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Jo Nygard Owens: Sharing our creativity draws others to God

The Rev. Jo Nygard Owens did not set out to be a graphic designer. She was a Presbyterian pastor first.

As the mother of a toddler in a busy family where she and her husband were both clergy, she saw the opportunity to reevaluate her call when their  young family moved to a new city.

“We had one child who was 1 year old at the time, and we were constantly playing ‘trade the kid,’” Owens said. “It was not a very fun way to live. And when we moved, I took a step back.”

As her family settled into their new life in Greensboro, North Carolina, a church approached Owens with an unexpected offer that would lead to what has become Vibrant Church Communications and a new path for her to support others in their ministry.

The North Carolina native and University of Georgia graduate now lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio, where she runs her own graphic design business focused on the needs of faith communities. She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Micah Edwards about her work. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Can you tell us about your switch from pastor to graphic arts designer?


Jo Nygard Owens: I was job-hunting, and a church in Greensboro reached out and said, “Hey, would you like to come do communications for us?”

I said, “OK — I don’t really know everything about this job, but I can learn it.”

While I was there, I started learning graphic design and communications. And [since] then, I’ve sort of bounced back and forth between serving in a church as a pastor and then doing communications work and graphic design.

When we moved to Cleveland, Ohio, about four and a half years ago, I did some contract work for churches for a couple of years. In the fall of 2020, I was doing some work for a church and they said, “Oh, hey, we’re not excited about the backpack tags we see this year. Can you design something for us?”

I did, and I showed it to a couple of people, and they were like, “How can we order that? Is that a sticker?”

I figured out how to make it a sticker and put it up on my website. I ended up selling 10,000 stickers in about a month.

The hope sticker from Vibrant Church Communications was Owens’ first to sell 10,000 copies, and her beloved sticker has been equally popular since.

F&L: Was the switch from pastor to graphic designer difficult?

JNO: What I do with my work is that I create stickers, but I call them “stickers with a purpose.” There’s some sort of spiritual tie-in, no matter what the sticker is. I do back-to-school stickers, and those come with blessings and children’s sermons. I try to pull in ministry as much as I can in my digital resources. I use my theological training as a pastor to write them.

I get to do some ministry, but I don’t get to be a pastor. I miss being with people. One of the really beautiful things about being a pastor is that you get to walk alongside people through both really wonderful moments and hard moments. You’re present with them. And you get to be God’s representative in those moments. I really miss those pastoral moments and having a community.

F&L: Did you have to make any adjustments to your life?

JNO: I’ve had to learn a lot about what it means to run a business and about paying taxes, marketing. I’ve had to learn a huge number of new skills to do this, a lot of which are very useful in ministry.

Not working on a [church] staff is one of the hardest things, because one of the beautiful things about being on a staff is that you have lots of people to trade ideas with, and you get feedback.

People will say, “Oh, well, this is good, but maybe work on this piece.” And now I’m just all alone. I’m like, “OK, who can help me?”

I’m reaching out to friends. And it’s hard, because there really isn’t a duplicate of myself. When you’re a head pastor, you can reach out to other head pastors at other churches and learn from them, but there’s no one else doing exactly what I’m doing. There are similar people, but then you’re in competition with each other, and there’s less collegiality.

F&L: How does your graphic design work still help people in ministry?

JNO: A lot of what I do is create social media graphics, and churches always want to have something on social media, and they don’t have the time to create it, to make it look good or find the resources.

I’m able to create things that not only can teach people; they can provide faith formation. They give you something to think about, and they provide engagement on your social media page.

F&L: Was there any point where you wanted to give up while creating your business?

JNO: There have been many, many times. For entrepreneurs, you see all these people make all these graphics of what success looks like, and it’s the typical iceberg. There’s so much that happens below the waterline, but all you see is a little point at the top. The point at the top looks wonderful, but underneath the surface is where everything else is happening.

I started the business in the fall of 2020. I’d had all sorts of chronic health issues. I went to a new doctor in the spring of 2021, and they totally changed up all my medications and my diagnoses. I had to get sicker before I got better. I spent about three months laid out on the couch.

I had been building all this momentum. It was going great, and I knew what I was doing. Then I literally didn’t have access to my brain. I could barely move my body. I was very sick. I lost all this momentum. It’s really hard to be like, “OK, I did all the hard work of getting the gears going, and now I have to do it all over again. Do I want to do it all over again?” It turned out that I did.

There are a lot of gifts to running your own business, and there are a lot of downsides. You have to earn all your own money. It is not necessarily a daily commitment, but it is a very regular periodic commitment, especially with the size of my business. It’s meant a number of times sitting down and saying, “Is this still worth it to me?” And each time, I’ve discerned that it is.

F&L: What are some of your plans to continue to expand your business?

JNO: I have been working with a coach. Part of my problem is I can come up with a million ideas, but it’s a matter of sitting down and taking those ideas and turning them into reality.

Conferences have started happening again. That was a big part of my problem in terms of growth. Going to conferences and being a vendor at conferences is a really big way to continue to have that growth. I made it to my first conference in January and saw a big increase.

My hope is to keep going to conferences and setting up booths and finding places to send out stickers.

F&L: How did you come up with the name Vibrant Church Communications?

JNO: I went through a lot of iterations. There are all these naming resources out there; I worked through some of them. But my goal with what I do is to bring life to churches. So many churches can start to feel stagnant.

We’ve done things the same way — and with the rapid rate of how our society changes, churches have to stay on top of that. It used to be that churches could open their doors and say, “Hey, I’m Presbyterian” or, “I’m Episcopalian” or whatever denomination you were. And people would say, “Oh, I’ll go to that church.” Or, “Hey, 10 of my friends go to that church; I’ll go too.”

They didn’t have to do any marketing or things like that. As nondenominational churches and more evangelical churches pop up, they realize that they have to do marketing to get people to come, because they’re not a household name.

You start getting great graphics and catchy messages, and our mainline churches are not keeping up with that. I really wanted this vibrancy, because there’s so much life in the Bible and in our spirituality — there’s so much life that’s happening — that I really wanted churches to capture that and to be able to show that to everyone, both in their congregations and those that are hoping to come to their congregations.

F&L: Describe your creative process when making these different designs.

JNO: There’s a lot that happens in my head, for sure. I go to a writing group most mornings. Some people who are in there are pastors, some people work at colleges and seminaries, and then there are actually a number of people who are writers or run their own businesses.

We all gather for an hour every morning and take some time to write. I find that that is a really great time of grounding. Some days I have a little notebook that I write down all my ideas in and things I’m researching.

The first year, the theme was given to me. It was “Blessed with hope,” a passage from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:11).

The next year, we had been in this COVID world. Some schools were back, not all schools, but we were really itching to get back into this place where we could be together. That was when I did “Go out in joy; be led back in peace” (Isaiah 55:12). It’s kind of this blessing and benediction to go out into the world.

Then last year, I brainstormed with a friend. We came up with “Be the light.” Again, this message of, “You have a presence for the world.”

This year’s theme — the one that kind of rose to the surface — is “Together.” There are so many things in our world that tear us apart, that divide us. Not that we want to be just a homogeneous mess, but all of our individualities and uniqueness can come together to create something beautiful. It’s using the idea of stained glass, with all these multicolored pieces and lots of different shapes all coming together to make something beautiful and be the body of Christ in the world.

As inspiration strikes, you’ve got to write it down, but also as you’re reading and praying and doing the regular disciplines, they’re all a big part of it.

F&L: Is there anything else you would like people to know?

JNO: I’d like to talk about creative languages. There are so many different creative languages, and I say that my first creative language was dance. I am a dancer by training.

Even though dance and graphic design are very different, there are a lot of creative principles that overlap. And so I just encourage people to find their creative language, what feels natural to them.

That is one of the truest ways that we connect with God. I am so lucky that I have multiple ways to do that, both through dance and through graphic design. When we share our creativity in a holy way, not only does it bless you as the creator, but it draws others to God.

Our generation is being confronted yet again with the chronic racial sickness of our world. It is good and right for disciples of Christ to do what we can to heal the world of this sickness. At the same time, as a national discipleship leader, my concerns go deeper. I am concerned for Jesus followers not only to bring racial healing to the world and its systems but also to experience deep inner healing themselves. The two are connected.

three books

In recent years, I have devoted myself to writing “Color-Courageous Discipleship,” a trilogy of age-tailored books for empowering disciples to make fresh connections between following Jesus and dismantling racism. In the process of writing — and especially while conducting interviews with multiple anti-racist disciples — I have discovered how healing, discipleship and mission are intimately intertwined in a traumatized world. Even now, Jesus is seeking to bring about in you the kind of Spirit-filled inner transformation you need to transform the world in God’s way.

Consider this: the miracles that Jesus performed were always signs and pointers to subtler, yet more significant, miracles. Take, for example, Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man (Mark 2:1-12). When the man was brought to him, Jesus did speak words of healing — but certainly not the words we might expect. “Son, your sins are forgiven,” he said (Mark 2:5 NIV). This is a curious thing. Instead of responding to the clear and obvious request for physical healing, Jesus perplexed everyone by first talking of spiritual healing. Might he be speaking a similar word to us?

When it comes to race, our world has been deeply traumatized. The word “trauma” comes from the Greek for “wound” and can be used to refer to the wide array of spiritual, emotional and relational wounds that racism has caused. As we seek to dismantle systemic racism, we need to understand the trauma that we are dealing with on a massive scale. Even more, to become true agents of racial healing, we would do well to name our own wounds and seek healing for ourselves as we pursue the healing of the world.

There is a dizzying array of traumas that racism can inflict — both on people of color and on people who identify as white, as Sheila Wise Rowe outlines in “Healing Racial Trauma.” Let’s start with people of color and first acknowledge that people of color have not all been affected by racism in the same ways. As a Black woman, I recognize that there are some forms of racial trauma I can personally relate to and others I can’t. Yet all anti-racist disciples know that when we are aware of the varieties of racial trauma, we can better facilitate lasting healing in diverse communities.

We must open our eyes to how people of color have experienced racial trauma on multiple levels: individual (personal, vicarious, internalized); corporate (historical, transgenerational/epigenetic, environmental); and even divine (raising faith-shaking questions about God). When racial trauma in people of color is not named and addressed, it can produce a variety of damaging effects, including spiritual toxins such as bitterness, apathy, rage and despair.

Yet here is a surprising fact: racial trauma also comes in white. Trauma affects perpetrators too. God created humanity to thrive as a community of equals. So when God’s design for equality is distorted, the perpetrator must also pay an existential price. Today, psychologists call this phenomenon “perpetrator trauma,” or perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS).

Just as we recognize that all people of color have not experienced racism in the same way, we would be wise not to make blanket statements about “all white people.” That being said, if we were to understand white Americans as another traumatized group, we might more sympathetically recognize in them symptoms of trauma. We might gain insight into certain reactions that white communities often have when confronted about racial inequity: shock, denial, avoidance, delusion, guilt, shame and more. These are trauma responses, and they point to unresolved and possibly unidentified wounds.

As Resmaa Menakem explains in “My Grandmother’s Hands,” the trauma of racism “has resulted in large numbers of Americans who are white, racist, and proud to be both; an even larger number who are white, racist, and in reflexive denial about it; and another large number who are white, progressive, and ashamed of their whiteness. All of these are forms of immaturity; all can be trauma responses; all harm African Americans and white Americans.”

Faithful anti-racist disciples recognize that we all need healing from the trauma that racism has caused. We all need God’s healing touch. And as we experience healing, we can more effectively become agents of healing to our world in embodying supernatural, Christlike characteristics such as love, serenity, forgiveness, gentleness and grace.

Without the character of Christ, we will be far less capable of bringing lasting healing and reconciliation to the world. This is precisely what the great faith-based anti-racist leaders have understood. As Martin Luther King Jr. taught in “Strength to Love”: “Forced to live with these shameful conditions, we are tempted to become bitter and to retaliate with a corresponding hate. But if this happens, the new order we seek will be little more than a duplicate of the old order. We must in strength and humility meet hate with love.”

When apartheid finally fell in South Africa, many predicted that the country would descend into chaos. South Africans of color finally had their opportunity for revenge. But to everyone’s surprise, chaos didn’t happen — thanks largely to the faith-filled leadership of Desmond Tutu. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu reached out to both victims and victimizers. First and foundationally, he urged victimizers to confess, apologize and make restitution. Yet he also inspired victims to experience the freedom and joy that can come only by yielding to forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.

Tutu understood that there was no other way for the nation to move forward together. In his words, there simply can be no future without forgiveness. Our best future emerges as we embrace the holistic healing that Jesus offers to each and every one of us. The mission of God has always been as wide as the whole world and as intimate as each individual soul.

The vicious cycle of racial trauma has repeated itself throughout human history, with evil all too often giving birth to more evil. As Miroslav Volf put it: “People often find themselves sucked into a long history of wrongdoing in which yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators and today’s perpetrators tomorrow’s victims.”

But we can put a stop to the cycle.

As we pursue healing in Christ, we are liberated, not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). The more we pursue this healing, the more deeply we will understand the many ways in which healing is an integral part of our journey toward true and lasting beloved community.

Excerpt adapted and expanded from “Color-Courageous Discipleship: Follow Jesus, Dismantle Racism and Build Beloved Community,” by Michelle T. Sanchez. Copyright © 2022 by Michelle T. Sanchez. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Used with permission.

In a room full of Christian leaders, no one made eye contact when the convener asked, “Why does leadership so often feel joyless?”

A few folks chuckled nervously and shifted in their seats. “Is sustained joy possible for leaders?” he continued.

Conviction fell heavy in the space — reality juxtaposed with expectation. I could imagine the other attendees’ thoughts swirling through the air, because I shared a number of them.

Leadership is hard enough as it is; now I need to have joy while leading?

I’m lucky to feel sparks of joy every once in a while, but sustained joy is pushing it.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11 NRSV). Ugh. Please don’t bring Jesus into this. It is so much more comfortable to sit in my personal pity party of busyness as a Christian leader. I don’t have time to cultivate joy while I lead. I can’t do one more thing.

As I was making a list of all the ways other people were stealing my joy, the convener asked another question: “What are you doing to block your own joy?”

Now it is my fault? I like joy! I want joy! As a leader, I teach people how to live into their joy all the time. I would never block my own jo… Oh.

I thought about the people and activities that help me experience joy in my work. With little effort, I made a list of 10 people who always prompt joy for me when I work with them, no matter what the topic or task. I made a list of tasks that bring joy — emails I like to send, calls I enjoy making, projects that are fun to plan or execute.

Then I looked at my calendar from the past year. The names and activities from those lists were glaringly sparse among meetings and tasks I recall avoiding, dreading and not wanting to repeat. I had been blocking my own joy.

The convener was asking what Ron Heifetz refers to as “balcony” questions. Heifetz espouses the need for leaders to spend time metaphorically on both the “dance floor” and the “balcony” of their work.

Out on the dance floor, our vision is confined to what is immediately in front of us. It is a challenge to get a sense of what else might be happening in the space and among the dancers. Reflecting on our work from the balcony allows us to see trends, patterns and collaborative possibilities, as well as larger and long-term challenges and opportunities.

Time on the balcony enables leaders to consider how our gifts and goals intersect with those of our organization. We may notice shifts in our vocation and where God might be leading. We can take stock of what work brings personal and professional joy, as well as what activities block our joy.

Getting on the balcony looks different for every leader. Depending on what I need from my balcony time, I might go to a beautiful, quiet, secluded space for a few days. Sometimes, my balcony companion is more important than the setting. Certain friends and colleagues are trusted conversation partners who will challenge as well as affirm my thoughts and questions, help me listen to God in new ways, and help me discern creative paths forward.

While a day or two on the balcony a few times a year is optimal for me, sometimes that isn’t possible. Yet even stealing away for a few hours or an afternoon to think big thoughts and ask long-term questions is worthwhile, because I know that my joy depends on it.

I’ve learned that joy is hard to find when I feel relentlessly overwhelmed, burned out or unable to articulate my priorities because everything seems urgent and important. That is when the balcony beckons me to climb above the fray to spend time in conversation with God, reflecting on my past, present and future.

Prioritizing time on the balcony can be a challenge. Unreasonable and unachievable societal expectations lure us into believing that our time is best spent producing something that can be monetized and scaled. Initially, balcony time might feel selfish, frivolous or indulgent, regardless of how necessary it is for clear and effective leadership. But in fact, ironically, few feelings are easier to scale in leadership than joy.

We can take stock of what work brings personal and professional joy, as well as what activities block our joy.

Clearly articulating sources of joy is a fundamental step toward experiencing more of it. Getting on the balcony to prioritize the people and activities that bring joy follows. An effective next step is a conversation with supervisors and colleagues, discerning how we can do more work that brings joy to us and delegate or share other work that might bring joy to others.

When our vision, values and vocation are rooted in joy, and specifically God’s joy made complete in us, our charisma as leaders is contagious. Creative, talented, resourceful and motivated people want to work with such leaders, because everyone wants to experience joy in their work. Knowing what it feels like to lead with joy makes it really challenging to lead without it.

It is easy to blame others for our lack of joy. Too often, though, we are the ones blocking it, through how we spend our time or with whom. Prioritizing balcony time to get clear about what work needs to be done, what work only we can do and what work sparks joy, enabling us to lead others into worthwhile work that is not only done joyfully in the short term but sustained with joy in the long term.

At an airy school site in southeast Washington, D.C., several children gather around an outdoor planter filled with espresso-colored dirt. It’s about 3:30 on a bright summer afternoon, and the students have been there since morning.

They began the day with harambee, a high-energy ritual that lets students pull together and celebrate themselves, before going into a sewing exercise and then a nutrition lesson. Now comes the gardening, where they learn a handy fact — how lavender can repel mosquitos — and start to grow their own plants.

As these students — known here as scholars — congregate, a college-age instructor (also known as a servant leader) watches over them while parents and other site staff linger outside and inside the school.

All of this is part of a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools six-week summer session. And since CDF’s mission is “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities,” this program is key.

children's activity
Harambee is a high-energy start to the day as the scholars celebrate themselves and pull together.

In fact, CDF Freedom Schools, also offered as after-school programs, are the “heart and soul” of what the Children’s Defense Fund is doing for children and their well-being, said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, CDF’s president and chief executive officer. Through CDF’s partnerships and work with children, families and communities, Wilson said, the program “helps us to prioritize what we’re speaking about, what we’re advocating around, and the policies we believe families need to create the conditions for their children to thrive.”

A program with history

CDF has a record of helping communities. Civil rights pioneer Marian Wright Edelman, credited as the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, founded the nonprofit in 1973 after dedicating her early career to defending the civil liberties of people who faced poverty and discrimination.

Today, the CDF Freedom Schools program is offered to students in kindergarten through 12th grade around the country in community centers, schools, juvenile justice centers, churches and other settings. In 2021, more than 7,200 scholars participated in programs in 26 states and 75 cities.

Freedom Schools have their origin in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which gathered college students to work for justice and voting rights for Black citizens. Back then, these college students volunteered to teach younger students traditional subjects like reading, math and science, along with Black history, constitutional rights and other topics not covered in Mississippi public schools, said Kristal Moore Clemons, the national director of CDF Freedom Schools.

How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?

music class
Scholars practice a song to be performed at their end-of-summer celebration.

The early Freedom Schools were established to build the next generation of voters, Clemons said, noting that leaders thought that if they could “crack” Mississippi, they could do the same with other Southern states.

“Our faith-based partners have always played a role in the movement,” she said, explaining that most of the original Freedom Schools operated in churches or community centers.

CDF started its Freedom Schools program in 1995 to help children who lacked access to high-quality literacy programs. Each year, many students — especially those from historically disadvantaged groups — experience summer learning loss. Recent literature on this loss has been mixed, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution report, but one theory cited in the report suggests that lower-income students might learn less over the summer because “the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but not for students from advantaged backgrounds.”

To support students, the CDF model has five components: high-quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.

How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?

kids looking at a doll
Scholars play together between Freedom School activities.

Since its start, more than 169,000 children have experienced Freedom Schools, and more than 19,000 young adults and child advocates have been trained on the model, which offers a research-based and multicultural curriculum. The majority of students in 2021 identified as Black/African American (68.4%), with the second-most represented group identifying as Hispanic/Latino (13%).

Because the schools are free to families, parents and guardians don’t incur the expenses they might otherwise have for child care, camps or academic programs. This can be especially helpful in low-income communities.

A vital part of a big mission

School systems vary state to state, and there can be battles over what is offered in the classroom. For instance, some schools now are dealing with banned books and debates about critical race theory, among other issues, Clemons said.

Children also continue to face changes within the system, such as periods of distance learning and isolation, because of the COVID pandemic. Some students are dealing with news of school shootings and racial injustice as well.

“Every year, we choose a different issue that scholars across the country will organize around and take action on,” said Wilson, the CEO. “This year, we’ve chosen climate justice, because we recognize that the planet is a place that our young people will inherit and that climate justice is racial justice.”

How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?

children with protest signs
During National Days of Social Action, scholars take on issues important to them and to their communities.

Scholars come together, discuss the issue and share their ideas for solutions on coordinated National Days of Social Action — and they’re allowed to dream, said Joy Masha, program director for the Washington, D.C., CDF Freedom Schools. Scholars might propose a rally, a call to action to a state council member or the creation of more programs for children in their community, among other means of advocacy.

Because educators may not be able to deviate from state curriculum requirements tied to testing, Freedom Schools historically have supplemented content that traditional teachers could not offer, Clemons said. That includes books featuring people of color — important since fewer than 27% of children’s books published in the United States feature nonwhite children, according to CDF — and educating scholars about figures in history.

How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?

child holding books
Freedom Schools make sure their scholars have access to books that feature people of color. At the end of summer, they each take a stack of books home.

“We don’t want to be controversial. Freedom Schools are not here to break down the status quo. We’re here to be in community with people,” Clemons said.

“We’re here to show children that [if] you want to be a scientist, great. If you want to be a yoga instructor, great. If you want to be the next vice president — because we have books on Kamala Harris — you can do that.”

Some parents say they appreciate the programming and the ability to participate via weekly meetings. Rochelle Gibbons has two children enrolled in the D.C. summer program. If she were to send them to camp instead, they’d simply play, she said. But here they read and build relationships as scholars.

Another D.C. parent, Ashley Jones, said she also appreciates the model. Freedom Schools staff care about the children and the environment that families live in, she said, and teach children that they’re not too young to make a difference.

That lesson is big. Because children are listening. Processing current events. And sharing their thoughts.

child with book
Scholars at Freedom Schools across the country focused on the issue of climate justice this summer.

Gibbons’ daughter, Dyllon-Rose Gaskin, did just that after her mother spoke at a recent parent meeting in the classroom. The 10-year-old scholar said the program allows her to read books every day and discover new words.

“I learn a lot,” she said, explaining that she’s finding out “interesting stuff” in a fun way.

“Miss Joy has a strong voice, and it helps me speak up sometimes,” she said of Masha’s work at the site.

So what exactly would she speak up about? Dyllon-Rose simply said, “I would speak up about, like, gun violence and different things around the world, like homeless[ness].”

How does it feel to know about these issues as a child?

“People are getting killed … every day, and that’s sad, because people are losing their lives for no reason,” Dyllon-Rose said.

Looking toward a happier future, she shared her desire to be a teacher, a hand model, the vice president, a mayor and “a lot more.”

This kind of exchange, where scholars discuss a range of subjects, is not unusual.

After years of working in the space, Masha said she understands that age does not necessarily determine a child’s experience. Gun violence was the scholars’ issue for 2021.

“As we see more gun violence here in D.C., we know that we can have these conversations with our young people, because our model allows us to do that,” she said. “So if gun violence is a topic that young people want to not only talk about but address, then we explore that solution with them and help them put it into action.”

Within integrated reading curriculum lessons, Freedom Schools use books to explore particular issues and allow scholars to analyze each plot and connect it to the community. Schools also offer parents resources for talking with children about these issues.

Along with academics, scholars build relationships and learn they aren’t too young to make a difference through Freedom Schools.

The faith connection

To make an impact, CDF partners with various institutions and organizations. To run a program, would-be executive directors apply on CDF’s website and learn about the training, fiduciary and programmatic requirements that accepted sponsor organizations must maintain.

CDF recommends that, at a minimum, facilities be licensed to serve children. Programs then do their own fundraising to bring Freedom Schools sites to fruition, with CDF recommending that programs cover costs for at least 30 scholars.

Since faith communities have a long history of social action and advocacy work, this connection continues to resonate.

Wilson, who also serves on the Duke Divinity School board of visitors, references Jesus’ words with respect to CDF’s work and notes that defending children is “a religious commitment that is resonant with the call of the Christ.”

“For an audience of clergy, I say, ‘If Jesus did not walk among us, then Jesus has less capacity to connect with us,’” he said. “The God that I serve is one who took up flesh and walked with humanity.”

It is this walk that others also highlight.

Starsky Wilson
Freedom Schools are at the heart and soul of what CDF does for children and their well-being, according to the Rev. Starsky Wilson, CDF president and CEO.

The Rev. Dr. Van H. Moody II, founding pastor of The Worship Center Christian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, said his church has offered Freedom Schools for several years. He said children in communities of color may not have access to early childhood education, which can put them “behind the eight ball” when they start school. Added to this, summer learning loss can have cumulative effects. But Freedom Schools can help.

“It’s a beautiful program that really checks a lot of boxes that we’re passionate about,” Moody said, noting that it helps kids grow academically, helps them become more well-rounded because they gain a historical foundation, and helps empower them to become conscious changemakers.

His church began supporting the program through funds dedicated to missions, and in recent years has funded it via an endowment, along with public and private partnerships.

“Our faith informs us about how important it is for us to make sure that the next generation not only knows God but that they are prepared to continue to really stand on the shoulders of the preceding generation and to carry the mantle forward,” Moody said.

Birmingham has both a high murder rate and a high violence rate, and many kids are coming from communities where they haven’t seen themselves in a positive light. With these schools, the pastor said, scholars can see the possibilities of what they can be.

“In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is often taught to talk about the goodness of God and their faith principles with their children and their children’s children,” Moody said. “For us, pouring into the next generation, making sure that the next generation is educated … and prepared to live their best life and affect society in a positive way is an extension of what we believe God has called us to do.”

What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?

Questions to consider

  • How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?
  • How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?
  • How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?
  • How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?
  • What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?