As debate over religious education and chaplaincy programs in state schools attract public attention, religious representatives masquerading as youth workers are enjoying unsupervised access to students in certain Melbourne state schools without the knowledge of many parents and teaching staff.
Most of us are accustomed to proselytisers lurking in public spaces or appearing unannounced on our doorstep in the hope of snagging dispirited souls. And we put up with them only because we can walk away or slam the door shut. Our tolerance, however, ought to end at the public school gate, particularly when church groups use sweets and saccharine smiles to lure 13-year-olds into classrooms that are out of earshot of teaching staff, as has been the case for several years at the state school I teach at.
Keen to obtain a clearer understanding of this church-based program, I decided to plant myself in an adjacent classroom and eavesdrop on their so-called “student focussed lunchtime activity”.
As with most sermons, this lunchtime sessions begins with the church leader posing life’s big questions.
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“Who likes chocolate?”
The kids are encouraged to yell at the top of their lungs, with the child who manages the loudest screech receiving a chocolate reward. Watching the group leader in action reminded me of dog trainers in charge of frisky pups on their first day of training school. But in this case, it is religious interlopers posing as youth workers who command the attention of children.
As the ecstatic laughter and screams reach a crescendo, the group leader asks:
“Who are we?”
“Here’s a Freddo for you.”
“Where are we from?”
“The Baptist Church from down the road!”
“A Cherry Ripe for you.”
“Who do we represent?”
“Who can remember the golden rule from last week?”
“Treat others as you want to be treated.”
“That certainly deserves a Freddo!”
The golden rule or ethic of reciprocity prescribes behavioural consistency, which essentially requires our actions to be in harmony with our desires. We often ask youngsters “how you would like it if it was done to you?” as a way of prompting them to see things from the point of view of others. It is essentially a lesson in empathy and solidarity. So allow me to pose a similar question to our religious interlopers.
How would you like it if your child were enticed with chocolates to embrace a belief system that you did not subscribe to?
I was informed by a school administrator that parents are provided with a notice at the beginning of the school year offering them the choice to opt their child out of the “youth program”. But even if this is the case, at no stage did I see the group leader ask for a permission slip or a consent form. I even asked a couple of my year 8 boys who had never attended these sessions to see if they could participate without a signed parental consent form. Unsurprisingly, they were not only welcomed with high-fives and exaggerated smiles, the organisers made out as if they knew them, greeting them with “hi, long time no see” and “do you like chocolate?”
What’s more, I am required to seek parental consent for screening films or presenting literature and ideas that may be considered insensitive to certain religious groups and traditions, yet God’s representatives see no need to adhere to this arrangement.
As the chocolates continued to flow throughout lunchtime, the organisers invited a young woman to relate her personal story. Her story is essentially as follows:
“I used to party a lot, drink alcohol and stay out late. One morning I woke up to Jesus. He asked me what I was doing with my life. He told to me not to go to university, and to become involved in the program. I am now free of my past through Jesus. I now turn to Jesus with my problems and he guides me.”
So the implication here is that choices made without Jesus’ help are not wise choices. Urging students to act in accordance with Divine orders contradicts the notion of a successful learner, which according to The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians is to “think deeply and logically, obtaining and evaluating evidence in a disciplined way”.
The group’s audacious foray into my school had me wondering if similar programs operate in states school throughout Victoria and indeed the nation. I contacted the Australian Baptist Ministries asking for information on this matter. Given the clandestine nature of the program in my school, I was unsurprised by the Church’s mute response to this request.
I did, however, visit the various official Baptist websites, particularly the youth-orientated ones, to obtain a clearer understanding of the Church’s youth agenda. Based on the Baptist Youth Ministries website (BYM, which is a network of leaders and youth communities from NSW and ACT) “… the primary role of Baptist Youth is to help children and young adults develop a global vision and know God’s heart for the nations and to give them an opportunity to play their part in bringing the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth.”
Given the evangelical tone of this mission statement, along with my observations at my school, I would not be surprised if schools throughout Australia had been targeted for this purpose. Parents who are opposed to such clandestine faith-based initiatives in state schools should contact their local state school and ask if similar initiatives operate under the guise of “youth support”. I don’t think they’d be too pleased to discover that religious groups are luring their children into classrooms with sweets and confected joy for proselytising purposes.
*Chris Fotinopoulos is a state schoolteacher and a Melbourne-based writer.