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Justice through a child’s eyes


We can equip our children to see the world as Jesus does

By Frances Wattman Rosenau | Presbyterians Today

We were walking back to the car after dropping off Christmas cards at the post office. My 7-year-old son skipped as he held my hand. Without changing his movement, he asked how much money I had in my purse. I told him I didn’t know and asked why. Down the street, a handful of children experiencing homelessness had set up a camp on the sidewalk. Mattresses, cardboard, shopping carts and belongings were pushed around chaotically 10 yards from our car.

“Please give me whatever money is in your purse, Mama,” my son said. “We have to give it to our friends on the street. They don’t have a debit card like we do.”

I hear a common narrative in our culture: The city is no place to raise a family. Often, families with children move to smaller towns or the suburbs to keep them away from whatever ills they perceive to be in cities.

I admit, raising my kids in urban Los Angeles is not easy, and I try to surround our children with the love, support and tools they need to see Jesus in an urban environment.

No matter where we live, though, we cannot isolate our children in a bubble or insulate them in a padded room. If the opioid crisis has taught us anything, it’s that harmful substances like drugs are rampant in rural America and suburbia as much as in the urban centers. We cannot protect our children through strategic geography. They will encounter the world. And what a blessing that God did not choose to stay distant from the world either, but rushes to be by our side.

As Christians, we have an opportunity to equip the children in our families and in our churches with eyes to see the world the way Jesus sees it. Instead of avoiding neighborhoods of poverty, we have an obligation to talk to children about systems of poverty, to help them see the larger picture in ways they can understand, and to creatively brainstorm with them loving ways to respond. We can embrace the invitation for children to live an intentional, justice-oriented life.

In fact, an orientation toward justice comes easily to many children. In his book “The Mystery of the Child,” Martin E. Marty observes that children often take Jesus’ teaching further than adults. Children, he writes, are “moved by love to live out the vocations to effect change, to embody justice and mercy.”

Spend any meaningful time with children and it becomes clear they understand what’s right and wrong. Day in and day out, they are discovering how the world works — and how the world is not fair. Many young people have an uncanny ability to cut right through the hypocrisy and smokescreen that adults create. They see clearly. Once they get it, they are overwhelmingly passionate and sometimes even indignant. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmentalist, and Emma González, an American advocate for gun control, are just two examples of determined youth today who hold firmly to the truth and speak passionately to people of all ages.

Harnessing a child’s sense of justice unleashes tremendous power for change in our world. Paoli Presbyterian Church in the outskirts of Philadelphia hosts a yearly Race for Refugees, raising money for World Vision’s work with Syrian refugees in camps throughout Lebanon and Jordan. One 8-year-old girl, Eleanor Bruner, was so moved and inspired, she decided to raise additional money to help refugee kids. She even wanted to go visit the camps, which led to a conversation about where Jesus is in the world and how our love connects to Jesus’ love even when we can’t be there in person. All in all, Eleanor’s passion issued a clarion call that raised $1,800.

We need the voice of children to help us remember what we have forgotten. Whether it’s during our regular errands to the post office or making a difference around the globe, children have more gifts for advocacy and justice work than many adults. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a role to play in creating a hunger for justice in our children.

In my family, I find opportunities to talk to my children about race, pointing out illustrations in children’s books that only have people of one skin color. When driving through different parts of town, we talk about income inequality and how God sees run-down neighborhoods. When we read stories about Jesus, I connect those stories to our community.

My part in raising justice-oriented children is to point them to Christ’s action in the world, and then get out of their way and follow where they lead us.

Frances Wattman Rosenau is the pastor of Culver City Presbyterian Church in greater Los Angeles.

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