Former students are on a public campaign against the leadership and staff of Anchorage Christian Schools and Anchorage Baptist Temple, due to a perceived legacy of racism.
The outcry against one of the largest Christian churches and schools in Alaska comes at a time when institutions at every level in society are being attacked, and many are struggling with how to appropriately respond. In today’s Must Read Alaska, ABT Pastor Ron Hoffman has responded publicly about the role of ABT/ACS in shaping the lives of all.
It’s not just in Anchorage, but all over the country churches are dealing with accusations that they are not doing enough to combat systemic racism or that they are racist institutions. Activists are demanding that churches become engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Last month, a white Catholic priest in Oakland, Calif., took on his own bishop, and called him racist over “Black Lives Matter” discussions.
Also last month, Superintendent of Anchorage School District Deena Bishop was criticized by area blacks for being racially insensitive in an email she sent to parents districtwide.
The attacks on ABT/ACS started last month. The school, which has taught and shaped the characters of thousands of students since its founding in 1971, came under increasing attack on the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter during a time of heightened racial disharmony in the nation after the killing of George Floyd. It comes at a time when institutions find it difficult to respond to demands that are being leveled at them from many directions, while they are also collapsing due to the economic fallout from COVID-19.
The attacks are also happening when church attendance is soft and all churches are struggling to pay bills with parishioner/donors who are having to watch their finances because of the COVID-19 recession.
Anchorage Baptist Temple is one of the most diverse churches in Alaska — possibly in America. The congregation at Anchorage Baptist Temple almost mirrors that of diverse East Anchorage, with black, white, Polynesian, hispanic, Filipino, and Alaska Native worshiping together.
The church has many ministries in the Anchorage area, with its K-12 school being one of the most well known.
The bus ministry, which has come under withering criticism in some of the Facebook postings Must Read Alaska has reviewed, is not actually limited to low-income children, as the critics indicate, but provides free rides to church for kids from all over Anchorage, from Rabbit Creek’s million-dollar homes to trailer parks in Muldoon.
The church was founded over 50 years ago by Pastor Jerry Prevo, a missionary who is now retired. ABT has hosted speakers such as the Rev. Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, Ravi Zacharias, Greg Laurie, and even Vice President Joe Biden, who gave a eulogy at the memorial for the late Sen. Ted Stevens in 2010.
Both the school and the church are supported by donations from Christians in Alaska and from across the country. Children from poor families have their tuition largely covered by the major gifts that pour in for the education ministry. Tuition is about $300 a month for those who can afford it. During the COVID-19 pandemic and closures of schools, ACS cut its tuition by 30 percent to help families out.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Institutions, as imperfect or as exemplary as they are, are being called to do even more for persons of color.
The social justice campaign against ABT/ACS started at the same time as the Black Lives Matter riots and protests in communities across the nation.
The complaints against ABT/ACS have now been simmering on social media for three weeks. Anna Simmerss, one of the leaders of the Facebook campaign against ABT/ACS, wrote:
“Last week the leadership of ACS/ABT had an opportunity to respond to an open letter and the testimonies of more than 52 students and former staff who reported having experienced or witnessed racial discrimination and harassment at the school or church. These students told heartbreaking stories that included: being called racial slurs by students and staff, being singled out for their appearance and physical attributes, being singled out for unwarranted discipline, and multiple instances of staff being physically aggressive with Black students. There were many other stories from students and staff who spoke of a school and church culture that normalized racial slurs, segregation of children, and racially motivated bullying. We took great care in sharing these stories and have ensured that every story shared could be verified by at least two witnesses. Many more stories were not made public.”
Among the demands the group has are that persons of color be prioritized in hiring.
“There is no good reason why diversity of culture and experience should not be actively prioritized in the hiring process at ACS and ABT. This would ensure that there are people in positions of authority who have sensitivity to racial and cultural differences and can be a filter for future decisions. Diversity is valuable and should be sought,” Simmers wrote in a post that was 1,400 words long. She added the email addresses of Pastor Ron Hoffman and other church leaders.
Some of the social media posts were not as polite, as these spotted on Twitter last month:
Among the demands from the group of 52 former students were posted by Simmons on Facebook:
- Desegregate the Children’s Sunday School classes
- Publicize that you have scheduled mandatory training and informed all faculty and staff
- Publicize the no-tolerance policies that will be written in the school handbook
- Publicize intent and goal to diversify pastoral leadership, staff, and faculty
- Publicize what expanded curriculum on minority, especially Black American history will be included in textbooks and lesson plans
- Publicize schedule and facilitator for mandatory racial sensitivity training for all staff and faculty to be conducted before 24 Aug (1st day of class)
At the same time that former students are going public with their grievances on social media, the school itself is undergoing a change in leadership, with Calvin Hoffman taking over as executive director of student ministry and chief operations officer after the long-planned retirement of its former director, and Pam King returning to the school as provost and chief academic officer.
The school year is scheduled to begin on Aug. 24, God willing and if COVID-19 does not throw a wrench into the current plans to welcome students back to school.