For the past two weeks, parishioners at Shiloh Baptist Church and Alfred Street Baptist Church have been urged, by their pastors, to sign a petition to remove School Board member Melissa Luby.
According to the Rev. Lee A. Earl, senior pastor at Shiloh, many are doing just that.
"It's about accountability and responsibility," Earl said. "The School Board is out of touch with the people they serve and we clearly need to do something to get their attention." Earl has served as senior pastor at Shiloh for the past seven years. Church membership is between 1,300 and 1,500.
"I believe that we have a duty to the members of our church and to this community as a whole to speak out on this subject," Earl said. "The School Board chose to give the superintendent a week of leave with pay and a raise for getting drunk and driving after a meeting with parents. Apparently, Mrs. Luby, a member of the School Board who was elected to serve this community, was drinking with her. The School Board didn't choose to hold the superintendent accountable in any kind of a meaningful way and Mrs. Luby's comments seem to indicate that she thinks drinking and driving is what everybody does.
"Then, we have eggs thrown at the home of a parent who decides to speak out about these matters and we find out that the young men who threw the eggs are the adult children of two elected officials," Earl said.
He drew an analogy to the 1960s. "When we were coming up in the '60s, we had leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who were preaching about change by peaceful demonstration and speaking out. There were other adults who were teaching hatred. The young people who took to the streets filled with hatred did so because they had gotten a clear message from some adult that it was all right to behave in that manner," he said.
Both the Rev. John Peterson, pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church, and Earl have expressed concern about School Board retaliation against those who express disagreement. Gwendolyn Lewis was recently voted out as board vice chair, replaced by Molly Danforth. Lewis cast the lone vote to remove the superintendent from her job after her arrest for drunk driving in April. Danforth voted in favor of keeping the superintendent.
"Several members of our church went to the School Board meeting in July to speak in favor of Gwen," Earl said. "She is a member of our church. There was no opportunity for us to speak and she was removed. Gwen believes that the vote was in retaliation for her votes against keeping the superintendent and against the raise that the School Board gave the superintendent. I don't know why people voted the way they did, but it certainly looks like retaliation to me," Earl said.
THERE IS A LONG history of churches getting involved in the political process. "The civil rights movement was born in churches," said Lonnie Rich, a former City Council member and longtime Alexandria activist. "The churches are a part of this community — not separate from it — and there certainly is a place for their becoming involved in issues of importance to them."
Melvin Miller is a former School Board member and the current chair of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. "I am very pleased to see leaders in the faith community speaking out," he said. "I hope that they continue to do so and speak out on a broad range of topics."
Gwendolyn Lewis was pleased with the support of Peterson and Earl at the July 1 Board meeting but hasn't discussed their involvement since that time. "I certainly believe that these pastors have a right to speak out on issues. After all, who better than those who elected us to speak about the job we are doing," she said.
Earl sees his involvement not as political but as moral. "Neighborhoods change because people care about them and get involved," he said. "Our public school system serves our most vulnerable citizens and we have a moral responsibility to protect their rights and to see that those who are in positions of leadership are held accountable. This isn't about politics," he said.
"I completely agree with Rev. Earl," Lewis said. "Who is better equipped to speak about our moral and ethical responsibilities than these leaders?"
There has been some criticism that recent anger at the School Board has been driven by a small group of parents from Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy who is angry at the superintendent for moving their principal Lucretia Jackson, from Lyles-Crouch to Maury Elementary School. "The involvement of the faith community certainly demonstrates a broader community interest in these matters," Rich said.
Earl agreed. "I believe that the School Board and the superintendent have underestimated the reaction of the community," he said. "Perhaps if they got out to more community and school events, they would know better."
Earl intends to continue to urge his flock to sign the petition to remove Luby and to pay more attention to what's happening in the school system. "Our involvement can't end here," he said. "We must continue to hold our elected officials accountable for protecting the rights of all of the people they serve, not just the people who agree with them," he said.