I visited the gates of hell today. We think they run through far-off lands torn apart by war, the darkened corridors of brothels, or the dank dungeons of some closed nation. Perhaps we have seen them bisecting the neighborhood rent by gang violence, the homeless shelter filled with lives shattered by addiction, or the family devastated by infidelity. But I tell you, the gates of hell run also through well-lit hallways, brightly-colored classrooms, and playgrounds echoing with laughter.
The gates of hell run through our neighborhood public schools.
Take, for example, the school my kids attend. According to the US Census Bureau, it is in the middle of a community dominated by pale-skinned Americans. According to the latest economic reports, the majority of its neighbors are upper-middle class homeowners. And according to the local police department, it is nestled in the back corner of a neighborhood with one of the lowest crime rates in town.
Yet every year, a growing number of students at this school have just arrived from refugee camps in far-flung corners of the world with names like Burma, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. Their families were forced by murderous madmen to flee from their homes, in many cases, decades before these children were even born.
Six out of every ten kids qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, and some do not eat after school lunch on Friday until they return for school lunch on Monday.
Yesterday, we learned that the father of a little girl in my son’s third-grade class was shot to death over the weekend.
Indeed, the gates of hell run through our neighborhood public schools.
In Matthew 16, Jesus led His disciples to Caesarea Philippi. This city, built by Philip II as a showcase of Roman power in the Middle East, was less than thirty years old. As they sat in the shadow of its gate, surrounded by Roman soldiers, politicians, and nobility, all against a backdrop of glistening opulence, it probably seemed to the disciples that there was nothing that Rome could not do. Then, in verse 18, Jesus told Peter and co. that He would build His church on Peter’s confession - that Jesus is Christ the Lord - “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
The implication was that there was at least one thing the mighty Romans could not do: they could never storm hell itself to rescue those trapped within its gates. War, poverty, crime, infidelity, addiction, and violence are just some of the hallmarks of those enslaved on the wrong side of hell’s gates. Maddeningly, many of those mired in these things are innocents pounding desperately on the gates, hoping someone will open them so they may escape.
To their credit, the faculty and staff of our local schools are working mightily to pry open those gates so some may escape. The English Language Learner (ELL) teachers are tireless advocates for their students and families, bringing attention to their plight and providing translation services for far more than school. The administrators passionately ensure kids have everything from lunch and school supplies to winter clothes and groceries. And the classroom teachers are just plain heroic.
But while they are certainly successful at freeing some, they were never supposed to be the ones storming the gates of hell. The problem is that they are the only ones left to do it. We heard that God was not welcome in public schools, so we, the Church, withdrew from this key battlefield, enrolling our kids instead in private schools or keeping them home, and leaving this section of the gates of hell unmolested, thus conceding the innocents trapped beyond.
That must change, and the key to changing it is found in red letters in Matthew 16.
Nearly 2,000 years before the first church t-shirt was printed, Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The key, I believe, is in the word “you.” What would happen if you actually showed up at the school? What would happen if you started building relationships with the students, faculty, and staff there? What would happen if you worked to stop the stuff that is not quite right and to encourage the stuff that is? What would happen if you unlocked the entrance to the kingdom of heaven so that the innocents trapped behind the gates of hell could escape? Is that not what Jesus was telling us to do?
Yes, the gates of hell run through our neighborhood public schools.
But those gates cannot overcome Jesus’ church as long as we show up to knock them down.
Pastor Jeremy Geerdes
Pastor Jeremy grew up in a small town in northeast Iowa. He attended North Fayette High School in West Union (IA). Following high school, he went on to attend Bartlesville Wesleyan College, now Oklahoma Wesleyan University, where he received a B.A. in Pastoral Ministry in 2002. He is now the Lead Pastor at Debra Heights Wesleyan Church in Des Moines, IA.
Jeremy and his beautiful wife Nicole were high school sweethearts. Today, Nicole teaches elementary music and band at Woodward-Granger Elementary in Granger, Iowa. The two have two children, Rebekah and Andrew.
Pastor Jeremy enjoys spending time with his family, studying Scripture, and developing websites. He also strives to find time for a little hunting and fishing whenever possible.