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Children’s Defense Fund’s leader draws from the Parable of the Sower to illuminate the agency’s work

The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson speaks at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson

LOUISVILLE — Channeling Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson resonates with her reasoning: “My theory of change,” she’d say, “is the Parable of the Sower.”

Wilson, the current president and CEO of the Cildren’s Defense Fund and its Action Council, spoke Wednesday at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., as part of its McClendon Scholar Program, using that very text found in Matthew’s gospel. Wilson, a United Church of Christ pastor, titled his talk, “Unleashing the Joy: Faith in Pursuit of Child Well-Being.”

Wilson opened his talk by honoring Edelman, who celebrated her 85th birthday last week, and the Rev. James Lawson Jr., the civil rights leader who died Monday at the age of 95. Wilson said Lawson “poured into young people and challenged faith leaders to stoke the fires of freedom’s faith.”

In the parable at hand, we can focus on the Sower or on the seed, Wilson said. The place where the seed is spread also plays a significant role. “I like focusing on the seed,” Wilson said. “The seed in this passage has the capacity to do what it does based on the setting in which it finds itself.”

All that seed reminds him of the 74 million Americans under the age of 18. At CDF, “we think something has been placed within the seed. That something is a certain joy. Children who are safe and secure will sing and dance. There is joy inside every child no matter where you find them,” he said.

Wilson spent part of Wednesday meeting with members of Congress. “Not everyone is focused on the seed,” he said. In the parable, birds eat up the seed that falls along the path. That seed, “without any protection or care or commitment to its ultimate rooting and grounding feels like young people 0-8 in America,” he said. “They are exposed to a nation that has decided not to invest in a system of care for young people under the age of 5.”

“Their seed of joy,” he said, “is lost on the path.”

There’s precious little soil on rocky ground. In the 1950s, 9 in 10 young people climbed into economic circumstances that exceeded that of their parents. Today it’s 4 in 10, Wilson noted. “There are fractures” in public education as well as the nation’s economy and political landscape. “It’s not enough when the sun shines a light on what’s really playing out,” he said. “They get scorched.”

Those seeds that get choked by the thorns “have the same potential, the same capacity for joy, the same ability to flourish” as the other seeds, he said. “The thickets have crept up differently in this economy.” Expanding the child tax credit in 2021 cut child poverty in half, he said, but those same numbers got much worse when the expansion went away. “Those are thorns,” he said.

“I’m glad there’s the good ground” in the parable, Wilson said. “Good soil allows for the seed to be the center of attention. The birds didn’t take the story and fly with it.” With the rocks, the sun takes center stage. Thorns crowd the seed out. But “here we see what the seed can do: produce grain. There is agency in those 74 million seeds of joy,” he said. “The seed became grain, which means something else — someone else — benefitted from the seed.”

“When we talk about good soil and the Children’s Defense Fund, we talk about just and caring communities — places where children play freely in parks, walk safely to bus stops, learn in schools and sanctuaries, with neighbors and public servants as guardians of their well-being,” he said. “It is tilling the soil by shaping policies, ordinances and laws that allow children to flourish, sing and dance, to create space for them to say what they need. It’s the silent work that allows for health and healing.”

Asked during a question-and-answer session about churches doing the work of advocacy despite the amount of work that can entail, Wilson said people need a church home and a political home, and churches need a political home as well, “an alignment with other people of faith.”

“You may have the intellect while the congregation across ths street has the energy. Make it a diverse network,” he suggested. “Push into a network diverse enough for you to have proximity to the issues your denomination calls you to.”

Wilson closed the evening by reading “We Pray for Children,” an Ina J. Hughes prayer that Edelman helped make famous.

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