Chattanooga's religious leaders work to improve public education

Rev. Gaspar DeGaetano, Pablo Mazariego, pastor Will Lauderback, and Chattanooga 2.0 coordinator Jared Bigham, from left, speak during a meeting by local pastors at The Urban League of Chattanooga to plan programs to improve public education Tuesday, July 12, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The group is working with Chattanooga 2.0 to get their congregations involved in education.

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For more information or to get connected with the Interfaith Council contact Warren Logan at

Back in the 1980s, a group of pastors representing many of the city's denominations worked collectively for the betterment of Chattanooga.

A meeting last week of a handful of religious leaders "is a revitalization of that work," said Warren Logan, president of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga.

The pastors, representing different religious backgrounds and races, sat around a conference table in a back room of the Urban League offices on Tuesday, sipping coffee and discussing ways they can collectively work to improve the county's public schools.

Logan said the idea for the Interfaith Council sprang from conversations about Chattanooga 2.0, an initiative to improve public education and workforce development through community support. He said places of worship serve as community hubs and are uniquely able to connect underserved communities with needed resources.

The council is planning an interfaith education summit and intends to develop a multilingual resource guide about available faith-based sponsored education programs, and to establish a conduit for their congregations to get involved in the work of improving schools.

Hamilton County public schools score below the state average on standardized tests and trail the state's other major metro districts in academic growth.

A sobering report released by Chattanooga 2.0 states that only one in 20 county students attends an exceptional or high-performing school, and black students are 33 times more likely than white students to attend the lowest-performing schools statewide.

The religious leaders talked about the importance of every student receiving a quality education, especially those who are poor and marginalized.

Pablo Mazariegos, who leads a network of Latino pastors in the city, told the Interfaith Council the importance of including immigrant students and their families in the conversation about educational equity.

He said one of the council's goals needs to be to "provide quality education for all students, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status or immigration status."

Explaining how segregated many immigrants are across the city and in classrooms, Mazariegos said not including the words "immigration status" would make many in the city's growing Latino population feel excluded.

Jeffery Wilson, a pastor at New United Missionary Baptist Church, thanked Mazariegos and said he didn't realize how isolated some immigrants feel in Chattanooga.

"Regardless of a child's immigration status they deserve a good education," Wilson said. He later added, "Too much of the dialogue in this conversation about education has been about black and white."

Jared Bigham, coordinator of Chattanooga 2.0, said the Interfaith Council has a powerful voice in the community, especially when different congregations join forces and stop working in silos.

"When you talk, people listen," he said. The council is "uniquely positioned as conduits to share information, as well as providing academic and wraparound supports," he said.

After the meeting, Wilson and Mazariegos talked about why they wanted to be involved in the council.

Mazariegos said as an immigrant child growing up in the United States he often was shy and uncertain, and didn't have the resources to succeed in school.

"Growing up it was intimidating. I didn't speak English well," he said. "I was learning my letters from watching the 'Wheel of Fortune' on TV."

The church offered support and helped him develop a love for learning that helped him get through school, he said.

Now, he said, the Interfaith Council could help provide children and families similar support.

"This group is bringing people together," he said. "People think it's impossible due to racial lines, but it's not."

Wilson said he's committed to the council for similar reasons, and that it's time the city's diverse religious community sat at the same table.

"Some argue this can't be done, and say the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish communities can't work together," Wilson said. "But we are going to. We are going to rally around the need for great education."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.