(High school students march around the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago to denounce youth violence. Twenty-two Chicago Public Schools students have been killed since September, including 20 by gun violence. (Tribune photo by Tom Van Dyke / April 1, 2008)
In the last few weeks, school children in Chicago held a rally to call attention to the fact that twenty (22) students have been killed in the past school year alone. They carried signs reading “Don’t shoot. I want to grow up.” Did you see that?
This week, CNN published a story detailing how thousands of children in the United States are being sexually abused in juvenile detention and prisons. Children in the United States….did you hear that?
Today, a child in your own neighborhood –within your own range of sight — will be hurting and afraid to tell someone. There will be no parents around. There will be no trusted adults standing in the gap between them and a major mistake. Will you turn your face away from that?
Above the din of mindless cable television reporting on stuff that just does not matter and well beyond the noise of all the things that serve to distract us from really loving one another, seeing one another — beyond all of that there are these voices that we cannot ignore.
Children cry out by gang-banging, getting suspended, running away, cursing out adults, stealing. They cry out by withdrawing. They cry out by hurting themselves.
“Hurt people hurt people.”
We all are crying out in so many ways. These cries are evident in the statistics that shout the pathologies that are killing our communities. We get so worked up about the statistics, but we are doing nothing more about them wringing our hands in despair, blaming each other, blaming children….and while we are doing all of that, yet another generation falls away from us.
Adults are waging wars all across the world and children are the collateral damage. We are warring and children are dying in Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Mississippi, Florida, California, Bosnia, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Darfur, Palestine….and in our own neighborhoods. Even in our own families.
We are so busy warring, fighting and focused on our own adult navels that we don’t hear these voices.
I love the Dr. Seuss story, “Horton Hears a Who.” In this timeless and incredibly important little story, Horton teaches us that there are so many little souls who stand in danger every day because the big souls just don’t hear them, don’t see them, don’t recognize their person-hood. And as the big souls go on their merry way, living, sucking up life, warring with each other, the unseen and unheard suffer as collateral damage.
Today, take a moment to really listen to what is going on in this world. Open your eyes.
1. Tell the media that you don’t want anymore stories on mindless mess. No more stories about people’s sex lives. No more sensationalized accounts of adult obsessions. Demand to know what is going on in this world in the lives of children. The best way to judge a country is by how well it does by its children and its vulnerable populations. And no “the sky is falling reports” about how all young people are going to hell in a hand basket. They are not. Demand to know where young people are doing well. Demand to know the success stories.
2. Visit your local elected officials and ask them — “how are the children doing?” If their eyes are focused on children, then they will have to be creative about finding real solutions for housing, community violence, jobs creation, education, health…they will have to deal with the real issues of our lives. Tell them that you will be watching what they do to reduce the number of guns on our streets. And then, really watch them. For those who continue to do nothing, who cannot build bridges so that people come together to problem-solve, who cannot seem to focus on why they were elected — kick them out the next “go-round.”
3. Look around your church. Is it place of peace for children? Has your church learned how to advocate for funding for positive youth development programs in your community? Does your church speak out to support your local schools? Are young people welcomed? Is there a class offered on how to be a good parent?
4. Make your voice and your face known at the local police precinct. Enough said.
5. Talk to a young person. Really talk. Communication is a two way street, so when you have said what you want to say, close your mouth and listen. Listen to what children say and what they don’t say. And when they do share something with you, honor their courage and follow through on your word.
6. Educate yourself about the wars that are being fought all around the world. Figure out what the commonalities are. Open your eyes and see for yourself — in every case, we are losing a whole generation of children. In some places they are strapping bombs to their bodies. In other places, they are stepping on bombs as they play. Yet, still in other places, bombs are hurled at them as they sleep at night. The Chicago experience tells us that American youth obviously need a police escort just to go to school because our culture, in the words of Marian Wright Edelman has “a romance with guns.” But, mothers the world over know deeply that a bullet doesn’t love anybody. A bullet is no respecter of persons.
I don’t believe that adults just want to war and fight. Rather, I believe that adults just don’t know how to make peace anymore. We don’t know how to listen. Kurt Bestor wrote a most haunting song some years ago when he was in Yugoslavia. The Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians were killing each other, and beyond all of the violence Bestor searched the faces of children and saw terror. He saw children who just wanted to be children: to play across boundaries, to laugh…to grow up.
Listen: children still just want to be children. They just want to play across boundaries, to laugh and to grow up — in Yugoslavia, Newark, Darfur, New York, Afghanistan, Iraq, Your town, Your Family.
Is anybody searching their faces and listening but God?
The Prayers of the Children
by Kurt Bestor
Can you hear the prayer of the children
on bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room?
Empty eyes with no more tears to cry
turning heavenward toward the light.
Cryin‘ Jesus help me
to see the mornin‘ light of one more day,
but if I should die before I wake,
I pray my soul to take.
Can you feel the hearts of the children
aching for home, for something of their very own.
Reaching hands with nothing to hold onto
but hope for a better day, a better day.
Cryin‘ Jesus help me
to feel the love again in my own land,
but if unknown roads lead away from home,
give me loving arms, ‘way from harm.
Can you hear the voice of the children
softly pleading for silence in their shattered world?
Angry guns preach a gospel full of hate,
blood of the innocent on their hands.
Cryin‘ Jesus help me
to feel the sun again upon my face?
For when darkness clears, I know you’re near,
bringing peace again.
Can you hear the prayer of the children?
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Isaiah 43: 2
Who is “I”?
Passing through stormy waters, moving through rivers that threaten to overwhelm…walking through fire unscathed and facing down flames unconsumed: “I” promises that because of the presence of “I,” one will not be consumed.
Here is one thing I know from working and loving young people: there are times when they feel so alone. There is nothing you can do or say to mitigate the loneliness. You can’t understand how they feel because while you may have been 15 years old once, you are not 15 years old right now in their context.
Today, the father of little Nixzmary Brown was acquitted of second degree murder. Instead he was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter for fatally beating her as punishment.
Nixzmary deserved better.
And by that, I don’t mean that justice wasn’t served because the man who killed her was not convicted of second degree murder. No — justice wasn’t served because the community she lived in let her down. I don’t think anything that could be done to her killer now would be “justice.” Focusing on her killer now means nothing to Nixzmary, who didn’t live past her 7th birthday. Wanting the harshest sentence possible for her killer may make some adults feel better — like we are getting justice for Nixzmary.
But that’s not justice.
It means nothing to other little Nixzmary’s. Her father’s sentence of punishment will not be the thought in another abuser’s mind as he raises his hand to hurt his child. Whatever is done to Nixzmary’s killer will not deter another abusive and ill-equipped parent from killing their own child.
But a community determined to be mindful, watchful, open-eared and open-eyed, ready, and questioning may deter the next killing. A community determined to look children in the eyes, a community populated by people who know how to convey to children that “I am a trusted adult, and you can tell me if someone is hurting you” is the most dangerous community in the world — for abusers. That’s justice for Nixzmary.
No abuser wants to live in a community filled with people who have decided that they will embody “I” and walk with children against fire and storm.
No child abuser wants to face a community that decides it will not leave children to face by themselves the overwhelming flood of the fear of the very adults who, by virtue of blood, are supposed to protect them.
No abuser wants to face a community that decides for itself that the worst thing a child among them should ever have to experience is the inevitable, normal, occasional, adolescent loneliness that comes with the natural course of growing up healthy.
No killer or abuser wants to live among people who say to themselves, “we will never see the righteous forsaken, nor the seed of God begging bread..” as long as we have breath in our bodies…
God is present in the presence of God’s people. Being present for the children in your community is justice.