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A prophetic parish – the voice of the forgotten COVID-19 children

By Fr Donald Chambers

In recently published articles in a Jamaican newspaper, there was a testimony and some statistics suggesting that Caribbean societies risk forgetting its most vulnerable—the COVID-19 children.

One article noted that only 45 per cent of the student population of an inner-city secondary school registered for the new academic year. The article also quoted a teacher who stated, “One parent told me she can’t give the child her phone because she has to use it to sell Cash Pot (lottery).”

The second article, a commentary by a Catholic deacon and former Member of Parliament, Ronald Thwaites, mentions that only 69 students of a population of  300 largely poor, black children have limited opportunity to access online learning in another primary school.

Deacon Thwaites comments, “The children who attend this school will carry in their cramped lives the underachievement of their ambitions and the unending inequality in the Jamaican society.”

Isn’t his remark an indication of the “dark clouds over a closed world” which Pope Francis addresses in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti? This “dark cloud” needs a prophetic local Church to ensure that these children are not forgotten!

In his encyclical, Pope Francis offers the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25–37) as an interpretive tool for understanding this “dark cloud” of the global reality.

First, he states that the parable speaks to an age-old problem of the breakdown of human relationships and care for each other, which leads to isolation and closed groups.

Second, the Judeo-Christian traditions consistently call for inclusion. Third, it focuses on a Samaritan who, when confronted with a human need, put his own plans aside to help.

Fourth, when humanity ignores the needs of other humans, it is a sign of an unhealthy society. Fifth, the parable points societies to pursue the “common good, consolidate political and social order, its fabric of relations, and its human goal”.

Six, the parable calls society to a fundamental option, that is, to heal a wounded world by imitating the good Samaritan.

In light of Pope Francis’ interpretation of the parable, we can further critique our iniquitous and the status-driven nature of our inherited British colonial education system that ends up excluding the majority and including the minority.

While we recognise, for example, the immediate need for devices and internet connectivity with the implementation of online learning, its inadequate availability points to a historical fundamental challenge of a system whose goal is to create a societal crème de la crème utilising education.

The frantic scrambling to provide devices and adequate internet connectivity for online learning begs some questions.

First, with the historical abundance of resources gained from oil and natural gas production, is there not the need to prioritise economic development over and above modernisation? While economic development focuses on human development, modernisation emphasises, for example, creating an eye-catching downtown skyline.

Second, how can we shift the goal post of education from a degree, which gives social mobility and is status centred to development centred serving the common good of the entire society?

Third, isn’t the question of facilitating a paradigm shift in parental attitudes and parental responsibility towards their children’s education also critical? How do we enlighten parents that the education of their children need not occur in isolation or in competition with others, as the colonial architects successfully taught and reinforced, but in collaboration with a group of stakeholders —the government, schools’ administration, parent-teachers associations, community neighbours, church, and past students’ associations?

Fourth, how do we resurrect and apply the old adage of the village caring for the child in the introduction of, for example, online learning?

As a key stakeholder in education, the Church must take the lead in educational transformation because, not only does the Church operate the majority of denominational primary schools in Trinidad & Tobago, but because the school is strategically established as a conduit in the mission of the Church.

In exercising its prophetic ministry, the first point of departure for the parish churches is to ensure that COVID-19 children are  not forgotten. In this regard, I humbly suggest the following be implemented in parishes:

  • Ensure that there is a vision and a strategic plan for the parish schools
  • Facilitate a buy-in among the stakeholders—parish, school administrators, parents,

civil community, and government—to this vision

  • Collaborate with the stake-holders in the ensuring the implementation of the plan.

After the parishes have done a great deal of communal prayer, they must now “study the issues, to become proficient in them, to take a specific, a particular stand, for justice” (Joan Chittister) so that none of our COVID-19 children are forgotten.

This pandemic has revealed the serious cracks in our educational system. Parishes must demonstrate “the need for change, for inclusion, for equality, for development . . .” (Chittister) in this system.

This COVID-19 era is a gift to us to make a difference. It awakens the prophetic voice of parish communities to carry out the prophetic work of including the vulnerable and forgotten children of the pandemic.