Instead of the traditional vacation Bible school, this downtown church partnered with seven other congregations — black, white, Baptist, Jewish, Episcopal, Pentecostal, and nondenominational — to put on a community-organizing camp for kids aged 4 to 12.
I’ve never been more aware of my brokenness than in motherhood. Yes, I’m sinful and bent toward destruction (not unlike my toddler, it’s worth noting). But my brokenness also plays out in a general reality that I’m not quite in working order.
Like a tricycle with a wobbly wheel, I just can’t get the job done gracefully. I leave laundry in the washing machine for too long, I meal-plan for only three days out of the week, I forget to brush hair and wipe faces for picture day. It’s not graceful, but it is grace-full.
More than five million children in the U.S. have or have had a parent imprisoned. And the consequences can be devastating.
According to “A Shared Sentence,” a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence, and divorce.”
I love Saint Mark. I truly do. But if the apostles were in a line-up and we threw Mark in there with them, I wouldn’t be able to tell him from second Judas. Frankly I wouldn’t be able to identify half of them. At this point, some folks have likely paused to Google, “there were two Judases!?"
Two years after the abduction of nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants in northeast Nigeria, some parents are still hoping their daughters will one day be rescued. But some church leaders there are concerned that the authorities have not done enough to rescue the girls, who were ages 16 to 18 at the time of the kidnapping on April 14, 2014. About 50 of the girls escaped, but 219 remain missing.
ONE OF OUR articles this month encourages us to more intentionally incorporate the lives and wonders of children into our worship, which is a great idea, because if all the kids are in the sanctuary you don’t have to volunteer for child care.
But seriously, tapping the natural energy of the young would create a more holistic experience and open the door to a greater connection with the divine, assuming the divine has a short attention span and a constant runny nose and tends to giggle during silent reflection. Not to mention drawing pictures on the collection envelopes in the backs of pews. (If they don’t want children’s graffiti on those envelopes, they shouldn’t put them right next to those little yellow pencils, which the child invariably drops and, with cat-like speed, goes after it before the parent can grab him. A short time later, pencil in hand, the young one looks around under the pew but sees no familiar legs or shoes. He is lost, not unlike the sheep the preacher is at that moment talking about, the difference being that the parent now pulling the child backward by his feet is less the Good Shepherd of the New Testament and more the Vengeful God of the Old Testament who doesn’t give a crap about sheep. But I digress.)
A child-centric church is something I experienced firsthand growing up in the warm embrace of the Southern Baptist church. For me, Sunday was the best day of the week. There was no school, so no gym class with humiliating taunts from peers questioning my athleticism, no condescending teachers refusing to give credit for my book report on TV Guide (so much to watch, so little time, what with homework and all that).
Church was a place of safety and support, a time for the social outcasts of weekdays to finally feel appreciated and valued, particularly by the adults, who gladly drew us into the heart of the church, just as soon as they finished their cigarettes. (In those days, all have smoked and fallen short of the glory of God, although I think God cut you some slack if it was menthol.)
READERS OFTEN ASK US: How can I incorporate a hunger for justice into my child’s spiritual formation? How do we help the youngest members of the church understand the gospel’s call to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves? Sojourners asked five Christian parents engaged in various forms of justice work to share their best tips for helping children put their faith into action. Here’s what they said. - The Editors
1. Look for Teachable Moments
by Kate Ott
MANY PARENTS FEEL unprepared to talk about sex or faith with their children. I was one of those parents until I realized age-appropriate sexuality information could empower my children and keep them safe. I also realized that teaching my kids about sexuality meant more than talking about “sex.” After all, if I didn’t talk to my kids about how Christian values of love, justice, and mutuality guide the care of our bodies and our relationship choices, who would?
So rather than planning for a single “big talk” or waiting until I know all the answers, I practice parenting through teachable moments. For example, in our house we talk about how clothing choices and hygiene reflect our thankfulness for our bodies as part of God’s good creation (including remembering to brush teeth!). As a parent, when I take a picture of my kids, I ask them for permission before posting it on social media; this encourages thinking-before-posting and consent as an active yes. And when we’re watching TV or listening to a song in the car about attraction or a relationship, I ask questions like: How would you feel in that situation? Do you think that person values their body? Does that seem like a mutual decision/relationship? Is that kind of love balancing God, neighbor, and self? In the short conversation, I always say something like, “Being in a relationship takes a lot of work and requires communication, honesty, commitment, and mutuality.” This models how to use one’s values to assess relationship choices.
Last year, St. Lydia’s church in Brooklyn, N.Y., started a monthly service that lifts up children’s leadership and participation. They call it Waffle Church, and it’s messy on purpose. Olivia Whitener, an editorial assistant at Sojourners , interviewed Waffle Church minister Sarah McCaslin in January about the service that revolves around songs, stories, maple syrup, and the love of Jesus.
Sojourners: Why waffles?
Rev. Sarah McCaslin: Well, I prefer a savory brunch option, if given the choice. But “Omelet Church” just doesn’t have the same ring. The fact of the matter is: Who doesn’t love a waffle? They’re easy to make, they’re delicious. But the waffles aren’t as important as the idea of this meal we share around the table. It isn’t that we’re going to church and then will have waffles. When we sit around the table together and fellowship together, it’s an extension of communion.
What’s special about a Waffle Church service? The first time we did Waffle Church, I was standing at the table, and I do a rhetorical-question-style liturgy: “Look, we are gathered around this table, and we set it with our finest. This is not the Lutheran table, it’s not St. Lydia’s table, it’s not Waffle Church’s table. Whose table is this?” Then a 6-year-old shouts, “It’s the Lord’s table!” We couldn’t have planned it, and it was just amazing. Of course, now we have to do it because there’s always the kid who wants to shout “It’s the Lord’s table!” And so here’s a piece of the liturgy that has been fixed because the children will demand it. That kind of stuff is just happening all the time.
Are there ways other churches can incorporate a Waffle Church service into their ministries? I think it’s about creating a physical space that can accommodate the needs of children. The music is the other major piece of it. At St. Lydia’s, we adhere to the paperless-music singing tradition, where all of the songs are taught. So there’s no hymnal, no lyrics to be read—those things tend to privilege literacy. This way, children and adults can participate in the music each and every week.
DURING ALL THE Sunday mornings I spent in church as a child, I only cried once. After months of encouragement from my parents, I decided to go to our Catholic parish’s children’s liturgy (their version of Sunday school). I remember nothing else about that morning except that I stood in the corner crying while kind volunteers tried to calm me down with a few cookies. I never went to children’s liturgy again, and I’m thankful the experience didn’t leave me scarred for life, unable to eat another cookie.
My dislike of children’s liturgy wasn’t about what it was; it had to do with what it wasn’t. I grew up watching Mass unfold from the front pew, where I could be as close to the action as possible. Going to the basement meant that I had to give up the beauty, wonder, and fascination I experienced during church services.
It’s been more than 25 years since I lost my composure on that fateful Sunday, and my dissatisfaction with children’s liturgy is now echoed by ministers, Christian educators, and parents who realize the importance of including children in corporate worship. But as I see it, including children in corporate worship isn’t a matter of choice or changing trends; it’s a matter of justice.
“When your children ask you ...”
Practices for including children in worship are far from new. Children’s ministry leaders refer to Deuteronomy 6 so often that memorizing this passage might as well be a prerequisite for working with kids in churches! Many interpretations of this chapter focus on the first few verses—“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children ...”—and emphasize the importance of teaching God’s commandments to children in all times and places. Yet a crucial point in this text appears in verse 20, which begins, “When your children ask you ...”
Working out our salvation and instilling a life of faith in our children isn’t about executing rituals with precision. It isn’t about teaching them to pray eloquently, or to get them to obey without question. It isn’t to give them the letter of the law so they can judge the world with a heavy-handed measuring stick. It is to form and shape their identities into one oriented towards justice and beauty in our world. It is to open their eyes to the realities of oppression and suffering.
In a world where there isn’t enough stickers for everyone in the school, how can we invite the children into the struggle for equality? How do we teach that Jesus wants to give stickers to everyone? If it isn’t good news for everybody, it isn’t good news for anybody. How can we place sticker-sharing to such high priority that it becomes embedded in our children’s psyche, so that kindness is instinctual?
May our children then parallel secular peers in generosity and love. More importantly, may the children of our generation inspire us, the adults, toward greater mercies for the suffering. May love win, justice roll, and the moral arc bend toward the right direction, so we can hold witness to the transformation of communities for good.
In every moment, we are every age we have ever been, according to psychologist Carl Rogers. For me, this means our bodies are like a bus riding down the highway of life, and the passengers are who we have been at every age. As we travel through life, some things we see, hear, and experience evoke feelings of great joy, love, and calm — or trigger tremendous anxiety, pain, and fear — from different past experiences.
When children are treated like they are not important, told they not smart enough or good enough, valued more for their accomplishments than for the unique individuals they are, treated like they only have value if they have money, or abused emotionally, physically, or sexually, the impact of those feelings never goes away. Those feelings continue to ride on the bus.
Because the child within us never goes away, the impacts of childhood abuse and neglect are long-term unless there is meaningful intervention.
The phrase has captivated my imagination for some time now, as I seek joy in the midst of a world crying out in pain. In a nation of mass shootings and executions, in a world devastated by war crimes and the crime of war, where working for peace means learning the depths and pervasiveness of violence, despair threatens to seep in through the air I breathe. Hope often evades my grasp, and fear like a weight drags down my every movement.
But when I find myself in a morass of bitterness, my soul gets a jolt of energy from my laughing toddler, or the accidentally insightful comment from my precocious 6-year-old, or the warm hand of my husband on my shoulder. I savor the comfort of these gestures and let them lift me out of my cynicism. And as the tears clouding my vision disperse, I remind myself that joy, too, permeates the world and can be found by those with eyes to see it.
The Great War that engulfed Europe from 1914-1918 was a bitter disappointment for the peace movement. As the 19th century came to a close, the promise of progress that accompanied Darwin’s discovery of the evolution of life on earth seemed to put peace within our grasp. “Progress” was the popular byword and always meant a movement toward something better. It was the age of invention and industrialization. Human beings were overflowing with strategies to improve the lives of the poor, the uneducated, the working class, and the least and the last among us. The women’s rights movement was flourishing as well, and Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree (1896) was an outspoken and popular representative of the cause. But 1914 dashed all that hope.
Many are the disappointments in the world today, as well, if your goal is peace. We are witnessing the greatest number of people displaced by violence and war since the second Great War in Europe. Even so, much progress has also been made by movements advocating for the rights of groups excluded from privilege and power. Women, labor, the disabled, LGBTQ, the poor, and the sick have all witnessed their rights expand. And yet war continues. We are living in the best of times and the worst of times, it seems — a paradox that causes many of us to careen between hope and despair, unsure of how to move beyond the motion sickness.
Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The Crisis in the American Dream, laments the decline in social capital (how we are connected to others and care for them) with its devastating impact on poor children today. Past generations of poor children often had more opportunities because they benefited from connections with churches, teachers, coaches, and other mentors who supported them. Putnam, a respected Harvard sociologist, documents how too many children are missing these caring adults in their lives today. He offers "purple solutions" to the growing "opportunity gap" and poverty that includes support by all for public schools.
Many churches witness to their concern for school children with a "Blessing of the Backpacks" service. Some churches invite the children in the congregation to bring their own backpacks for a blessing before a new school year begins. This is a way to acknowledge that school is a common yet very important part of our children’s lives. Other churches collect school supplies for children in need, assemble the donated supplies in backpacks, and bring them to church for a blessing in worship.
The tune of the following new hymn is the same Gaelic melody used for "Morning Has Broken," and it seems appropriate to sing a joyful "morning" tune as children, parents, and teachers start to get up earlier in the mornings to head off to school.
Here’s the thing: I live in a country that is predominantly Buddhist. Here, little kids are taught to hold incense and kneel and bow at ancestor tablets and a variety of gods. Do you know how cute it is to see a little kid praying with pure devotion to a Buddhist god? It is JUST AS CUTE as the blonde headed little girl singing Jesus Loves Me.
A child’s faith is not a testimony of the power of God to evangelize them. It demonstrates how malleable and impressionable children are to the faith values exposed to them at a young age. Children must trust wholeheartedly in order to survive. Their dependence on adults undergirds their entire worldview. Like it or not, as parents we are entrusted with this enormous responsibility to build the structures of faith in which our children will inevitably live fully into, especially when they are little.
Because of this drastic inequality of power between adults and our dependent children, we must take tender care to wield our tremendous spiritual influence on them in a way that is respectful of their autonomy, that listens to their concerns, that empowers them to grow into wholeness, and to ultimately make their own faith choices. We must always be aware of the power differential even as we act as the portal through which they come to know God.
We think it's wrong for a woman, much less a mother, to be angry. And so when anger inevitably, righteously, hits us — with its cousin fatigue and its brother frustration — we don't know what to do except to bury it beneath a smile that gets thinner and weaker as the day winds on.
We all get angry, though. It is a function of being human, and I daresay without anger we would never have won women the right to vote, school desegregation, or any other host of advances that came about when people got righteously angry and unleashed the power of justice and the Holy Spirit.
So be angry when you are angry. The Bible says so. Do not be ashamed to say, in the moment, "This is not right. I'm angry."
What happens when the heart of God is broken?
What happens when, in spite of our best efforts, we are overcome by human frailty, we are assaulted by the reality of the sins of humankind, and it appears there is nothing we can do that will overcome the tragic pain of our fractured lives? Such are the questions that come upon us when we read of the tortured life of King David, the pain and agony of his personal sin, and the tragedy that befell the life of Absalom, his beloved son.
After five days in the hospital, filled with overwhelming joy, paralyzing fear, and complete exhaustion in the wake of the birth of our twins, I finally found a moment to walk outside the florescent lights and sit under the bright moon. Sitting on a small patch of grass outside the hospital doors, the reality of being a father to four kids finally hit me. I was both overwhelmed and overjoyed by the gift and responsibility of raising four kids in a world so desperately in need of mustard seeds of hope that one day blossom into healing and beauty.
So as I sit in relative comfort and begin to dream big dreams for my kids, I am struck by the reality that most fathers around the globe are forced to welcome their kids into a world where there is no "ladder" to climb because it has been knocked out from under them by broken systems that are breaking people. A world where many kids are born into families fleeing violent persecution and being nursed on the trauma of war in battered refugee camps — places where the thought of hope is a distant second to simply fighting to survive. A world where one’s value is more closely associated with gender (male) than with the beautiful uniqueness inherent in every new life.
But this is also a world pregnant with possibilities. A world where former enemies move beyond their past, share tables, and begin to imagine a future together. A world where the blossoms of new life begin to sprout in the shadowy corners of forgotten neighborhoods. A world where the diversity of God’s kingdom begins to awaken our eyes and hearts to the new world God is making.
It is in this world — a world both beautiful and broken — that I offer this prayer over my four kids.
There’s a photo he carries for long journeys
like this one, for trips on loaded market lorries
where the passengers take their seat, perching
on top of cargo, or sitting on crude benches
inside the buses coming from Sudan with names
like “Best of Luck” or “Mr. Good Looking.”