What’s it like to be a religious minority in a Christian-dominated culture? Jews on First has published a must-read in-depth exploration of what it’s like for Jewish students going to public schools in the South, consistently exposed to peer pressure and conversion attempts by their Christian classmates, behavior often (directly and indirectly) supported by faculty.
“It can be the little stuff, like my classmates wishing me to have a ‘blessed day’. I know that really means that Jesus blesses you,” says Jane. “I have a friend who introduces me as her ‘Jewish friend, Jane’. It’s always in your face. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded that I’m a Jew.” [..] One parent relates how his son would eat breakfast in the school cafeteria when a group of athletes would come in and “perform” for the students. “They would basically lift weights for about 30 minutes,” then go to the microphone and “announce that Christ helped them become athletes. After five or 10 minutes of sermon, they would pray and leave,” but meanwhile the students eating breakfast were not allowed to leave the cafeteria and were obviously a captive audience with no option to “not hear.”
Because court rulings have largely forbade faculty and staff from directly proselytizing, local churches use various tricks like the aforementioned “performance” to introduce stealth missionary work into the student body. One Rabbi in Atlanta notes that Christian students are urged by their churches to work towards the conversion of non-Christian students.
“…according to Rabbi Greene, one of the largest evangelical churches in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, even provides literature to its young members about “how to approach your Jewish friends.” He calls the effort “love bombing.” Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim, which isn’t far from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, agrees that ‘they are very aggressive in their proselytizing and will teach Christianity to anyone who will listen. One of my former Hebrew School students came to me recently and said he accepted Christ; he’s confused.’”
In public school systems that are religiously and culturally diverse, the issue of student conversions is almost non-existent, evangelical Christian students are simply one voice among several; but when your school is in a region dominated by mission-minded Christians, the tone and tenor of student interactions suddenly changes. Instead of one voice, Christianity becomes the only voice, the dominant voice, among the student body. Those who don’t fit into that template find themselves consistently battered by the expectation that they too will fall in line. Christian leaders in these areas are well aware of this power, which is why they fight for state constitutional amendments that open “the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing” and “religious freedom” laws that they know will benefit the majority at the expense of minorities.
Public schools are supposed to be secular by design, they have to serve the needs of all students, not simply those who are in the majority. These initiatives by local churches and missionary groups are trying to “game” the system by turning the student body into a peer pressure engine against non-Christian students. These are not natural conversion experiences that arise after deep contemplation or introspection, this is the equivalent of religious bullying, turning all those who resist into social outsiders. The experience of these Jewish students and parents is shared by other religious minorities in deeply Christian areas of the country, including modern Pagans. Sadly, these students often have to turn to outside help, or even litigation, to make sure their own religious autonomy is respected, as the faculty and staff are often sympathetic to these conversion efforts.
Christians, if they truly want to see earnest conversions among non-Christian populations, need to understand that these tactics do nothing but create ill will and adversarial feelings among parents and non-Christian religious leaders. It makes them the enemy, and they turn the message of Christ into a sort of bludgeon in which to control behavior they don’t like.