“Mr. Finley, will you please step out of the room so we can go into executive session for your review?” I had known this young man since he was nine years old, and now he was chairing my evaluation committee. After college he had been the first Epiphany graduate to join our teaching fellows program which helps train the next generation of urban educators and provides fellows with room, board, health insurance, educational debt relief, and often a free master’s degree. Now he was a successful entrepreneur, happily married with a baby on the way, and serving on our Board of Trustees. I, meanwhile, was no longer the twenty-six-year-old founding head of a tuition-free Episcopal school surviving by the skin of its teeth. Of the many lessons I’ve learned over the years, the importance of perseverance and trust in the work of social justice has been one of the most critical.
Meaningful progress can take a long time. Today, a third of Epiphany’s faculty are themselves Epiphany graduates. Half of our teachers are male. Nearly all our teachers are people of color, and most are from the same backgrounds as our students. All of our teachers are terrific in the classroom, and each sets an inspiring example for their students and for me. This was not, however, what our team looked like on day one. Developing a great faculty for any school is a long-term project requiring sustained focus and patience. When visitors ask what the secret is to attracting and retaining such an amazing group of teachers, I often answer with this story about Jane and Leland Stanford. When planning to build what became Stanford University, they visited Oxford and Cambridge. Among many things, they admired the beautiful lawns and asked a gardener what the trick was. “Oh, it’s simple,” he said. “Just put down seed, water, mow, roll occasionally and after 400 years, it looks like this.” Epiphany did not start with the faculty we have now. It has taken decades. It has meant being able to provide a good salary and benefits along with a great teaching environment. It has also meant creating the fellows program outlined above and sustaining it over the long haul. One at a time, year after year, teachers have come to us from that program, gradually developing into the faculty we enjoy today.
At Epiphany we say we “never give up on a child.” As many of our students have been abused and neglected, and all of them economically disadvantaged, the importance of trust building cannot be overstated. School has been a hard place for many of them. They and their parents need time to come to trust us, and we need time to understand them. I remember meeting with a parent and her child after that child had been suspended for fighting. Let’s call him John. In the meeting, our chaplain explained to John that there would be a pause before he could return to playing basketball during recess because it was hard for him to control his temper. She then went on to talk about the amazing things we had seen in him…the poem he wrote and performed for the poetry slam…his amazing woodblock print. John’s mom then started with “Well, we might just be leaving this Epiphany School,” but John interrupted her. “Mom, I want to stay.” “But,” she said, “all the way over here you were saying how much you hated this school.” “I know, but I want to stay.” I believe that we cannot love someone unless we know them, and we cannot know them without loving them. We loved John. We were not giving up, and neither was he.
In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As God works through us to build that world, we need both to build trust and to be able to persevere when it can take years and years to make a real difference. After decades here at Epiphany, we are now enjoying the fruits of our labors, but we could not have made it this far without the love of God. At Epiphany and in every Episcopal school I have ever visited, I have seen signs of God’s handiwork. God bless you all and thank you for sticking with your important work and building trust in your community. Working together, we are making a lasting impact.
The Rev. John H. Finley, IV is Head of School at Epiphany School in Dorchester, MA.
Photo: Epiphany School Faculty & Staff