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A Letter from the Associate Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

What Does This Have to do with That?
June 21, 2018

The headlines, of all types, have been dominated of late by the story of the separation of asylum seekers from their children. While this issue, like many things related to immigration policy and reform, comes with a historical context along with political and policy complexities, the outrage from across the faith spectrum continues to swell. As someone who has always appreciated "the rest of the story" especially in today's tweetable-news era, this story upsets me no matter how I look at it. As a dad and someone who has committed his life to impacting the lives of the next generation, I cannot fathom the pain of parents and children, and it leaves me thinking "What can I do???"

While there is much we can do -- contacting representatives, speaking out, and making contributions to organizations working on behalf of these children -- all of that is very "out there" in my mind. Out there doesn't mean it's not worthwhile or important, but it's not "feet on the ground impacting lives today" that I so long for and feel so called to do. So where does that leave me?

My suggested course of action will strike some of you as trite, maybe even shallow, but here's my principle: You might not be able to help kids separated from their families in a hands-on way. But, you can help. You can be for a kid right here in our community, and that advances the cause of the Kingdom a little bit.

This past April, I attended the Orange Conference, a massive gathering of over 7,000 children's and youth ministry leaders in Atlanta. Josh Shipp (https://joshshipp.com/) was one of the presenters at this event, and I had the privilege of attending his workshop. Josh's story is nothing short of remarkable and moving, and his insights well worth a listen. But Josh's basic premise is this: "Every Kid is One Caring Adult Away from Being a Success Story." When Josh said this for the first time, I was dumb-struck. It was so simple and yet so powerful all at the same time. As someone who has worked with kids for years, I was still taken aback by the pure power of his statement. And I was struck by it because it's true. Think about it. I can think of at least one supportive adult when I think of anything I accomplished in my childhood and teen years. Cross country running? Coach Doug Schneider. Computer science class? Mr. Dave Ball. Learning to write a decent paper? Mr. Steve Clarke. Growing in faith? Too many people to list. These people were all in addition to an excellent set of parents, super aunts and uncles, and a great group of family friends.

But here's the thing. Not everyone has the support system I had growing up. The kids at the border are being separated from their parents. Kids in our communities are losing their parents due to imprisonment, abandonment, violence, addiction, etc. In fact, the percentage of kids being raised by their grandparents continues to climb due to many factors (http://theconversation.com/why-more-grandparents-are-raising-their-grandchildren-83543). Child abandonment, in its many forms, is an issue in our society.

As a general rule, I am reluctant to use "God is on the side of..." language as I find it theologically troublesome. However, I find it impossible to argue against the idea that God, throughout scripture, shows particular concern for those who are unable to care for themselves. Summing up what I believe scripture teaches and demonstrates, James writes "True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us." (James 1:27, CEB) To me, it is clear that one of the ways we demonstrate our understanding of what God's grace has done for us is in how we treat those who have no one to advocate for themselves.

If you know me at all, you can see where I am going with this -- you should get to know a kid in need, blah blah blah. And if that’s what you thought, you’re right. If you're someone who loves kids and is good at working with kids, then do that. Find the kid who doesn't have the great family and give them the support that they need. Pray for them, take them for ice cream, bring them to church, involve them in ministry, buy them a decent pair of shoes, tell them you care, and when they screw up, respond to them with grace, love, and a hard conversation. But what I know all too well is that when some of you think of having coffee with a teenager, you decide to go ahead and schedule that root canal you've been putting off for a few weeks instead. So here's my broader challenge -- find the single mom, the aunt who has her nephew living with her right now, or the set of grandparents who are struggling to raise their seven-year-old grand-daughter while her mom is in jail. Support them. Love them. See if you can set up a playdate with your grandchild and theirs, tell them you're bringing a meal over to them sometime in the next week, or sincerely ask them "How's having your niece/nephew/grand-child/foster-child staying with you going for you?"

A few years back, I had a field education student who had just started his time with us. One month into his internship, he and his wife became foster parents to three kids ages 4 and younger, one of which was facing significant medical challenges. A few weeks into trying to adjust their lives to this new reality, he came into my office and told me he needed to quit his internship with me because he didn't have the time to dedicate to it. While I understood and even appreciated his desire to honor his commitment to the church, I told him I would not allow him to quit. If the church couldn't embrace and support what he and his wife were doing, then we might as well close the doors and stop claiming to be a church. I am proud to say that, instead of letting him quit, the church stepped up and provided them space and time to figure out how to make all the pieces fit together and blessed them with toys, food, gift cards, and diapers that lasted them for months.

Brian McLaren once said, "If you want to change the world, start with something small and seemingly insignificant." On the surface, having coffee with your friend who is trying to raise her grandchild may not seem like it has anything to do with what is going on in the headlines, and I'll admit, it doesn't seem to connect tangibly. But, imagine with me for just a minute, if we used a Kingdom-values empowered vision for caring for those who have no one to care for them (and their caregivers)? What if, slowly but surely, you become more mindful of the many faces of orphans that we see in our world today? How might that shape someone else's idea of orphans? And then someone else has their view toward orphans changed as well? We don't know exactly. But that's one of the real beauties of God's Kingdom work. So often we plant seeds without any knowledge of how, when, or where those seeds will bear fruit. So, in the spirit of James, may we plant seeds of "true devotion" in caring for the orphans closest to us, and trust that in our way God will use what we can offer to shape the Kingdom and change our world.

The Rev. Brian R. Wallace, Associate Minister

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