In a 1991 sermon, Patrick O’Neill referenced a pilgrimage experience with the Maasai tribe, straddling the border of Tanzania and Kenya, whom he observed greeting one another not simply with “Hello” or “How are you?” but with the poignant question, “How are the children?” O’Neill wondered how our lives might be different if that question was repeated throughout our days.
The question has repeated in my ears in recent days. In part it’s due to my frequent visits recently to Women’s Hospital, where the babies are born in our home city of Greensboro, N.C. In the last week our church family has welcomed four babies. One of those babies was my infant daughter. In the hours leading up to our daughter’s birth, my wife, Jenny, was encouraged to walk the halls, and in the midst of a half-hour stroll we decided to sneak from labor & delivery over to maternity. With active labor not yet begun and Jenny in full hospital garb, we dropped in to meet two babies born to friends from our wider church as we waited to meet our own daughter.
As these beloved ones move from one safe space into the other place of nurture we hope to provide for them as their church community, the urgent question is “How are the children?”
Traci Blackmon, executive minister of justice and witness with the United Church of Christ, recently posed this question in reference to the children of her church, Christ The King United Church of Christ near Ferguson, Mo., where Blackmon is a beloved local pastor and a vital national leader for racial equity and justice. In worship on a recent Sunday, she read the anonymous prayers of the children of Christ The King: “Healing for loved ones … safety for families … for the killing to stop … for promotions for parents … for healing for themselves … for food and shelter for the homeless.” Blackmon reflected: “There were no prayers for new toys. Or new games. Or puppies. Or fun times. Or good grades. Or any of the things I wish were their greatest concerns, because they are babies.” She went on to ask, “And how are the children?” Her answer: “The children … our children … are not well.”
Many of us would share her conclusion. I heard it recently in the words of one mother in our church, who shared how her school-age daughter recently spoke from the back of the car, “Mama, what’s wrong with our world?” It’s in the questions of expectant or new parents who in the midst of our bliss wonder what kind of world into which our children are being born.
But ministers keep visiting the hospitals and praying over newborns. Churches keep asking how our children can know more fully the love of God and the stories of Jesus. Communities of faith keep dedicating babies, with the commitment to help them grow into the person God has created them to be. Small though it seems, it might be as vital as anything we do right now in the name of the one who said, “Let the children come to me.”
As Jesus famously welcomes the children in Mark chapter 9, sometimes we picture him cradling a swaddled newborn or bouncing a toddler on his lap to soften the hearts of those around him. But beyond our sentimental conceptions of the scene, he was proclaiming something radical in this welcome. The defining characteristic of children for most first-century listeners was not that they were adorable. A defining characteristic was that they were vulnerable — perhaps among the most vulnerable populations in their society. When Jesus says welcome the children, it is a call to consider our relationship to all of those who are at risk.
Amidst the injustice that surrounds and overwhelms, with all of the wrenching questions and heartbreaking prayers and pressing violence, is there anything more important for a church to do than to ensure that the children are well and welcome? Our welcome of them is a barometer for our ability to welcome any who are most vulnerable in this world. If we can ensure it for the children, then we might even become a community where all can grow into the people God has called and created us to be. When we welcome children we are offering more than prayers and vows. We are committing ourselves to use the voices that pray for them to also proclaim the good news for those who are poor and oppressed. We are vowing to use the hands that bless them to also work to be a place where all are safe and known as the beloved of God. We are aligning ourselves with the one who said the kingdom belongs to such as these — the kingdom belongs to those to whom the world says nothing belongs.
In weeks to come, our infant daughter, Bea, and all her peers will begin to know the welcome of their church. It reminds me of the time, two weeks after the birth of our oldest son, Jack, when we took him to meet his church family at Metro Baptist Church in New York. He was the second baby born that year in Metro’s own version of a “baby boom.” As we entered the sanctuary, Deacon Brown received us with open arms and insisted on carrying the stroller up the stairs (as he would do every Sunday from that time on). Others surrounded Jack as we came inside, touching his hands and feet. And as we walked into the sanctuary, we saw a rocking chair in the back. The chair had been purchased and put together without notice by a dear friend in that church, and it held a sign that said, “Welcome, Jack. We’re so glad you’re here.”
These days, it might be the most important thing we can do. For as Jesus tells us, if we can welcome the children and see them as he does, then we might have a chance to welcome him, the one who sent him, and the kingdom that belongs to such as these.