This week, I’ve been blessed to participate in the 2016 Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference for Child Advocacy hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, TN. As a seminarian, I joined with over 60 other students from seminaries and divinity schools all over the country to read, study, think, discuss and share together about race and racial justice in the United States of America; ministry with marginalized communities, particularly folks of color; prophetic preaching; economic justice; and advocacy for children who are consistently overlooked and shut out of a prosperous future in our nation.
On the first day, Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner asked the seminarians the “EMT Questions” that have since framed my week:
- What is your name?
- Do you know where you are?
- Do you know what time it is?
- Do you know what just happened?
And though none of us seminarians was lying on the floor after suffering a medical emergency, we have been working together to process what just happened, a certain type of heart attack that has gripped our country for the past two weeks.
No, the past two years.
No, the past two hundred years.
The books that primed me for the conference, including Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas; Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Prophetic Tasks by Dr. Walter Brueggemann; Cut Dead But Still Alive by Dr. Gregory Ellison; The Third Reconstruction by Rev. William Barber; and Faith and Ferguson by Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, each prepared me to think about the construction of modern USAmerican society by bringing up pieces of this country’s history that may seem coincidental or of no consequence, but that are actually each a part of the myth of American exceptionalism that we continue to spoon feed each other.
Basically, the USAmerican society was built on the backs of enslaved people of color, who were seen as less-than due to the creation of specific theologies and hierarchies that value people by the color of their complexion, and is sustained through the exercise of commerce that to this day commodifies non-white, non-male bodies (the descendants of those enslaved peoples) in various kinds of labor that do not receive just compensation due to the glorification of profit. If you want to read more about this, I suggest reading Dr. Brown Douglas’ most recent text or this shorter article.
So entering into this week and these questions about things like Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, American individualism, white supremacy, unequal labor, and violence against black and brown bodies–another question entered into my consciousness, voiced by Rev. Dr. Lindner again:
How did I get here, to this place of ultimately questioning how USAmerican culture treats children?
How did I get here?
For me, it started with the children.
When I graduated from college, I started teaching gardening at a preschool. These preschoolers, with their small hands covered in dirt and picking through worms and juggling seeds for coneflower and cabbage and carrots, lift me up with their beautiful faces upturned in awe; with their questions and doubts; and with their sheer joy at observing their world, still so fresh when they are four years old.
But before that, I volleyed balloons on Easter morning at my college church with a three-year-old who cried, “Come play with me, friend!” while the congregation sang, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” Over my time in college, I got to know his family and his story and his struggles at school and his emotional patterns and the foods he likes to eat. After six years of playing “chopsticks” (a game played with two friends facing each other and bumping fingers together in math formations), I recently visited him at the church. He ran up to me and said, “Hi! I don’t remember your name, but we played together.” That meant the world to me. Yes, we played together. Yes, I’ll eat my picnic lunch with you. Your people are my people.
And even before that, I was in seventh grade and two older women who taught my preschool Sunday School classes asked me to be their assistant. I was twelve, wasn’t really interested in going to church because my dad didn’t go to church and mom taught Sunday school so I was kinda over it. I didn’t know really what “believing” meant, and I was bound up in this cycle of hearing evangelical voices in the dominant culture questioning whether I was “saved enough.” But then I started going to three-year-old Sunday school. I started doing crafts. I started reading the Bible stories (with all the different character voices). I started creating skits and leading songs and hugging children and playing the donkey entering Bethlehem or Jerusalem. I became invested in my church community through the children. And that spring of my seventh grade year, when I would get baptized by some holy sprinkling on Easter morning, I would realize that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing being a Christian.
But I thought about the children, and I thought, “Ok, Lord. Teach me. If the kids are here, I’m here.”
I’m still here, Lord. Help me learn more about how to love children better and stronger and with more truth. Help me learn how to see and respond to and reinforce the dignity of each child as a beautiful and unique creation of God, no matter their life situation or circumstance or experience. Help me learn to be an advocate for better education, better health care, better schools, better churches, for these little ones.
Isaiah 11 says, “A little child shall lead them.” And lead me, the children have. They led me to church. They led me to finding and fostering a family in my college years. They led me to a garden, to learning about the environment and where my food comes from. They led me to eating better and creating stronger community around the table. They led me to rediscover how to play. They led me to value my own sense of wonder.
If we let them, the children can lead us to imagining a way forward through this world that is so scary. You see, when children are young, they do not hate. They do not fear difference. They ask shameless questions and laugh when they are surprised or learn something new and they love with complete abandon. The children see that another world is possible, and they are willing to live in it before we tell them that they can’t. As bell hooks writes, “Most children are amazing critical thinkers before we silence them.” Let’s get out of the way, and let the children lead us.