Begin with the Children

The story is told about an incident that happened in a courtroom in New York City during the thirties, when America was in the grip of the great Depression. The judge on the bench was hearing a complaint against a woman charged with stealing. She pleaded that her daughter was sick, and her grandchildren were starving. Their father had abandoned the family. There was no help. But the shopkeeper, whose food had been stolen, refused to drop the charge. He insisted that an example be made of the poor old woman, as a deterrent to others. He in fact suggested that she ought to pull herself up by her own bootstraps, try a little harder, America is the land of opportunity after all.

The judge sighed. He was most reluctant to pass judgment on the woman, yet he had no alternative. “I’m sorry,” he turned to her. “But I cannot make any exceptions. The law is the law. I sentence you to a fine of ten dollars, and if you cannot pay I must send you to jail for ten days.”

The woman was gripped by terror. Who would take care of her kids? No one… But even as he was passing sentence, the judge, moved by compassion, was reaching into his pocket for the money to pay off the ten-dollar fine. He took off his hat, tossed the ten-dollar bill into it, and then addressed the crowd: “I am also going to impose a fifty cent fine on every person here present in this courtroom, for living in a city and a nation where a person has to steal bread to save her daughter and her grandchildren from starvation.” Then to the bailiff he said: “Please collect the fines in this hat, and pass them across to the defendant.”

And so the accused went home that day from the courtroom with forty-seven dollars and fifty cents – fifty cents of which had been paid by the shame-faced grocery shopkeeper who had brought the initial charge against her and, beyond that, had the temerity to lecture her.

As she left the courtroom, the gathering of petty criminals and New York policemen gave the judge a standing ovation. (Adapted from One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World)


I want to be the voice of the judge to you today, as we pray for the children

who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
who don’t have rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose monsters are real.

Leave No Child Behind is the vision of the Children’s Defense Fund, and that resonates so powerfully with our worship theme of the month of hospitality. Leave No Child Behind, and be sure to invite them to the table too, where what’s being served is DIGNITY, respect for all people and respect especially for those who are the most vulnerable among us. The most vulnerable and yet, paradoxically, the most powerful too, for “children are one third of our population and all of our future.” (Source: Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health, 1981). As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we are to teach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children; and if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have to struggle; we won’t have to pass fruitless, idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world is hungering.”

Begin with the children. Let’s not make the invitation to the dignity table an afterthought. Let’s not make them last on the list.

But we do make them last. This is what the judge from the story knows.

One reason is moralism. The moralism of the shopkeeper, with his “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” philosophy. Of course we want people to have character. Of course we want people to have enterprise. But let’s not fool ourselves. “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is often nothing but rationalization for just looking away.

You may know of the work of Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske. She has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. No wonder the response to poverty is so often not sympathy but revulsion, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly style. And no wonder the response to government programs that fall short of effectiveness is so ruthless, because, after all, our hard-earned money has just been wasted on a bunch of things, not people.

The shopkeeper who feels victimized loves to criticize and second guess. Writer Tressie McMillan Cottom nails it on the head. “At the heart of [all] the incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. […] What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. […] Then, and only then, will you understand…”

This is why hospitality is so important to Leave No Child Behind. “Hospitality,” says religion writer Henri Nouwen, “is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler.”

We need to break through the narrowness of the shopkeeper’s moralism. Almost 700,000 children here in Georgia depend on that. That’s almost 30% of all the children in this state. Their monsters are real.

And it’s happening. The video from a moment ago features pictures of Promise the Children volunteers from UUCA and other area churches whose hearts are big with hospitality. Listen to this story told by UUCA member Ron Davis:

Six years ago or so Beth [that’s Ron’s wife] and I, along with several others from UUCA, ran the “Explorers’ Club,” an after school enrichment program for academically advanced third graders. Now Landon was the brightest of a bright crew, but he had a problem: an inability to contain his enthusiasm. When I would ask a question, Landon would not only raise his hand; he was very likely to run around the room shouting or to try to hop up on the desk.

The heroes of this tale are Bill Otherson and Link Roberts, both gentlemen of mature years who have since moved away from Atlanta to spend their latter years with family elsewhere. Link and Bill did a fine job as virtual grandfathers. Their particular job was to sit next to Landon and to keep him on task–to make sure that his enthusiasm and talent were channeled productively.

By the end of the year Landon was reading everything in sight, and operating far above grade level. Link–not one to lavish undue praise–thought Landon was probably a genius. I think he was right.

Beth asked Landon if we would see him again the following year. “No,” he responded, “I have moved every year of my life, and at the end of this school year we’re moving again.”

Several things here. First, what Ron and Beth and Bill and Link did made a difference. They loved Landon, and Landon loved them. Love is salvation. Although in this case, salvation did not come in the form of a tired traveler but an enthusiastic kid shouting at the top of his lungs. I talk to Ron and Beth and they literally light up when sharing their stories. That’s the light of life, the light of the Spirit of Life. It’s happening for them and for their kids….

But then there’s the reality that Landon moves every year of his life. No doubt it has to do with his family situation, which is compromised by poverty. Made unstable, made chaotic. And I pray that Landon, wherever he went, found others like Ron and Beth and Bill and Link to love him and support him in his journey.

We just have to begin with the children. We have to find a way. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” said the great Frederick Douglass. Let’s get proactive. Prevention, not after-the-fact crisis care….

And we heard that from President Obama in his State of the Union address from earlier this year. Here’s what the White House says about his Early Learning Initiative:

Expanding access to high quality early childhood education is among the smartest investments that we can make. Research has shown that the early years in a child’s life—when the human brain is forming—represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential and shape key academic, social, and cognitive skills that determine a child’s success in school and in life. 

Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-K, and childcare—will provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a foundation for school success. These programs also generate a significant return on investment for society; numerous economic studies have documented a rate of return of $7 or more on each dollar invested through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these children as adults. 

President Obama’s comprehensive early learning agenda invests in and strengthens early childhood education, care, and development for our nation’s youngest learners. It helps to prevent achievement gaps before they start, and invests from an early age in children as our most critical national resource.

And that’s the word from the White House.

But here is something else that the judge from the story knows. He knows the law is the law, and he knows that politics is politics.

Just how do you think Obama’s opposition in Congress viewed his Early Learning Initiative?

There’s a lot of shopkeepers in Congress, a lot of scolds.

And there’s also a lot of folks whose economic priorities honestly differ. Tax breaks for the wealthy, to generate more wealth that will trickle down to the rest of society? Or continuing support for social programs that care for the most vulnerable among us? We do not have an infinite supply of dollars. It’s true. As my Dad constantly used to tell me, “Money doesn’t grow on trees!!!!”

One thing I would say at this point is that there is a vast difference between being wealthy and being a wealth generator. Just because you have a luxury home or a yacht does NOT mean you are a jobs creator. Economic conservatives are rushing to pass a tax break for the owners of luxury homes and yachts to the tune of billions of dollars—and I’m like, What?

The other thing I would say is that this Unitarian Universalist is getting ready to quote something magnificent and powerful from the leader of the entire Catholic universe, Pope Francis. That’s right. Listen to what the Pope said last November:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Now that’s right

You got to say it, Pope

You got to preach it!

Meanwhile, the children are still waiting. The children we are praying for.

Whose nightmares come in the daytime,
Who will eat anything
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
Who live and move, but have no being 

The judge knows that there’s plenty of shopkeepers out there whose moralism makes them turn their faces away.

The judge knows that the law is the law and that politics are politics, meaning that the right thing to do is not necessarily going to get done, it won’t necessarily get in the budget.

But here’s something else the judge knows. He knows that he doesn’t have to wait for the world to change for him to change. He pays the ten-dollar fine. And he let’s everyone within earshot know that it is absolutely unacceptable that we live in a society in which a person has to steal bread to save her daughter and her grandchildren from starvation.

It’s absolutely unacceptable, that Georgia to the 6th highest childhood poverty rate in the U.S.

It’s absolutely unacceptable, that an average of four children died each day from child abuse and neglect, and 80% of these victims are children younger than four years of age.

We have to fine ourselves, and pay that fine.

It’s absolutely unacceptable, that 28.8 percent of Georgia children live in food insecure households.

It’s absolutely unacceptable, that 66% percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.

It’s absolutely unacceptable, that 7,200 people in the state of Georgia purchase a child for sex each month, and the sellers prey on a child’s vulnerabilities, most notably hunger.

Absolutely unacceptable!

We have to pay the fine.

We can’t wait for some budget to pass a severely divided Congress.

We can’t wait for the shopkeepers among us to have a change of heart.

We can’t wait.

And we don’t have to. We just don’t have to.

Start with your vote. Vote your values.

Start with your volunteerism. Love one another.

Start with your dollars. The federal budget may be a highly compromised document, but your family budget doesn’t have to be. Spend from your highest self. Spend like your conscience tells you to.

Don’t wait!

Don’t wait!

Leave No Child Behind.