This past June, Central Christian School parents J.D. and Christan Perona, Vanessa Hawkins, and I had the opportunity to lead 15 rising ninth graders on an eight-day leadership trip to Gettysburg and Washington, D.C.
The amazing journey was a culmination of the inaugural Central Leadership Forum (CLF), which began in February with 12 two-hour weekly sessions on what it means to be an image-bearer of God in how we view ourselves, others, and the world around us.
I would love to share with your our journey to Gettysburg and DC in a diary format. I pray that you will be encouraged as I was by what the LORD did in the lives of these young people
Day 1 (Saturday)
We spent 18 hours on the bus ride from St. Louis to Gettysburg, PA. It was a great time for the students to bond and get to know one another!
Day 2 (Sunday)
We started the day with “church” at Middle Creek Lodge—a time of worship, individual (private) prayers of confession, and Scripture study. Pulling from passages in Matthew 14 and Hebrews 10 and 12, students were challenged to keep their focus on Christ alone rather than letting culture pull us to and fro. We were reminded to seek to live in community and understand our need for one another.
Gettysburg Visitors Center
We began our tour of Gettysburg by spending time at the Visitors Center. We watched a New Birth of Freedom (a film narrated by Morgan Freeman) before experiencing the Cyclorama, the nation’s largest oil painting. The students were amazed not only by the battlefield stories but by the painting itself. We then heard a guide speak on what it was like to be a Civil War soldier–he touched on some of the mental, physical, emotional, and social stresses and grief of being a soldier (pre-war, during battle, and post-war).
Back at the Lodge
After dinner, we gathered for our first group session and watched Part 1 of the film Gettysburg to prepare us for our tour of the battlefields. We had a great discussion processing not only what we learned today but also unpacking what seemed to be racial biases of the Visitors Center presenter. I was able to encourage the students to not just repeat facts learned but to be critical thinkers—particularly when it comes to seeing things through others’ point of view. This was an eye-opening time for our Caucasian students as they got a small window into the world their African American friends experience.
Day 3 (Monday)
Today was our “outside” day, for we visited the locations of the three days of fighting (July 1-3, 1863) during the Battle of Gettysburg. We envisioned what it was like to be a soldier in the exact surroundings, as I explained the strategies that helped the Union defeat the Confederates. I explained how this was a pivotal battle which changed the momentum of the Civil War and led to the end of slavery.
From Culp’s Hill to Little Round Top to Pickett’s Charge—they learned how the decisions, actions, and character of a leader define the probability of success or failure—from Confederate Generals Lee and Longstreet to Union Officers Hancock, Meade, and Chamberlain. One of our African American students was deeply moved by the loss of life–sharing with the group “how amazing it was to think about the thousands of men who gave their lives so African Americans could be free.”
We particularly focused on Col. Joshua Chamberlain (a professor from Bowdoin College in Maine)—whose bravery and brilliant thinking allowed the 20th Maine to keep the Confederate army from outflanking the Union at Little Round Top.
Similar to last night, after dinner we had another group session where we focused on leadership and how leadership often calls for courage in the face of adversity—particularly the challenges they will face in high school, as they seek to stand for Christ and glorify God in all they do in their respective schools.
Day 4 (Tuesday)
We began our day debriefing Remember the Titans, a film many kids watched last night during free time–particularly the scene when the football players are at Gettysburg Cemetery reflecting on “how we are still fighting the same battles today.” The students are growing in their ability to be reflective in front of each other.
After a devotional, we viewed and discussed Pickett’s Charge in the film Gettysburg. (These movie scenes were filmed on the exact ground we walked yesterday!)
Gettysburg National Cemetery
We then left for the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where we read numerous tombstones of those who gave their lives. Lincoln’s idea of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” assumed a new meaning to our CLF students as they stood in the Gettysburg Cemetery, surrounded by markers of hundreds of soldiers, and took turns reciting lines from Lincoln’s 272-word speech.
We also discussed how the magnitude of devastation during this battle was not lost on Abraham Lincoln, as he memorialized the dead in his concluding words of the Gettysburg Address: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
After our time in the cemetery, we drove an hour and 30 minutes to Washington, DC. What a great introduction our students had to DC by starting at the Washington Monument–where we could all the major sites of the National Mall. We spent a fair amount of time at the World War II Memorial before heading to our first appointment at the Center of Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) with CNE Founder and Director, Bob Woodson. A MacArthur Genius Fellowship and Presidential Citizens Medal recipient, Mr. Woodson shared about the amazing impact the CNE is having in the inner cities of America—reclaiming lives and restoring communities in the name of Jesus Christ. A man of great faith in Christ, Mr. Woodson exudes humility even though he has advised various presidents and currently advises Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. The students were so blessed to dialogue with Mr. Woodson and hear his uncommon wisdom. He is doing amazing work in some of the schools across the country that many view hopeless.
We concluded our time that evening at the 4H Conference Center, as we debriefed the day.
Day 5 (Wednesday)
Our morning began at Starbucks in Union Station. We then went to the Russell Senate Office Building to participate in Missouri Mornings with Senator Roy Blunt. In addition to meeting the senator, we spoke at length with two of his interns. Both young men were engaging, inspiring, and treated our students so well. It was especially exciting to learn that one was from Ferguson and grew up in the neighborhood across the street from the First Baptist Church of Ferguson (where Central Christian School holds its spring musical every year!) These two young men took us to see the Senate floor and were teachers at heart, explaining and educating all along the way. They were going to give us a full tour of the Capital Building, but it was closed to visitors due to today’s visit from the Prime Minister of India. (We returned to complete the tour on Friday.)
From Senator Blunt’s team, we met with U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black. He was a highlight for many of the students, for he was engaging, funny, deep, and relevant. Chaplain Black encouraged us to grow in wisdom, develop our physical bodies, grow spiritually, and grow socially. He was a man of great wisdom and was very motivational. Attributing his Christian education to changing his life and preparing him for his future roles in the Navy and D.C., Chaplain Black shared his amazing personal testimony of being born in the poorest neighborhood in Baltimore to rising to his current position today.
After eating lunch in the Rayburn Building, we made our way to Congressman William Lacy Clay’s office, who represents several areas of the St. Louis region. He was warm and candid, and we were grateful for his hospitality. He was accompanied by three young interns who stayed and conversed with us a bit when Rep. Clay had to go and vote.
After a visit to the Supreme Court, we headed to the Heritage Foundation. Tim Goeglein, the chief lobbyist for Focus on the Family, wonderfully engaged our students on how to live as a Christian in today’s tough political climate.
We had our evening gathering at Fourth Presbyterian Church, and after processing all of today’s conversations with leaders, we challenged the students to stand up for their faith even when their peers disagree with them.
Day 6 (Thursday)
We began our day at the Newseum. Most of our time was spent at the 9/11 exhibit, the Berlin Wall exhibit, and a private class about the Civil Rights Movement.
From the Newseum we headed to Fox News studios, where Shannon Bream was our host. Mrs. Bream is their Supreme Court reporter and also an anchor on the weekends. She is a strong Christian and engaged our students with candor and intentionality. She emphasized the importance of humility and praying against an ego. A surprise treat at Fox News was being INSIDE the studio while Cal Thomas was being interviewed live about his recent challenging interview with Donald Trump!
I had arranged for Cal to speak to us this afternoon, and it was amazing to experience his live interview two hours prior to talking with him! The LORD works in mysterious ways! Cal emphasized humility, as well, encouraging our students to avoid arrogance by seeking advice from those who have gone before us.
Both Shannon and Cal shared personal struggles in their careers and the reality of God’s hand leading and directing their paths and using their gifts and talents for His glory!
That afternoon, CLF students visited the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the MLK, Jr. Memorial consecutively—pondering the biblical truth these leaders struggled to realize: the ideal that we are all image-bearers of God.
CLF students stood on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded the nation that it still did not offer full freedom to all citizens. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King declared, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up [and] live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
A highlight at the MLK Memorial was meeting Sarah Moore. The cousin of one of our students, she works as the Head of Development for Americans for Prosperity and oversees a team of 35 people at the age of 27. She gave us practical advice about leadership, encouraging our students to have humility (again!) and to live grateful lives. Sarah is a strong Christian, too, and spoke about how her faith shapes her work in DC.
After dinner, we met with Dede Winkfield, a good friend and former teacher at Fourth Presbyterian School. Dede’s family was very close to Dr. Martin Luther King’s family, for her mom was Dr. King’s assistant. Her mother oversaw his press relations, as well. Dede spoke for over an hour about growing up during the Civil Rights Movement and her personal memories of Dr. King. Their family traveled with the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, as they went from town to town with Dr. King. One of the most fascinating stories Dede shared was how Dr. King interacted with the leaders’ children–singing songs and reading Bible stories with them before bedtime. She recollected sitting in his lap some evenings, as he would read to the children. It was a side of Dr. King none of our group knew about. Her time with our students was invaluable, and we are so grateful for her honesty and vulnerability.
Day 7 (Friday)
We began our day with Congressman Robert Aderholt from Alabama. He cared so well for us (considering we were a group from Missouri and not Alabama.) Congressman Aderholt took us down to the House floor and allowed us to sit in the seats typically occupied by his colleagues. When our students arrived on the floor of the House chamber, they were surprised to see the national motto “In God We Trust” in gold letters above the Speaker’s chair (not something you see during the State of the Union Address). Furthermore, they viewed a marble relief of Moses hanging opposite the Speaker’s chair—the only full-face portrait of historical lawgivers found on the walls of the House chamber. Finally, our students learned that the House and Senate have chaplains—both of whom open each session in prayer!
After the Capitol, we met former Fourth Presbyterian School history teacher and friend, Susan Scola, at the National Gallery. She gave us a Race & History Tour, and engaged the students amazingly—concluding with the Shaw Memorial, which memorializes the 54th Massachusetts (the all-black regiment featured in the movie Glory!)
That afternoon, we returned to the Newseum and attended a 4D movie depicting important events throughout history and how the press reported them.
We also walked to the White House and later dined at one of Bobby Flay’s restaurants (Flay is a Food Network icon). Back at the 4H Conference Center, we debriefed the week together, and everyone shared 1) their favorite place visited and 2) their favorite person to meet this past week.
Day 8 (Saturday)
We boarded the bus and made the long journey home to St. Louis a fully bonded group.
What a blessing to see our students come together so well! I pray that the CLF Class of 2016 will long remember the deep faith, courage, and leadership they witnessed—both past and present—on this journey. My prayer is that God will continue to use the moments and revelations from this trip—reinforcing St. Paul’s challenge to the church of Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For as they apply this truth as image-bearers of God, they will be equipped to engage their generation for Jesus Christ.