When Manuel Lerdau heard from his seventh-grader a couple of weeks ago that a Christian youth organization was recruiting at Buford Middle School under the guise of a party, he became concerned.
“Representatives from WyldLife were at Buford during lunch recruiting students to attend WyldLife events, and doing it in a way that was not making it clear the religious nature of the group, while emphasizing the social nature of the event,” says Lerdau.
While his own kids participate in religious youth events, he says, “My response is this is not something that should happen on school grounds during school hours.”
Pam DeGuzman’s daughter came home in October and said she wanted to go to a WyldLife party—until her mom told her it was a religious group. “It seems like they don’t completely expose they’re a Christian organization,” says DeGuzman.
WyldLife group leaders were passing out fliers in the lunchroom, according to DeGuzman. Her concern? “You mean other than it’s against the law?” she asks. “My concern is it’s illegal and they’re doing it when parents are not involved.”
DeGuzman says she has friends who are in Young Life, a worldwide Christian youth organization dedicated to helping teens, “and they’re lovely. It’s just that they’re recruiting at school.”
Buford Principal Eric Johnson says he doesn’t know anything about the fliers. He is aware of students involved with WyldLife, the younger-brother arm of Young Life. The local chapter is a UVA-funded student group.
A couple of Young Life volunteers are mentors for Buford students and have permission to stop by and say hi to their kids, says Johnson. He believes the incident that riled some Buford parents was when a student overheard news about the party and told the Young Life volunteer he wanted to go. The volunteer wrote a phone number on a card and gave it to the student, urging the student to talk to his or her parents, says Johnson. And while he calls it “an innocent mistake,” he says, “I don’t condone any adult coming in and giving their number to a child.”
Johnson says he met with the Young Life representatives about what can and cannot happen on school grounds. And, for now, they’re stepping back.
“I do not allow organizations to come in and recruit,” he says. And if anyone wants to distribute a flier, it has to be approved through his office.
City schools spokesperson Beth Cheuk says the school division welcomes mentors from organizations such as Young Life and 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, and that Johnson screened the Young Lifers. “These students are super nice,” she says. “It seems a shame to turn away mentors.” The Young Life volunteers were not there to proselytize, says Cheuk, but to reach out to students with whom they already have a relationship.
Cheuk, too, had heard nothing about flier distribution. “If there really is a flier, we need to know about it because we have a strict policy on fliers on school property,” she says.
Heather Beam, Young Life area director, confirms that her members have passed out fliers at Buford, although in an e-mail to Johnson, she says they were given to kids who were involved in WyldLife and she apologizes for not knowing that was a no-no on school grounds.
She says in an e-mail to C-VILLE that many Buford students attend WyldLife programs, such as weekly meetings, weekend events and summer camping trips, and that Young Life volunteers are actively involved with adolescents, teen moms and students with special needs in a dozen local schools.
To parents who claim Young Life is trying to recruit kids to Christianity under the guise of social events, Beam responds, “We are a Christian organization. Our gatherings give students a chance to have fun in a safe, socially neutral space off campus and all students are welcome. Club meetings often include a simple discussion of the life of Jesus and His example.”
For now, Young Lifers will not be lunching at Buford. “They don’t want to come while people feel uncomfortable,” says Cheuk.
Civil libertarian John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, says his organization took a case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 in which the court ruled that if a public school allows other groups, it can’t practice viewpoint discrimination.
“If I were a principal, I’d be very careful about letting any group in,” says Whitehead. “I think it’s a little troublesome to have adults giving kids phone numbers.” Whitehead also advises that schools have clear, written guidelines.
“We have and always will comply with any requirements set by the school administration,” says Beam.
Lerdau says he was satisfied with the quick action Johnson took at Buford. “It was too suggestive of the government endorsing that particular religion or religious group,” he says. “I don’t think there should be any religious activity during school hours.”