One of the gifts of being a pastor is to share in the joy of children. In the life-cycle of our congregations we inevitably move through times with more children and times with fewer children. Wherever we are in that cycle, the congregation may be vital in its life and ministry. We need not fall into the trap of speaking of children as the future of the congregation; and thereby imply that a congregation with no children or few children at a particular time has no future. (It has been pointed out that in our mobile society, very few of those who grew up in a particular congregation are still in that congregation.) Children are certainly the future of the Church (universal) in the sense that the children nurtured in faith today will be among those who become Christ’s Church in the world.
Primarily, however, children are the present of the congregation and the wider Church. We are not waiting on them to grow up; to become something beyond who they are in this moment. Rather, we learn what it means to be human and what it means to be people of faith as we live with every child at every age with every ability.
When I was first called to this inner city congregation, 13 years ago, there was a very active group of children. Some were the children of families in the congregation, but most were children from the neighborhood whose parents did not attend church. The congregation needed to take on the responsibility for the nurture and care of these children who had no parental supervision while in church. I was awed by the willingness and the commitment of some very special adults who were deeply committed to being Church with all the kids — even when behavior was a challenge!
We developed a “Pew Partner” program in which we paired children with adults who would sit with them in worship, build relationships of trust and care over time. Years later we would see some of these ‘children’ (now grown up) come back and seek out those special adults who been their pew partners. Some of these, though not still active here, have come back for us to meet their young children.
There were adults who made sure that every child who could possibly go to Church Camp was able to go — even when the child’s family could not pay the usual half of the camp registration. Then there were those adults who made the commitment to go to Church Camp themselves; to be there because we knew that our kids from the inner city sometimes brought extra challenges to the camping environment.
In the midst of it all, I am convinced that we are the ones who were touched by love, transformed by God’s gift in each child. Especially I — who like things fairly ordered and in control — grew as a result of the relationship with each child. I’ll never forget the day that one little boy was serving as acolyte. It was the end of the service and he came forward to take the light out. Walking down the aisle with the lit candlelighter, he disappeared into the narthex. Soon there was smoke. Apparently — as described in a way that only he could put it — there was the fire and there was the stack of left over worship bulletins. Fire — worship bulletins. He just wanted to see if they would burn! The deacons did have the fire out by the time I got down the aisle.
Then there was the day I had call from a neighbor down the street. She wanted to know about our ‘collecting money in the neighborhood to pay the church bills!” (This is never a good start to a call from a church neighbor.) She proceeded to describe 3 boys who came to her door with offering boxes (a second really bad sign!) and told her that they were from our congregation and we needed help paying the bills. I, of course, assured her that we never collect money in that way, and that I would be getting back to her. I called a couple of church members who came and joined me in going door to door to do some damage control, and find out who all had been approached by our ‘creative little stewardship team.’
As the story unfolded we discovered that the kids had ‘borrowed’ a few offering boxes and decided to gather some spending money. By that evening their mom was taking them door to door to make their apologies and their restitution. Some interesting pastoral conversations were to follow in the days to come.
The children who remain fixed in my deepest memory are Jelissa (5), William (4), and Erica (4) who were killed in a tragic housefire. It was the horrible, sickening case of a slum-lord who had no alarms and had the back door blocked off. They could not escape. The image of Jelissa sitting with me during a choir practice just prior to that dreadful day, and of William throwing his arms up in the air in Church School in Easter morning, saying “He rose up!” And now these prescious children were just gone from our midst. As I reached the last of the three little caskets for the commendation in their funeral service, I truly did not know if I could speak the words a third time. I pray that I never again …
For a few years the congregation was in the place of having very few children. Now we seem to be beginning again. Just this past Sunday, 5 year old little girl came running up to show me her new shoes and the little hearts at the hem of her long pants. Only a few weeks ago, another 5 year old little girl who is autistic and does not speak, slipped her hand in mine for the first time. I was in awe of this gift of relationship. There are 3 boys at this time who serve as acolytes and who walk down the aisle with such reverence that the congregation is in awe. (And not one of them has set the bulletins on fire!)
In the past 5 months, we have welcomed the births of 4 babies. What a joy it is to bless these newborn gifts of God, and to explore the wonder of it (and the challenge) of it all with these new parents.
I am blessed. We are blessed. Thanks be to God.