Missionaries in schools

Last month through letters to this newspaper, the public’s attention was drawn to visits to some of our secondary schools by a US missionary group called the Faithful Word Baptist Church, led by Pastor Steven Anderson. From all the accounts as well as video posted online, Pastor Anderson and his fellow missionaries seem to have more in common with Hieronymus Bosch and his era than they do with those of us who inhabit the modern world.

The beliefs of the Faithful Word Baptist Church fall fully within fire and brimstone parameters, and activist Ms Sherlina Nageer also relayed that the church was a “designated hate group in the United States.” Pt C Nandalall wrote that he saw a documentary by them in which Hinduism was vilified and the Bhagavad Gita ‘relentlessly attacked.’ The least that can be said about this is that this is clearly not a church with any sensitivity about how to function in a small, multi-faith society like ours. Offensive views can be lost in the clamour of a very large country like the United States, where any number of voices compete for a hearing, but not here. In Guyana, no matter that certain faiths are proselityzing by definition, they have to accord other religions a healthy measure of respect.

But even that is not the key issue here. The real problem is why on earth did the head teachers of the various schools allow this group to speak to the students – in the case of at least one school, even the younger ones? It is worse that this particular church had intolerant and abusive views, but the truth of the matter is no missionary of whatever religion should have been allowed to talk to the children. A state school is a secular space because the framework within which the country operates is also secular. It has to be in a multi-faith society. Religion is a private matter, and parents or guardians are responsible for making arrangements for the religious education of their children, whatever religion that might be.

Attention has focused on the Head of Central High School, because she was the only one considerate enough to tell the public through the agency of this newspaper exactly what the thinking was behind her decision. Ms Kamlawattie Balroop, herself a Hindu, told Stabroek News that she did not make the decision alone and even the school’s Bible club had agreed to allow Pastor Anderson to speak. It might be noted that the Bible club which one supposes comprises mostly students, is not an agency which is in any position to offer an opinion on this subject. Even if the entire school student body had been asked, it would not have made any difference, because they are too immature to take a meaningful decision to override a general principle affecting the state.

Ms Balroop did say that the school body was largely Christian, although it must be said that there are any number of denominations which fall under the umbrella of Christianity, most of which, one suspects, would not be comfortable with Pastor Anderson’s views. However, that too is really not the point.  The Head did go on to say, however, that she would have done the same for any other religious group which approached the school. While this sounds commendably broad-minded; again, it does not justify what was done, since no religious group should go in to talk to students in this context.

The Head Teacher also gave our reporter the benefit of the theoretical framework which informed her thoughts, and was quoted as saying, “[people should] accept God no matter how he is coming to us”. She added that a “constructionism” approach should be taken to the whole issue. It was Dr Henry Jeffrey in his column on Wednesday who gave us an explanation of a concept which is probably unfamiliar to many of us. Nevertheless, no matter how sophisticated the Headmistress’s religious opinions, they are her private opinions and should not be imposed on her school charges. And as for those charges, in the case of the younger ones particularly, their minds have not matured sufficiently and they are not experienced enough to be able to distinguish between what might theoretically be valuable to them and what is dangerous nonsense. In other words their critical faculties have yet to develop. As for education, whatever it is about, it is certainly not about indoctrination by bigots.

Part of our problem is that there has been a close association between the Christian religion and education in this country; in fact education in the nineteenth century had its genesis in the official Protestant churches, while at a later stage, the Roman Catholic Church opened schools as well. The colonial authorities took it as axiomatic that everyone should be Christian (even if they weren’t) and the consequences of that attitude lingered, so even with the appearance of state schools, assemblies still offered Christian hymns and prayers, and ‘Scripture’ lessons found their inevitable niche on the timetable.

We still have not severed that particular umbilical cord completely, and while ‘Scripture’ has probably disappeared, there are reports of many schools which still have assemblies at which a Christian prayer(s) is recited. That too is not in consonance with a secular state. The usual argument in favour of the Christian intrusion is the one that Ms Balroop herself gave, namely, that the teaching of religion is of great importance for building the moral fibre of students.

The religions here, while agreeing on the basics in respect of personal moral behaviour, espouse a range of values; there is no faith which reflects them all. In addition, the absence of an official religion does not mean that a secular state is by definition unethical; on the contrary a secular state should be an ethical state, while at the level of education, children in school do not require religion as a route by which to imbibe basic moral precepts.

Religion in state schools is still an area which the Ministry of Education has yet to address in its totality. Perhaps that is why the Chief Education Officer has had no public comment to make on the Pastor Anderson matter, but it is about time he did make one, and tell parents exactly what the ministry’s position is.

It could be that there is a case at the sixth form level, when the students are technically adults, and shortly would be fanning out into the world or to tertiary institutions, to have carefully managed discussion sessions, at which different religious bodies ‒ or groups from other fields ‒ briefly present their views. The teenagers could ask questions and have exchanges on the points expressed, so they get some practice in ‘critical thinking’ and civilised argumentation. Whether Pastor Anderson would have been a suitable candidate for such a framework is very much a moot point, however, and would have partly depended on the capacity of an intelligent sixth form to expose him.

That distant possibility aside, heads of schools without hesitation, should refer all the Pastor Andersons and their ilk to the Ministry of Education, and refuse them admission to their schools or access to their students.

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