Magazine article The Christian Century

Revival Hits Public School

Magazine article The Christian Century

Revival Hits Public School

Article excerpt

FOOTBALL JOCKS wept in the gym. Teenagers took the microphone, haltingly confessing their personal demons and begging for friends' prayers. Students in corridors cried on one another's shoulders.

In an unusual outbreak of fervor, the regular class schedule at Pearl River Central High School in Mississippi broke down one day recently as teachers and administrators at first watched, then joined students in expressions of faith, personal testimonies and prayer in a student Bible club meeting that lasted four hours.

Since that day, news of the "Pearl River Revival" or "Pearl River Happening" has been spreading on Christian radio and Web sites, where it is being noted approvingly as a supernatural event--and a welcome example of a public school's hospitality to Christianity. Meanwhile, hundreds of congratulatory e-mails have formed a pile four inches thick on the desk of Principal Lolita Lee, who suspended classes April 12, the day a late-morning program by Pearl River's Christian students mushroomed into a daylong, schoolwide camp meeting.

"I think this was a message from God that we need to put God back in our schools," said Judy Mitchell, one of the Bible club's faculty supervisors. "That's how I understood it, and that's become my goal."

But the high school's official hospitality to the class-time event, including teachers' own participation, apparently violated the state of Mississippi's duty to act as "a neutral, honest broker" among all faiths, said Charles Haynes, a constitutional scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Arlington, Virginia, and a consultant generally regarded as a friend of educators' attempts to integrate faith into school life.

"The First Amendment does not keep religion out of schools," Haynes said. "But it says religion can come in only in a way that protects the rights of all the kids, protects them from the government either denigrating or promoting a particular religion. I grant you, there are times of great emotion when a principal cannot just bring out a gong, as it were, and gong a show to an end without it being hurtful or damaging to young people. That may be the case in times of great stress, if young people gather and begin to pray after a shooting, for instance. I sympathize with that. But even then they have to set some kind of limit, and more important, this school I think should not have put itself in that position in the first place."

The Pearl River phenomenon began when the school let a student group, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, sponsor a 90-minute program for other students during the last class before lunch that day, Lee said. That in itself was not unusual, Lee noted. Similar arrangements have been made for blood drives or student fund raisers. Students who wanted to attend were excused from class. "About 90 percent" of Pearl River's 640 students gathered in the school's gym to watch a series of skits promoting Christian life, prepared by the fellowship's members.

"We didn't know what the closing would be, so we left that to God, and he totally took over," said Cary-Anne Dell, a senior and one of the event's organizers. "God was like, `This can't end.'" In short order, students began to open up with sometimes intense, emotional confessions in a process that began to feed on itself, Dell and others said.

"I said to myself, `The Spirit is filling these kids, and I'm going to let it continue. …

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