Ministry and the literacy of being human

Ministry and the literacy of being human

If my role as an educator is my ministry, then every act of education is my prayer.

Photo illustration of a meditating person with words on their body, green background.

Illustration © Sarah Hickok (background image © Ellen van Deelen CC BY 2.0 )

Illustration © Sarah Hickok (background image © Ellen van Deelen CC BY 2.0 )


When my congregation completed our new mission statement, we asked ourselves to discuss our ministry. But we had difficulty thinking of ourselves as engaging in “ministry.” We heard testimonies from members each week, and it became clearer for all that ministry was not as closely related to the word minister so much as it was related to the word administration. We asked ourselves to discuss how we administer good work through our actions.

I considered what my own ministry would be. I was convinced that it could not be what I do to earn a paycheck. I dismissed the notion that my career as an educator was my ministry.

Should ministry be something that I do for the inherent reward? Should it be selfless? Should it be an exclusively private ordeal? On a visit to First Church in Boston, I heard the Rev. Stephen Kendrick say that our calendar is our religion.

Our calendar is our religion.

So does it follow that if I spend most of my time working that my job is my religion?

I imagine that many of you cringe at that. Do you actually worship your jobs? Do you worship through your jobs?

If that sounds silly, bear with me for just a bit because I think this is what leads me to believe that, yes, my job can be my ministry.

Maine is a very fortunate state in that our public education department pays for adult educational programming. Every school district in our state has, or has access to, education for adults that helps them learn to read, finish a high school diploma, get ready for college, learn how to be the heads of safe and healthy households, enrich their quality of life through creative outlets, and connect with each other through social justice, fitness, and self-reflection. I get to be a part of that every day, and if my calendar is my religion then it is absolutely appropriate to say that my job as an educator is my ministry.

My favorite piece of education trivia is about one of the first laws passed in America regarding compulsory education. The Massachusetts Bay Colony called it the Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647. The law stated that every citizen was required to attend school to learn to read. Its moniker comes from the assertion that literacy was the only way for people to understand the Bible, thereby keeping the devil at bay: that old deluder, Satan.

Think about the essential message here: people have to be literate in order to keep themselves from being victimized. Is this any less true today? I will take this a step further and ask: Of financial literacy, democratic literacy, social literacy, spiritual literacy, all of the literacies of how to be a person in this world, is it any less true today that making sure we have a literate population keeps us free and safe?

My earliest memory of our church was when I was 12. My mother used to bring my brother and me each week, and we played in the toy room at the back of the sanctuary. My mother would disappear into the meeting room. There were a pianist and a singer who practiced in the sanctuary, and when we grew tired of the toys, we would sit on the floor at the top of the aisle and listen to the duo.

It did not occur to me until I was an adult that I never really knew what meeting my mother was attending. I now know that my mother was struggling with single parenting and that she was going there for support and education. I thought my mother had parenting down to a science. It never occurred to me that it was tough and she needed a network. Our church provided that network. Our church space is a place of education because it is our ministry to make sure that everybody has the tools to be safe, healthy, independent, and armed against oppressive situations. Finally, it has occurred to me that education is prayer. If my role as an educator is my ministry, then every act of education is my prayer.

Every act of education in which you engage is a prayer, too. Every time you teach your children something new, you pray for a robust future. Every time you read a book with a friend and discuss it over coffee, you pray for a connection. Every time you seek to understand something new and different, you pray for broader horizons. Every time you explain something to a neighbor, no matter how simple or complex, you pray for a world of critical thinking and problem solving. If you help somebody learn to balance a checkbook, make a sticker chart for the kids, paint in oils, meditate through yoga, do their own taxes, assert themselves in a difficult interaction—if you are teaching—you are praying. Our third and fourth principles state that we are free to learn together and to search for what is true. We exercise these with every act of teaching and learning.

The year I became a member of my congregation was the same year I went back to school to become an education administrator. I thought I was going to earn a degree in how to manage a school, organize a budget, read law, and do other organizational tasks. To my surprise, I found that the world of education is much more philosophical and human. I realize that seems silly. I mean, after all, we do educate humans. This is why I am going to leave you with this call to action. You are teachers. You are students. We need to submerge in the task that is worth doing well. When you see an opportunity to teach or to learn, dive in. Engage in that prayer that seeks a robust future, new connections, broader horizons, critical thinking, and problem solving. Begin to see the close connection between our UU principles and the principles of justice through the literacies of being human.

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