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“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, 'Truly I say to you, unless you become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:1-6
As the Faith Based Organizer for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA) — a citywide coalition of more than 300 member agencies and faith institutions — I have the privilege of working with a diverse group of faith leaders. Last spring we were thrust into an important struggle for childcare and after school funding led by the Campaign for Children (C4C), a citywide coalition of organizations advocating for childcare and after school funding. Some may wonder why clergy would be concerned about this issue, but for the clergy I work with, the reason is clear: budgets are moral documents, and what is funded reflects our values. Our clergy know that children are the greatest in God’s kingdom and our investment (or lack thereof) in them will have consequences for our future.
In New York City obtaining quality education is a serious struggle for parents of all classes. This struggle includes waiting lists that upper class parents place their unborn children on, intelligence test for 5 year olds, interviews and hustling from one open house to another. Finding childcare is a daunting task, especially for low-income parents. As a child in New York City I knew how important it was to not end up at my “zone school,” which are schools for children who could not get in anywhere else. Growing up in one of the 12 poorest communities in New York City, my zone schools were the worst. From junior high on I had to take buses and trains to get an education. The process of finding childcare is one of the clearest depictions of the greatest lie that controls New York City: “that some people are worth more than others” (NYFJ Faith Rooted Organizing Core Lie Exercise March 2011).
Many poor children are left behind in this process because their parents do not have the time and financial resources to undergo the arduous process of securing quality education for their children. When some high-income families pay up to $30,000 a year for early childhood education, how can poor or even middle-class families compete? They can’t, and this sets up a pipeline of inequality that leads many low-income children to prison (Children’s Defense Fund). Faith leaders in New York City know this inequality is a moral issue and that ALL children deserve a quality education. Ironically, last spring as the struggle for childcare and after school funding reached its apex, the struggle for a living wage reached its height as well. The two campaigns saw a natural connection because poor women of color were disproportionately affected by the proposed cuts to childcare and wage inequality. It appeared that these women were being hard pressed on all sides — but not crushed. I was inspired by witnessing mothers testify at rallies and march for their children. It should be noted that many of these mothers worked jobs with no paid time off so most of them were risking their livelihood to advocate. As faith leaders, how could we preach family values on Sunday and not stand with families on Monday? For us advocating about this issue was an exercise of faith, akin to prayer.
Clergy joined childcare providers, children, and parents at countless New York City Hall rallies, sent letters to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Deputy Mayor of Health & Human Services Linda I. Gibbs, attended a meeting with City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn’s senior finance staff, and recently traveled to our state capital to meet with Kristin Proud, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top human services staff person. I have personally seen legislators moved as faith leaders shared why childcare is a moral issue. The clergy I work with know that childcare and after school programs prepare children to compete academically, prevent crime by giving youth positive activities to do during the hours that youth crime is the highest, and stimulate the economy. Studies show that every $1 invested generates $1.86 and produces high returns for taxpayers — up to 12 percent on every $1 invested (Center for Children’s Initiatives).
As a result of this advocacy, all the threatened childcare and after school slots were restored, but sadly we will have to fight these cuts again this spring. New York City clergy are prepared to stand with children again because we know that this is our call. You may be thinking “I am not in New York so how does this issue affect me?" Childcare is threatened nationally, and if funding for social programs are cut on the national level, the cuts trickle down to states that then have to make difficult decisions like cutting childcare. If people of faith do not shepherd our youth who will? As the number of youth entering prisons increases (as a result of poverty) how can we build youth ministries inside the church walls while ignoring the youth behind prison walls? Jesus made it clear in the Gospel of Matthew that children are the greatest in the Kingdom and whoever causes one to stumble will face dire consequences. As faith leaders let’s expand youth ministry to include advocacy with and for youth, our faith demands it.
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Onleilove Alston is the Faith Based Organizing Associate for The Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies where she serves on the Sojourners National Mobilizing Circle and is a part of the Emerging Voices Project. She writes for Sojourners Magazine, Your Black World and other publications. Her blog is Wholeness4Love and she tweets at Wholeness4All.
Photo: Empty classroom, Arcady / Shutterstock.com