Follow the gripping story of a young girl taken from her home and placed into foster care.
How to talk with our children about homelessness.
In my Santa Barbara, California neighborhood, which we sometimes call “Leave it to Beaver Land” for its seeming serenity and peace, a new practice has become evident: Children no longer walk alone to our neighborhood elementary school. Every morning, a parade of mothers and fathers accompany their children the short distance to school, dogs in tow and cellphones in hand. It looks like the practice of safety, but it’s also the practice of fear. You just never know. It could happen anywhere. It could happen here.
These parents know about something we call “school incidents.” They know the statistics about the number of American children that are shot, stabbed, and killed in our schools each year. Like the rest of us, they know about the big ones, from Columbine to Newtown to Chicago to Pittsburgh, and they know there are so many more stories that never make it to CNN.
The soundtrack for the story of childhood in America reverberates with gunfire and the sobs of stunned classmates and grieving parents. It’s the soundtrack of fear.
Fear is our newest neighbor, even in sunny “Leave it to Beaver Land.”
Despite progress in defeating extreme global poverty, most Americans see no end in sight, according to a survey sponsored by Compassion International.
Christians who attend church at least monthly and consider religion very important in their life overwhelmingly (96 percent) expressed concern about the world’s poorest people. But they were skeptical that global poverty could be ended in the next 25 years. Only 41 percent of the group said it was possible.
And yet Scott Todd of Compassion International, the Christian nonprofit agency that sponsors 1.5 million children abroad, remains upbeat. He sees hope in the numbers of “practicing Christians” who express concern about poverty and a willingness to do more.
I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: "Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old.
I became a mom for the first time in November. Insert here all of the cliché observances about life-changing experiences and never knowing love before and having a better understanding of God and whatnot. Of course, they’re all true, but so are most clichés.
There are also things no one tells you, instead using above clichés to paper over the less desirable realities of parenthood. No one told me about that feeling — the feeling that the word “overwhelming” doesn’t even begin to describe. No one told me that feeling that makes you weep inconsolably and go off the rails at the thought of leaving the house is actually what it means to love your child. That size of love is truly overwhelming.
While I was pregnant, I tried really hard to avoid all of the parenting books — how to raise well-behaved children, the countless “methods” for getting your child to sleep, how to master breastfeeding (“the most natural thing in the world!” ugh, wrong) — in favor of being a “go-with-the-flow” type parent. In fact, the only book I really read and still lives in a stack by my nightstand is The Sh!t No One Tells You: A Guide to Surviving Your Baby’s First Year.
And being the future mother of a girl, I had grand ideas about “protecting” her from human-made gender norms. I ordered the “Forget Princess; Call Me President” onesie. I shunned head-to-toe pink (for about a week). I created a collage wall in her nursery of black-and-white photos of all of the badass women in her family she has to look up to.
And then this week I caught myself doing something that has the potential to harm my daughter more than being drenched in pink and purple for the next 18 years ever could.
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Joy Carroll Wallis' chapter of the book Faith Forward: A Dialogue on Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity.
“Offering your child to God is a way of offering yourself to God again, and it felt that way to me. For the religious and not, there is a powerful spirituality in the birth of a child. Already, we’re learning a little about the unconditional love of God for us in the way we feel about our own child. Through one of the most universal human experiences, parent after parent is taught the lessons of love and life. And all is grace.” – Jim Wallis, following the birth of his son, Luke
Jim and I grew up in Christian families, which brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. My father was a clergyman in the Church of England in the inner city of South London. Jim’s parents were the founders and leaders of a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Detroit. We both rebelled and returned and our stories are well documented in the books we have written.
One of the best gifts that we experienced as the children of Christian leaders was that of an open home. Exposure to family, and friends from many different cultures and walks of life helped shape us. But, more importantly, it allowed us to grow up participating in the ministry of hospitality – and that has stuck. The Wallis home is known to be an “open house.” Our guest room belongs to many people: from a professor teaching a course in town, to a church leader participating in a fellowship program or conference; from a patient recovering from major surgery or illness, to a summer intern visiting from a far-flung part of the world. To add to this, the basement and boys’ rooms are often filled with teenagers or most of a baseball team, and our dining table is full to capacity on a regular basis.
One day when just the members of our family were sitting down to eat dinner, Jim asked who would like to say grace. Jack, who was about four at the time, looked around and said, “But we don’t have enough people!”
We don’t give children enough credit. They are infinitely smarter than we think. Children figure out things that most adults have trouble comprehending. I truly believe that my daughter came out of the womb knowing how to operate an iPad. She gets that finger swiping and she can navigate the world of apps and photos with more precision and understanding that people 20 times her age.
In the Gospel of Mark, we find these words of Jesus: “ I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15--Common English Bible). This verse is referenced when someone speaks that followers of Christ should have “faith like a child.” Generally, this is defined as “simple faith” or “faith without question.” This, however, is a misguided understanding.
Despite all the modern conveniences of the 21st century, our information-saturated culture, an exhaustive supply of self-help books, and giant advances in medical technology, doesn’t it seem like our society is more stressed, our anxiety higher, and more of our kids prescribed behavior modification drugs?
What if one of the reasons for our strung-out culture was the social, emotional, mental, and physiological outworking of the effects of poverty?
In the latest release of the Shriver Report, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of the California Pacific Medical Center’s Bayview Child Health Center, has found through medical research and experiences of her patients that the stress of poverty can be manifested in alarming behaviors and predispositions.
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams / Social Music by Jon Batiste and Stay Human / What Do We Tell the Children: Talking to Kids About Death and Dying by Joseph M. Primo / The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church by Phyllis Tickle and John M. Sweeney
Kabul, Afghanistan, is “home” to hundreds of thousands of children who have no home. Many of them live in squalid refugee camps with families that have been displaced by violence and war. Bereft of any income in a city already burdened by high rates of unemployment, families struggle to survive without adequate shelter, clothing, food, or fuel. Winter is especially hard for refugee families. Survival sometimes means sending their children to work on the streets, as vendors, where they often become vulnerable to well-organized gangs that lure them into drug and other criminal rings.
Last year, the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), young Afghans who host me and other internationals when we visit Kabul, began a program to help street children enroll in schools. The volunteers befriend small groups of children, get to know the children’s families and circumstances, and then reach agreements with the families that if the children are allowed to attend school and reduce their working hours on the streets, the APVs will compensate the families, supplying them with oil and rice. Next, the APVs buy warm clothes for each child and invite them to attend regular classes at the APV home to learn the alphabet and math.
Yesterday, Abdulhai and Hakim met a young boy, Safar, age 13, who was working as a boot polisher on a street near the APV home. Abdulhai asked to shake Safar’s hand, but the child refused. Understandably, Safar may have feared Abdulhai. But when Abdulhai and Hakim told Safar there were foreigners at the APV office who were keen to help, he followed them into our yard.
Let us remember all the poor babies and children who struggle to live and realize their God given potential in our own rich land and all around the world today. And commit to act to assure hope and justice for them all.
O God of the children of Somalia, Sudan, and Syria, of South Africa and South Carolina,
Of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of India, Iraq, Iran, and Israel
Of the Congo and Chicago, of Darfur and Detroit
Of Myanmar and Mississippi and Louisiana and Yemen
Help us to love and respect and protect them all.
April 15, 2013 — it wasn’t tax day that got my attention. It was during my lunch break, in the teacher’s lounge that I first heard of the explosions in Boston. My heart sank. I knew our son, who attends college in nearby Cambridge, was planning to visit the finish line with some of his friends to enjoy watching and cheering on the runners. One of his dreams, to run among them, postponed for a future year when more hours and more miles of practice were available. They had explored much of the course the day prior and especially wanted to see the élite runners cross the finish.
Amid the unfolding awfulness of that day I felt a tinge of guilt as we breathed a sigh of relief at news of his safety. Safe by two blocks and two hours owing mostly to large crowds that had kept him out of close proximity and a study ethic that sent all four of them back to class prior to the 2:49 p.m. calamity. Over the next couple days in my mind, I toggled between distraction and dread as I tried to go about the normality of life while asking God both “why?” and “why not?” questions.
It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve decided to relax about him. I refuse to beat myself up over his presence anymore. He’s okay. I mean, don’t get me wrong — he’s annoying and I have concerns. And I know that many of my fellow parents will disagree, and that’s okay. This makes me cringe, but that little Elf on the Shelf can stay.
After some debate, my wife bought the Elf on the Shelf in 2010. If you aren’t familiar with the Elf on the Shelf myth, it goes something like this: Apparently Santa is incapable of knowing if children have been bad or good on his own, so Dec. 1 to Dec. 24 that Jolly Old Elf sends his little elves to houses to spy on boys and girls. Their job is to check to see if children are being naughty or nice. So, each morning before anyone is awake, our Elf flies in from the North Pole and hides in a different spot in our house. When our children wake up — noticeably earlier in December than any other month — they look for him. Yup, it’s hide-and-seek every morning with the Elf. Then, the National Security Agency Elf spies on our children throughout the day. When our children fall asleep at night, the Elf flies back to the North Pole to provide Santa with a report on how our children have behaved. Then the Elf promptly flies back to our house, hides in a new place, and the morning hide and seek ritual begins again.
Truth be told, my children love it. They. Love. It. They can’t wait to wake up in the morning and search for that little Elf.
The rhythm of the skies and seasons — the rhythm of the church year — both are ancient interlocking symphonies of light that call us to watchfulness and mindfulness. A small light can illumine vast spaces and dark corners of our selves. A light can reveal new aspects to things we thought we knew about our world. And, the light of knowledge can change perceptions about things we thought we understood.
As you read these words, there are tens of thousands of homeless children (perhaps more) on the streets in the United States. Reliable numbers are hard to find, because these children for the most part are invisible. You would probably not notice them if you saw them. Nevertheless, from law enforcement and other government reports, hotline statistics, and the experience of agencies such as youth outreach ministries, we know that homeless, runaway (or “thrown away”) children are part of our communities — eating at McDonald’s, riding the subways and buses, hanging out at the mall, talking on cellphones, and sitting in the park. What we don’t often see about their lives is that, as homeless youth, they are always vulnerable to the worst kinds of danger — from inadequate shelter, to sickness, to malnutrition, to physical violence, to terrible sexual exploitation.