Tag Archives: Maria Byler

Advocating justice in our education system

by Mikah Ochieng, summer writing team

Maria BylerPhiladelphia Praise Center is located in the heart of South Philadelphia, a neighborhood that captures all four corners of the world into a 20 block radius. If you know anything about South Philly, it’s that it’s constantly prone to social change. For over a century, the community has been heavily influenced by the Italian culture but recently it has become a cultural hub for the Hispanic and Asian communities. Like the 20th century immigrants who came before them, this new generational wave of immigrants have experienced what it’s like to face the specific challenges that culture and language bring to one’s life. That is why there are people like Maria C. M. Byler.

Prior to moving to Harrisonburg, Va. this fall to pursue an M.Div. at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Byler played a tremendous role in the life of Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC) and the lives of countless immigrants who have struggled to acclimate to a new environment.  As PPC’s on-staff social worker and in her position with Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEEMAAC), an education, health, and social services agency, Byler committed to making the lives of others a better reality, both spiritually and economically.

Byler’s passionate and optimistic insight has always been a reliable source of inspiration for her work with students and parents in educational services. SEEMAC exposed her to various social services relating to education and school attendance for truant and absent immigrant students. Yet what Byler later discovered as she became more familiar with the educational system within Philadelphia both shocked and frustrated her in her work with students and parents.

On top of the overbearing obstacles that the Philadelphia school district is constantly facing, there remains the issue of deep discriminatory acts of segregation along economic and social boundaries. Byler discovered early on that the traditional motto of American education being “non-discriminatory and accessible to everyone” was simply not true for the people that she was serving. Commonly, Byler would work with bilingual parents who needed language services and programs in order to sufficiently interact with the schools that their children attended. Although these programs had been properly established, it seemed obvious to Byler that the system of education favored students whose primary language was English—educational equality was not accessible to Byler’s client families.

The problems of inner city education are most evident when comparing the education systems of the metro area and the surrounding suburbs. As one would expect, there are economic differences between the two demographic areas, economic differences that seem to be an injustice perpetuated by America’s oldest original sin: institutional racism. Byler has witnessed first-hand the lack of resources and opportunities that Latino and Asian families fail to receive as compared to families who send their children to schools in more affluent, suburban areas.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way, suggests Byler. The solution for this injustice is one that would positively revise the method of state and federal funding for education. Big-time legislators and hardworking parents can work together to provide immigrant students with the hope they receive from a good education, regardless of their nationality. All children, says Byler, should be recognized as unique and worthy of opportunity, not just educational opportunity, but opportunity in all of life.

Because God’s Kingdom is a manifestation of this hope, Jesus-followers are called to tear down the walls of institutional racism that seal away our community’s most powerless—our children—from the hope of an equal education.

Moved by faith … back to school

Philippiansby Maria Byler, Philadelphia Praise Center

In Matthew 17 Jesus tells the disciples that with faith the size of a mustard seed they could move mountains. But at Philadelphia Praise Center/Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, something else is being moved by faith: adults are going to school. And I, as site administrator, get to witness the miraculous results.

This fall, 15 members of PPC/CAF started the certificate program of the Anabaptist Biblical Institute (IBA), an adult Christian education program coordinated by the Mennonite Education Agency and the Hispanic Mennonite Church. It consists of eight 12-week courses. Students complete workbook lessons on their own and meet weekly in group tutoring sessions. Tutors are pastors Leticia Cortés and Fernando Loyola. With God’s help the first course, Introduction to Bible Study, was completed in early December.

Each student is in a very different place with their education. One student is completing postdoctoral work, one dropped out of elementary school over 20 years ago. Most have begun to know Jesus within the last five years. But their varied experiences with school and church were overcome by the strength of their faith and their desire to learn more about God.

At the first class when asked about the homework, most of the students raised their eyebrows and shook their heads sadly. “Me cuesta leer tanto,” – “It’s hard for me to read so much” “No entendí todas las preguntas,” “I didn’t understand all the questions.” We struggled through the literary genres in the Bible and the difference between figurative and literal. But we also had great conversations about Hebrew identity, Creation, and even vegetarianism. Week after week I left the class amazed at what God is doing with these humble but eager followers. And the students left the class feeling as though they had merely scratched the surface of knowledge, and ready to deepen their understanding.

More than what God is doing inside each student is what God is doing with us as a community. We are each (including me) growing so much more than if we just read the lessons individually. IBA has become a very human place where we learn from the reading and also from our sisters’ and brothers’ life views.  This includes experiences of members of the community during the course. We have had to cancel or rearrange classes because of illness or other church events – and those happenings make it into the class conversation. Students often bring their children, who participate in their own way. It’s giving us all practice in being a community of sharing and support as we learn together how to walk this life as Christians.

At the beginning of the New Year we start on the second course: Anabaptist History and Theology. For more information on what we’re studying, check out the Mennonite Education Agency website. Or, if you’d rather, contact me – I love to talk about this exciting work that God is doing in the church!

Body, mind, heart … and feet (To Mennonite Blog #6)

by Maria Byler, Philadelphia Praise CenterMaria Byler

I choose to define Mennonite, the verb, with a ritual that is absent in my congregation. Therefore this post is also a call to re-examination, change, growth. To me, to Mennonite is to participate in foot washing.

I don’t pretend to have any scholarly knowledge on the John 13 story, but as a follower of Jesus, it moves me. Jesus knew he would soon be leaving the world. When he washed his disciples’ feet, he was at the point where he was giving conclusions, take-away messages. Something grand or violent might have been more memorable. But instead he did an everyday act of care, to demonstrate the completeness with which he loved his students – and to ask his students to love others as completely.

Now I don’t choose the theme of love for this moment as some wishy-washy, feel-good coating over everything Jesus did. I choose it because this complete love which induced Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet is really what his coming was about. God so loved the world that God sent God’s only begotten Son. That son had so much passion for the people he was saving and teaching that he lived his message even as his people tortured and killed him. But even that could not stop the love of God, which overcame death to reach out once again to humanity. And Jesus physically demonstrated what that love should look like by washing the feet of his disciples, in selflessness and humble concern.

As I said, we do not practice foot washing in my congregation. If I mentioned the practice, members would recognize it from the Bible stories. They would recall the time when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and may remember that it was a common practice in Jesus’ time. But foot washing is not a practice that many around me will instantly see as Mennoniting.

But while we don’t wash feet at my church, we do practice foot washing in other ways. This is one thing that makes us Mennonite.

That foot-washing love is demonstrated in my congregation through being willing to come over and talk whenever it’s needed or provide a ride on short notice. Members commit to talking about how we’re really doing, praying for one another, and following up with a phone call. And best of all, these things happen out of care for the other. They come out of selfless love and humble desire that our neighbor might enter into the joy we have found.

I used to attend a congregation that washed feet on Maundy Thursday but have not done so for years. Sometimes practices which we use less often simply fade into the past, but sometimes we feel an absence. This absence says that what we used to do was important. And that is what I have noticed with foot washing.

I am a firm believer in physical rituals to remind us of things that are important.  In taking off our socks, getting on the floor, and actually cleaning someone else’s feet or allowing ours to be cleaned, our body experiences what we train our minds and hearts for as Mennonites.

We can and do practice foot washing in our relationships and our attitudes. But I think Jesus told us to do the physical act for a reason.

Next week, Ron White, moderator of Eastern District Conference, will reflect on the spiritual vision of the verb Mennonite.  What are some of the ways foot washing happens in your congregation?  How do you “Mennonite”?  Join the conversation on Facebook & Twitter (#fmclife) or by email.

Who am I?  (To Mennonite Blog #1)
Serving Christ with our heads and hands (To Mennonite Blog #2)
Quiet rebellion against the status quo (To Mennonite Blog #3)
Mennoniting my way (To Mennonite Blog #4)
Generations Mennoniting together (To Mennonite Blog #5)
Body, mind, heart … and feet (To Mennonite Blog #6)
We have much more to offer (To Mennonite Blog #7)
Mennonite community … and community that Mennonites (To Mennonite Blog #8)