rightly offers it.
SUSAN C. MIULLI
Miulli is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Sherman Oaks.