Last week Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, Virginia, found itself in the national news for all the wrong reasons. Amari Allen, a sixth grade student, claimed that three of her classmates attacked her on the playground, held her down, called her names, and cut her hair.
Then she recanted her story, acknowledging that she fabricated the story, though she says she has been bullied at school. In a statement released to the Washington Post, Allen’s grandparents said, “To those young boys and their parents, we sincerely apologize for the pain and anxiety these allegations have caused.”
With the retraction, the K-10 school, whose student body is nearly half (48%) nonwhite, has mostly faded from the national spotlight. But now, the school is working to address any bullying that may have taken place despite its zero-tolerance policy toward such behavior and to explore what could have led one of their own to fabricate such an account.
In the words of Immanuel Christian’s principal, “We recognize that we now enter what will be a long season of healing. This ordeal has revealed that we as a school family are not immune from the effects of deep racial wounds in our society.”
Immanuel Christian School is a ministry of Immanuel Bible Church and shares facilities with the congregation. About a third of the families enrolled in the school are church members. CT spoke with Jesse Johnson, the church’s lead teaching pastor, about how the incident has offered the student body an opportunity to express forgiveness, work towards restoration, and deepen gospel discussions around race and racism.
In your view as a pastor, what does healing look like in this situation?
Healing begins with repentance and then forgiveness. Those are things that happen instantaneously. Repentance is expressed, as the family did with their statement, which was so much appreciated. And then it is received in forgiveness that is demonstrated by the students and by the school at large. The harm that the lie did wasn’t just confined to the three students, although it was more severely felt by them. The harm goes on to all of the students because it tarnishes the school that they love and that is part of their lives. They are called to respond by forgiving the person that has sinned against them and asked for forgiveness.
That is something they know that is not optional in Christianity…. We’ve been teaching them it’s what they have to do and should be the response from a heart that loves the Lord. And restoration is something that takes place over a period of time. Forgiveness is instantaneous, but restoration takes time as the hurts continue to be exposed and forgiveness continues to be extended.
I would say the No. 1 criticism of the school that I heard during this time is, “What is it that Christian schools are teaching that allows this to happen?” I want to take that question and apply it to the end of this and say, “Why would God allow the school to go through this?” It’s a chance to demonstrate what we are teaching—the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness in Christ.
Has the school talked about meetings between Amari and the boys she accused? Have some of those conversations started to take place?
Yeah, they have. The families, I’m not sure if they have met, but they were all willing to. The boys … have known this was not true from the very beginning. From the get-go of this they were eager to forgive. The school is still determining what the consequences will be because we want to ensure a safe environment for all of our students, including Amari. We’re still walking through that with the families, trying to ensure the best course of action. And this is one of those cases where forgiveness can be immediate but reconciliation will take time.
How do you model healthy race relations for the children of your church and the school?
By teaching, first of all, that we are all made of the image of God with value, worth, dignity, and honor that comes from being God’s likeness. We are all one race, and culture is a valid expression of individual identity. There is a diversity of cultures, and the more diverse the culture, the more the celebration of the transcendent image of the God in human life. We want to celebrate diversity while constantly underscoring that … we are all one in Adam and one in the image of God.
Because of that, we want friendships that transcend racial lines. It’s not diversity for the sake of diversity; it’s that diversity that is rooted in theological Christian convictions demonstrates the supremacy of the image of God over the racial divisions of society.
We’re not naive. We know that our society is torn by racism, that our country, in many ways, is woven of a fabric that is woven out of racism. Racism is real and alive in the world, and we want to combat that by teaching how to Bible presents healing, forgiveness, and restoration, and how the image of God is what binds us together.
Have you and your staff had conversations about race relations in your church?
We are aware in Northern Virginia that racism is real and that families in our congregation have suffered the effects of it. T. C. Williams [whose integrated football team was the subject of the movie] Remember the Titans, that’s just a few miles away from us. A lot of families in the church grew up with that as their reality, and in many ways it is still the reality of the culture around our church.
Our best approach to that is to preach the gospel and stress the importance of individual reconciliation. We know that only the gospel can bring hope to society, and we are very cognizant that that can’t just be a general hope to the world but it has to be played out in individual’s lives with forgiveness and reconciliation at a personal level.
Are the church and school working together on addressing issues of race in the church or the school, or both?
The honest truth is that there hasn’t been a problem at the school or church that has necessitated that kind of teaching. But of course in normal chapels, in Bible classes, we talk about the reality of the world our kids live in while pointing them to the diverse nature of the church and the gospel. That’s why I think it’s important to say how diverse our school is, just the makeup of classes and the kids’ friendships that develop over time is a powerful testimony to the transcendent nature of the gospel and the friendship we have in Christ.