In 1978, I lived in Mexico City at the Benemerito School, which is owned and operated by the Church. .) It included dorms and classrooms, facilities for academic, artistic, and vocational training. It was a beautiful campus (some students earned their tuition by caring for the grounds), filled with LDS Mexican faculty, most returned missionaries, who were eager to educate younger Latter-day Saints–many of whom I met later at BYU. By then, they were returned missionaries themselves, ready to continue their education. Benemerito was an oasis.
When I taught at BYU-Hawaii, I learned more about the Liahona School in Tonga, because many of my students–not just from Tonga but from other islands like Samoa or New Zealand–had gotten their education there. That school seems much like Benemerito.
In some ways, BYU-Hawaii was the culmination of everything Liahona students were preparing for. Located in Laie, a town which was once a refuge and safe haven for escaped prisoners, the little university continues to offer a safe, well-maintained, friendly center of education–a refuge indeed. More importantly, it provides a way for students from tiny islands to pay for their schooling. They work at the attached Polynesian Cultural Center. They might do janitorial service, perform native dances, lead tours, or serve ice cream–but they have a way to cover their tuition.
I thought about these schools last week when I spent some time in Detroit. There, I saw a magnificent charter school which prepared its students academically and artistically to enter careers or to pursue higher education. The principal, an elegantly dressed woman who was clearly in control, seemed to know each student by name, and would scold quickly when there was any misbehavior: “Have some pride!” The school was her dream, and she had done what she needed to (using bond money) to see it realized. But that school stands in stark contrast to others in the inner city, where even the path to the school door might include rapists or bullets. And home might be a shabby apartment with a television and a refrigerator amply stocked with liquor. (It was striking to see the juxtaposition of churches and liquor stores in downtown Detroit, and spoke to unmet needs and deferred dreams in tragically poignant ways. Hope and sedation.)
We are in an era of charter schools. I put my daughter in one because she was simply falling apart in the public school setting. Though charter schools often use a lottery or audition system for admission, they are here and they are growing.
Why can’t we as a church–or simply as Latter-day Saints–use the prototypes from Mexico, Tonga and Hawaii to build schools in the inner cities? We have the human resources: our missionary force. At BYU-Hawaii, professors are often missionaries teaching the subjects they’ve taught for years, but doing it now in a spirit of consecration without expectation of compensation–at least not monetary compensation. Even the missionaries we send out are capable of teaching subjects other than what’s in _Preach My Gospel_–and they already have a service day.
I am writing this inside a lovely office in a magnificently appointed building on BYU’s campus, and I’m feeling guilty being surrounded by such luxury. Might the funds which made this building have been better used elsewhere, where the need was greater?
I have not mentioned political barriers, which do enter into the picture. As I’ve thought of all the hurdles such a dream must take into account, I keep telling myself: “Nothing is impossible with God.” But love must conquer fear, and faith must pave the path. Can we do this? We have done it in the past–magnificently. I think the right minds, the most tested organizers, the most imaginative dreamers could find a way to create more schools which would educate the mind, feed the soul, and strengthen the weak. How can we NOT engage in so great a cause?