By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The boys and girls stretch out, trying to get comfortable on the hardwood floor between the hoops in D.A. Hulcy Middle School's gym. Some two dozen of them have been called here to hear the good words and advice of a group of church ministers who have adopted the school as their own.
"You've got to watch out for sex," one of five young ministers leading the half-hour meeting warns them. "That means you ain't going to be having it."
Two boys, the only white students in the group, lean sullenly against the wall. One girl spends much of the 30 minutes examining her polished nails. Another leaves the room twice, her swishing ponytail distracting others as she exits. The gym teacher circles, prodding kids who have shifted to lying flat on the floor. They're teens and preteens, a tough audience by any measure, but the clergyman presses on.
"God gave you a gift," he tells the children. "Everyone has a talent." What, he asks, are their career aspirations? The few who speak up first say they'll choose the military. The minister, who had told them he was a military officer for 15 years, asks them what they expect to do there.
"I want to be a general," calls out one.
"That's a high goal, but you can reach that," he answers.
"I want to kill Russians," another boy chimes in.
"To kill Russians," echoes the minister, looking momentarily aghast, "is that what you said? OK, let's pray for you right now."
God? Prayer? During the middle of the day at a public school? If anyone's political or religious sensibilities are offended, no one speaks up. Surely, the line between church and state seems a bit thin here, but who's watching the line? Instead, a few students chuckle. The minister continues quickly. "You are somebody," he tells the children. "God never makes junk. You need to start acting like a somebody."
Led by LaFayette Holland, an assistant pastor from the evangelical Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church, the five clergymen at Hulcy are among more than a dozen who spend much of their time as mentors and male role models for troubled students in 25 Dallas public schools. They are part of a broad program of social services that the church, led by conservative minister Tony Evans, has undertaken in southern Dallas.
The call for prayer and talk of God in a public school, however, represent just the blending of God and government that some fear (and others hope) will become more common now that President George W. Bush has signed executive orders establishing a federal agency to encourage and provide funding for similar faith-based community programs. Bush, who has consulted with Evans and quoted him frequently on the campaign trail, also has laid plans to remove bureaucratic barriers that might hinder faith-based community organizations that receive government money. Intentionally or not, the president has thrown down a gauntlet for those who vigilantly guard the constitutional wall between church and state. Programs such as the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship's mentoring at Dallas schools could get caught in the middle.
"If this is what the president is holding out as an example, then we have a problem," says Marc Stern, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress, after being told of the scene at Hulcy. "It illustrates that the president doesn't understand the First Amendment. We have a constitutional counterrevolution in the White House."
In an interview two weeks after the Oak Cliff mentors spoke at his school, Hulcy Principal Waylon Wallace said the minister's comments were "not appropriate." District guidelines explicitly forbid prayer in school. "That guy has to know how to act," Wallace says. "Any time we get additional assistance for helping kids to learn what they need to know, we're happy. But that's as long as no one comes in trying to foster their own religion. It's very important that we accept help, but we're not going to have things that go against school rules."
But Hollis Brashear, a Dallas Independent School District trustee and an elder at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, doesn't see a problem with what happened at Hulcy. "They didn't stop the class and have prayer," Brashear says. "When you discuss values, you've got to go back to some religious beliefs. This is not a new thing. In the African-American community, there is a difference in how the church relates to the schools. [The church] was the only institution we've had since slavery. We would not want this program to stop working because of the national emphasis."
For the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship outreach programs, the varied reactions at the school district foreshadow the blessing and the curse of the president's drive for faith-based social programs. Support from the White House could bring government grants that would allow the program to expand. Yet closer ties with the government also could force church leaders to choose between a larger outreach program and one in which God is a star player.