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Faithful Citizenship
John Whittaker, Religion Teacher

 

By John Whittaker, Religion Teacher

Teaching social justice and politics to brilliant and talented students here in Washington D.C. is one of the most challenging yet energizing careers. Every topic discussed seems to be laden with passionate reflection and ardent speech. My mind often races while discussing controversial issues… how can I approach the topic of war when there is a tension between church teaching and current political trends? How do I discuss poverty and the importance of being in solidarity with the most vulnerable of our community when I am comfortable teaching in my beautiful classroom adorned with stain-glassed windows and beautiful hard wood floors? These questions do not have clear answers but challenge me to push my students to see the ambiguity in life.  This is one of the many reasons why I love teaching social justice and its political significance: political and social truth can be messy, but in the process of searching through the mess, we find out who we are, what we believe, and why we believe it.

Growing up in the nation’s capital where legislation is passed, protests are held, and social activists make history, my students consume and embody this atmosphere of influence and hope. Students are ready to talk, take a stand, and attempt to articulate what they believe and why. It creates a dynamic atmosphere of heated discussion and profound thinking. Students want to engage in these topics and search for meaning amidst of ambiguity. This is why when I asked my students to write to their members of Congress about a social justice issue covered in class, there was great interest and intrigue. The students fully engaged in the process and wrote articulate and meaningful letters to their particular congressman or congresswomen according to their district. They were eager to mail them and anticipated a meaningful response.

In due time, I started to hear from a few of my students that they heard back from their representative. Four students received mailed letters, three students received emails, and the rest of the students never heard back. My students seemed to be disappointed about the lack of attention that their particular representative showed. Even those who received letters or emails felt that it was impersonal and formulaic. This seemed particularly anticlimactic as these responses came around the same time as the March for Our Lives, which brought an unprecedented number of young people from across the country into the streets of Washington, D.C. Young people, despite their inability to express their voices through the vote, organized, rallied, and together were heard on the national political stage. It is this kind of energy and zeal that my students crave, and it is this same energy and zeal that our lawmakers need to incorporate into their representation if they are to remain relevant. My students, and students like them throughout the United States, are the future, and it is imperative that their passion for civic participation be nurtured and developed. Students who are ready to take a stand and have their voice stand out, armed with a sound moral compass and foundation of faith, will inevitably find out who they are, what they believe, and why they believe it. What greater joy than this for any educator?