If Paul the Apostle asked for financial assistance on his way to preach in Rome. So can Varick Memorial Zion Church ask the state for financial assistance on the way to establishing the Booker T. Washington Academy charter school.
That theme—that you can serve God and do good only in the context of working with and accepting the help of others—was the heart of a high- profile Palm Sunday sermon at the historic Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church.
The founder of the academy, a proposed charter school, Varick Rev. Eldren D. Morrison, drew some powerful listeners, including the mayor, the governor, and the head of the state Department of Education, Stefan Pryor.
Click here for a story about four new charter schools that are being proposed for the New Haven area, including the Booker T. Washington Academy.
All are seeking Hartford’s blessing, and bucks, including 20 others across the state.
Varick’s chief of staff and one of the event’s organizers, Jesse Phillips, said the attendance of state officials, including the first time a sitting governor has come to Varick in 30 years, was “to show his support for charters, not necessarily [specifically] for Varick but charter schools in general.”
The academy’s application has not yet been filed. Organizers expect to meet the state’s April 1 deadline, said Chaka Felder-McEntire, the vice-chair of the academy-in-formation’s board.
Concerns that the church is seeking public funding for a school that might have religious content should be allayed because the academy is being structured as totally separate from the church, Felder-McEntire said.
“In terms of finances, structure, and maintenance, it’s a separate entity, with its own 501(c) 3,” she added. Rev. Morrison sits on the academy’s board as chairman as well.
As he toured the church with the governor, Pryor said he could not make a comment on the Booker T. Washington application because he has not seen it.
“I’d like to say I am impressed with the intensity of effort to produce this application,” he added.
Felder-McEntire said no location has been decided upon for the school except that it will be in the Dixwell or Newhallville neighborhood. Plans have been refined so that if funding is successful, the school will open not with one grade, as previously announced, but with 144 kids from pre-K to first grade. That’s in response to needs expressed by the community, she added.
Back in church, before Morrison began his stem-winder, the three elected officials each gave brief sermons on general Palm Sunday themes. The subtexts echoed with the idea of community’s grassroots pursuit of justice and choice in education as a way of fulfilling a greater plan.
Pryor drew a connection to Passover and invoked the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, famous for linking arms with Martin Luther King to the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches.
“My legs were praying,” Pryor quoted Heschel as describing his march alongside King..
Mayor John DeStefanooffered his own sermonette on Holy Week’s charging us to remember what’s of highest importance—- the welfare of kids—and not to let the disappointments and surface failures (crucifixion) deter from goal. At that point, Morrison rose and said, “I’m going to give the mayor a preacher’s license.”
“I’m looking for work,” retired the mayor, who plans to retire at the end of this year after two decades in office.
The governor wasn’t afraid to touch on the hard sadness of aspects of the Easter story: “Let us not be despondent. Jesus knew when he entered Jerusalem that his days were numbered.” But leaders would rise up to spread the word despite setbacks, and despondency defeated through grassroots action, he said.
It was left to Rev. Morrison to connect the dots.
Taking his text from Romans, Chapter 15, verse 22, he said, “when you are serving God, you got to acknowledge you need help,” and accept it when it is offered.
Shifting niftily from holy text to homey vignettes, he brought the house down with his personal story of offering to use his credit card to pay for gas for a young woman, near him at the filling pump. He observed how she kept having her credit card rejected. She clearly had no credit or money, but when he offered to help her, she said, “No thank you!”
“I wouldn’t reject someone offering me help,” Morrison declared. In this case, he meant gas for the Booker T. Washington Academy.
“I’ve got a vision of Booker T. Washington Academy, and for economic development [around the present Varick site], but I need some help.”
Felder-McEntire said after the application is submitted, organizers should hear by June. If all goes well, the school will open in August, 2014, she said.
In the meantime, the entire church, well over a thousand members, will assemble as one body for Easter Sunday services next week at Hillhouse High.
Jesse Philips said he hopes that two other powerful political figures, state Rep. Toni Walker and state Sen. Toni Harp, who co-chair the state legislature’s appropriations committee, will be in the audience for that day’s sermon.