Young evangelicals take on social ills


From By Amy Sullivan

With few job openings for graduating seniors, campus recruiters are an especially welcome sight on college campuses these days. When Josh Dickson, a recruiter at Teach for America, would show up at liberal arts colleges this year, the earnest 25-year-old listened to student after student explain that their most urgent desire has always been to teach in a low-income community.

It may sound like exactly the kind of interaction that takes place on hundreds of campuses across the country. But there's something distinctive about the college and universities where Dickson has been doing his recruiting: they're all religious schools. And Dickson isn't your standard non-profit recruiter. A devout Christian, he honed his persuasion techniques evangelizing to classmates as a leader of his university's chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ.

With the touch he refined telling football players they should care more about their eternal souls than the next keg party, Dickson has been seeking out student all-stars at places like Illinois' Wheaton College, long known as the Harvard of evangelical schools. During his interviews, he heard lots of students say variations of what one Wheaton senior told him: "I just think God has given me a heart for social justice."

For many people, the word evangelical still evokes an image of fire-and-brimstone conservatism. Pat Robertson's suggestion this winter that Haiti had brought the earthquake on itself through a Satanic pact may have been an extreme example, but it's the kind of pronouncement we've come to expect from a certain generation of evangelical leader.

Today's young evangelicals cut an altogether different figure. They are socially conscious, cause-focused and controversy-averse. And they are quickly becoming a growth market for secular service organizations like Teach for America. Overall applications to Teach for America have doubled since 2007 as job prospects have dimmed for college graduates. But applications have tripled from Christian colleges and universities. Wheaton is now ranked sixth among all small schools — above traditionally granola institutions like Carlton College or Oberlin — in the number of graduates it sends to Teach for America. The typical Wheaton student, like many in the newest generation of evangelicals, is likely to be on fire about spreading the Good News and doing good.

The role that faith plays in teachers' lives

One of Josh Dickson's strongest recruiting tools is the story he shares with other young evangelicals. The native of upstate New York grew up in a church-going family that valued service — Dickson's parents used to take him along to serve dinner to the poor on Friday nights. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Dickson became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, the international Christian evangelism organization. Before long, Dickson was leading Bible studies in his dorm and recruiting the captain of the Michigan football team to talk about his faith at a Campus Crusade event the week of the end-of-season game against rival Ohio State.

By day, however, Dickson was a political science major. And in his theory and policy courses, he was learning for the first time about social inequities that he thought had been erased decades earlier. He remembers being shocked to learn that the quality of something as universal as education depended largely on one's zip code. Once blind, he now saw systemic contributors to poverty wherever he looked.

So while he had been leaning toward joining the staff of Campus Crusade after graduation, Dickson began to look for a different way to live out his faith. He was looking for a way to serve, and he kept coming back to education. "When people are provided with a good education, that helps them have the greatest chance to reach their potential as a human being," says Dickson. "As an evangelical, it was really important for me to help others work toward that."

That's how Dickson ended up a Teach for America corps member, spending his first two years out of college responsible for a classroom of 30 kindergarteners at Octavio Paz charter school in Chicago. With few high-quality preschools in the area, the children arrived in Dickson's class lacking basic skills like letter recognition and the ability to write their names. They left in the spring reading at grade level and writing sentences.

Dickson loved the satisfaction of knowing he was helping his young, bright students. But he also recognized that his good work could be undercut by a sub-par elementary-school teacher. After his two-year stint in the classroom, Dickson decided to become a Teach for America recruiter to bring more talented graduates into the field of teaching.

Around the same time, Teach for America — which was founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp and currently places 4,100 teachers in schools around the country — was starting to realize the role that faith played in many of its teachers' lives. Internal surveys showed that more than half of incoming corps members said they were motivated to join Teach for America because of their faith. The organization decided to launch partnerships with groups like the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; Kopp keynoted the Council's 2010 conference. Teach for America also moved to beef up its presence at religiously-affiliated schools. Dickson was the perfect match for those efforts.

Dickson became the leader of a team of recruiters who spread out across Bible colleges in California, the Latter-Day Saints at Brigham Young University, young Catholics at Holy Cross, and other traditionally religious institutions. Evangelicals are Dickson's specialty, in part because they relate so well to his tale. When he speaks about why he joined Teach for America, Dickson talks about his "calling." At Wheaton, one senior who is applying to the program asks if teaching impacted his faith. "Absolutely," says Dickson. "Teaching at a low-income school is tough for anyone. My faith was what made me know on my drive home every day that I was going back the next day."

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