Principal Nadia Lopez of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn is the better person we all wish we were. She spends her days not just running a school in a high-poverty area but also personally attempting to empower every “scholar” in her school. This is what she says about the school color being purple, the color of royalty:
I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.
I know about Ms. Lopez thanks to Vidal Chastanet, one of her students, who was featured last month in photographer Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog. (Stanton asked Vidal, “Who has influenced you the most in your life?” and Vidal answered, “My principal.” And then Stanton went in search of her.)
Thanks to Humans of New York, in fact, everybody knows about Ms. Lopez—you (I’m guessing) and I and Ellen DeGeneres and President Obama. And thanks to Lopez’s own inspirational work and the human need to be inspired and then (once inspired) to act, Vidal has sat behind the desk in the Oval Office, and Mott Hall Bridges has received more than a million dollars in donations.
For all of this, Lopez gives thanks to . . . God.
I was ready to quit, I was ready to resign, I was done, and my mother told me to pray on it . . . I did pray about it Monday, and God showed me how much of a significance I was, not only to Vidal but to people around the world who could identify what it was like to know someone who was their champion and pushed them through.
I don’t want to minimize the range and intelligence of her statements on education and community and poverty, or reduce her to a football player who believes God kicked in the extra point. She has much more to say than this. But I do think it’s striking that here, in a situation where cause and effect are transparent, God gets credit. It’s not like $1 million showed up on the doorstep, or that people started sending in checks for no evident reason.
To conclude that what happened to Lopez and her school was God’s work is to minimize not just what Lopez herself did but also what Stanton did, what people moved by the story did. I’m sure no one involved, least of all Lopez herself, feels the need to get credit. But minimizing the human role minimizes human responsibility. We may not want to admit it, but we have the power to save not just Vidal and Mott Hall Bridges but all the schools that struggle to keep kids afloat in impoverished areas. We have the power to end poverty. We have the money; we have the will; all we lack is the certainty that it’s our job. That what controls the circumstances of one human’s life is other humans—not just personally (that part we understand), but in the systems that we create together. If we as a culture believe a Higher Power is in charge, we’re simply not going to use our human power to its fullest. We’re going to think that poverty is His doing, not ours.
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Other things that happened last month: Islamist terrorists shot twelve people at the headquarters of a Parisian newspaper. In covering the march that followed, an ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper photoshopped Angela Merkel from the picture because, according to the editor,“including a picture of a woman into something so sacred . . . can desecrate the memory of the martyrs.” Meanwhile, here at home, Senator James Inhofe became Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe has said, among many other remarkable things, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He [God] is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
I could write about these events to demonstrate the dangers of religious belief. Many people have. But the problem with using such extreme examples is that we can all be horrified, appalled, and disgusted by them without fundamentally questioning anything we—or non-murderous, non-sexist, non-stupid people like us—believe.
Today, on Darwin Day, it’s worth asking whether the good kind of religion can have negative consequences too. Whether religion that clearly means no harm and even inspires admirable people like Ms. Lopez to do good might ultimately still be holding us back as a society.
When we talk prayer rather than politics, we perpetuate the belief that humans are powerless to address deep-seated societal problems; that the future of kids like Vidal is in God’s hands. But it’s not. It’s in Lopez’s—and in ours.