For All God’s Children
Amos Galatians 3:26
“For in Christ Jesus you are all the children of God through faith”
Something I’d like each of you to try tonight, tomorrow night. For one of your kids, your grandchildren, a niece or nephew, a kid that lives around the corner that you know well. I want you to hold your hands on their face, look right in their eyes, and tell them, “You are a child of God”. I want you to write down what happens and shoot me a note about it.
I read a piece from a leading expert on child development that said that grandparents don’t need to give big gifts. [Good news for me since I don’t have any big gifts to give]The most important gift that they can give the ones they love is the deep knowledge that they are known. That you get them. You understand what makes them tick. You can help them grow. Isn’t that what Jesus wanted us to learn? We have that power, not just as grandparents, as people that can release this deeper power of love.
And that is what we do on our better days. We care for those in our charge, those around us. The Spirit, following after Jesus, invites us and cajoles us to extend that sense of care farther than we would normally imagine it. And, as we do, the world becomes more just and oriented towards peace.
I was thinking about that lately, reading several books on our persistent blighted neighborhoods and the schools in those neighborhoods that have been trying analyze how we can turn our failing schools around. That first generation of charter schools was led by a bunch of idealistic Ivy leaguers which turned out to be quite providential because, when they got in over their head, they called in their Professors to do some studies to analyze the symptoms that they were seeing- by the way, a good use of federal funding.
Long story short, the academics have been able to look at the multiple stresses that kids in these neighborhoods live with and these stressors comes on a bunch of different levels. And what they could document is that if kids operate routinely under too much stress, the part of our brain that engages in rational reflection, long-term planning, and delayed gratification is not able to operate effectively. Your brains attention is absorbed in dealing with the stress.
So when we started comparing the inner city test scores with kids in the suburbs (back in the sixties), no one was particularly surprised that suburban kids did better. It confirmed what we presumed namely that a combination of genes and virtues favored the suburban kids. [Social psychologists call that ‘Confirmation Bias’] But when this gap persisted another couple decades, we dug a little deeper. No one had really thought about the obvious, that maybe the biggest difference in objective test scores is actually stress.
Precarious economic situations from chronic unemployment and chronic underemployment, introjected anger in drug abuse throughout different members of the extended family and the neighbors too, single parent families with parents overwhelmed and not able to be a consistent source of stability and nurture, living around persistent threats of violence where you think you are going to die or someone you know really well does die.
Turns out when you have two or more factors off a list of 12 or so sources of stress, we can measure that you can’t focus consistently, it is harder to pay attention, harder to regulate your anger and negative emotions, harder to perform rational tests, etc..
What if the biggest issue separating our urban kids from our suburban kid is actually stress? We hadn’t thought about that-- unless of course, you talked to any teacher in any failing school district in any city in our country.
One of these charter school educators had boys that were getting into fights, multiple fights over time, and they wanted to study and see if they isolate a couple of common denominators that they could work on. When they actually sat the boys down and asked them what was going on, what they found was a boiling subterranean rage at not having a father and that rage got tapped with nearly each and every encounter with an authority figure or with some kind of structure being imposed upon them.
Oh, yeah, right! Why didn’t we think of that? Yale confirmed what every coach at every Catholic High School in metropolitan New York could have told them.
When I asked Father Ed at St. Benedict’s in Newark why sports were so stressed at their school. He said, “Are you kidding? This is where the character lessons are learned. This is where the positive mentoring fills that gap of no fathers or negative male role models.”
And we know that is hard to turn around that kind of anger in boys, even when you have a lot of love… But you can. One thing our researchers discovered is that most of the detrimental stressors that surround our kids in the ghetto can be substantively diminished with the stability and love of one parent and/or the stability and love shown by someone else in the family, or by outside mentors.
I know that. Many of you know that. You’ve adopted kids. You’ve had foster children. You’ve blended your family with a spouse that had a difficult or dysfunctional relationship in the past.
It got me to remembering with gratitude when we our foster-children were little. The oldest, Gio, had a lot of anger and he had trouble controlling his anger. I got a call from one of the teachers at Franklin school about a fight on the playground.
Good thing because it gave us a chance to have a sit down with the teacher and the Principal with my wife who is a teacher too. We told them, “look, we don’t know a whole lot about our kids but they lived in an abandoned bus in Elizabeth before they came to us. They’d been evicted several times prior to that. Their parents were actually married but they were heroin addicts and we have reason to believe that they were neglected, as in practically abandoned. And these are the symptoms we’ve seen. These are the issues that we are working on at home. These are the academic challenges we anticipate.
The teacher and the principal were really wonderful. They made careful notes, brought in some extra resources and went out of their way to try to heal Gio as best they could. And I remember so many of you all too, going out of your way perhaps to invite him over for a play date. Bev York, God bless her, came over a couple days a week to work with him as a retired special ed teacher. Some of you coached him and went the extra mile to help him overcome his past and be models or mentors for him.
And I wish I could tell you today that he is grown and will probably run for the Senate but life is a lot more complicated than that. He is a grown man today, still growing and healing, but he is still hobbled by his past. He has issues that he will struggle with for his whole life, even surrounded by the love of family and an extended family of support, strength and stability.
Love is a powerful healing force. It doesn’t cure everything but it does provide healing and growth every step of the way. It is a beautiful thing and I want to thank you for it. I am very grateful.
But that extra helping hand in love is not what happens if you stay in the hood. Looking back, the research suggests that we as a society probably made a bad situation worse.
Our school systems in the hood are overwhelmed. So if you bring a boy in a fight to the Principal and you include the teacher, they aren’t going to give you their undivided attention about this child’s special needs. Three quarters of their class has a similar story. And they have too many other boys to keep their eye on, who have trouble with anger management, inability to follow rules, inability to focus, difficulty with authority figures.
They don’t often get a church that reaches out to provide some loving support. So too many of the boys drift towards the closest thing that the hood has to offer, affiliation with a gang, mentors that are really just blind older boys leading blind younger boys. For the most part, they are unable to escape the tragic consequences of behaviors and attitudes that are self-destructive with no idea how to break the cycle.
In a few short years these boys become big, as crazy as teenagers anywhere, with less supervision, getting into more trouble. By now- and I’m zooming out here to think about the wider society- we don’t look at them as disadvantaged kids that need to be love. We view them as potential perps that need to be contained. Instead of mentors, we sent in more cops. It is not the way of love, it is about limiting a threat.
And they have made arrests. I don’t know if you saw the article in the Atlantic Monthly about a year ago but some reporter decided to track all of the prisoners in New York City by their home address. Something like 35% of all the men in jail in our fair city come from like 5 zip codes.
You may not know this but New Jersey is the 9th in the country for most segregated school systems. [That study measures black school districts that have less than 10% white students. We have a lot of predominately white school districts with a few percentage points of black and Hispanic kids. But the predominately black school districts have actually become more concentrated with fewer and fewer whites]. I have to say that surprised me but not really because our segregation is pretty hard and fast economic- and that overlaps racially strongly.
For that same reason, the most segregated school system in our country, as it turns out? New York City. Straight economic segregation but in our fair city economic segregation has strong racial correlations.
So when we decided to get tough on crime (in the 70’s and 80’s) and we focused on our highest crime neighborhoods… And when we decided to get tough on drugs in particular, and we focused on our highest crime neighborhoods- what we did, without really thinking about it, was add a whole other layer of stress on families and children that were the most stressed in our region.
We didn’t mean that! We just wanted to get tough on drugs. But drug users are embedded in families. And one of the main reasons that we didn’t really think about this or pay attention to the human costs, was that we don’t go to those neighborhoods and don’t know anyone who is from there. Out of sight, out of mind. I’ve lived in New York’s suburbs pretty much since I was 15 and I had to look up a couple of those 5 zip codes where the 35% of our prisoners live. I’ve never been there.
We have to do better than this. We have to extend the same sense of care we would have for our own children, the same care we would show to the kids from our neighborhood, we have to extend that to the kids that are caught suffering more stress than children should have to know, even in the zip codes we don’t visit.
These children are not beyond the pale. There are ways we can support our families that are weak. We know that mentors and stable school environments supplement families and are demonstrably positive. These charter schools have discovered quite a few things that work. I’m quite sure that this whole area will be the focus of some solid research in the next decade or two and a number of creative solutions will present themselves.
Dr. King used to say that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And our challenge for Civil Rights in this era is for all of our children to genuinely feel that we are part of the community. Our challenge is for all of our children to feel included and understood. We don’t have to tolerate crime but we need to move beyond treating our blighted neighborhoods primarily as incubators for perps.
They are fractured families with over-stressed kids. The answer is not more Cops. The answer is more healing love and we know this in our own families.
So tonight, I want you to find one child and I want you to hold their wonderful little face in your hands. I want you to look them in the eye and tell them ‘you are a child of God’. And as you do, as you see that face beam with acceptance, imagine that same beam in all the different beautiful ethnic smiles that God has created on our planet. And say a prayer that all of them will feel the blessing that you would give them. God loves you. You are a child of God. Amen.