Sunday, November 12, 2006

Whose Children Are They?

I am in Nashville, TN, for a few days on church-related business. For the first time in many months I had the opportunity to worship with others in the pews, rather than in leading others from the front of the sanctuary. This morning's preacher did an excellent job in remding me why I got into the messiness of adopting children in the first place. Her Scripture text was from the Hebrew prophet Micah, specifically his recounting of God's admonition:

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Specifically I was struck with her explanation of "kindness," which in the English-speaking word connotes something tepid. In Hebrew "kindness" is chesed which denotes a relationship characterized by strength and unwavering commitment. The preacher took great pains to let us know that Micah's words are more than fulfilling some kind of legal or juridical expectation. The "requirement" of the Lord is based in and upon relationship.

Humming the final hymn as I walked from the church toward my hotel, I decided to eat lunch at Jack In the Box, a chain unfamiliar to those of us in the midwestern part of the States. As I ordered my meal I couldn't help but notice that I was the minority member in the store. My friendly order-taker was Hispanic, the order-fulfillers in the back were African-American, and my brief scan of those sitting down already revealed I was the one pale face in the midst of many whose skin tones were tanner than mine. While I do not consider myself very skin-tone conscious (after all our family has a diversity of skin tones, too), I was struck by what it is like to be "different" in a setting not my own.

As I sat down to eat my Ciabatta bacon cheeseburger, I noticed three children, all of whom appeared to be under the age of ten sitting a few tables away from me. I couldn't help but contrast in my mind what I saw. They were of African-American heritage; I am white. There were three of them; there is one of me. They were wearing winter coats; I was in my long-sleeve shirt. They were dressed in clean but well-worn clothes; I was dressed in post-Sunday worship attire. I was humming a hymn in my head; they were not humming anything. In fact, they sat quietly, circled around a single large refillable pop container, school work to the side of the pop. It appeared to me that they were sharing their drink with one another. There was no food. They had not been to a worship service in which they were admonished to love God, seek justice, do kindness and walk humbly with creation. In the oldest child's eyes I could detect a look of resignation. The two younger siblings were not yet old enough to recognize their situation in life, so they were more animated and energetic. But the oldest child's eyes haunt me even as I type these words.

And so, between munching on my burger and fries, I stole glances in their direction. What, I wondered, is God asking me to do? Am I to assume that they have not eaten any lunch today, or did I simply miss that part of their meal? Do I assume they did not attend worship or Sunday School, do not have a community of faith in which to receive spiritual care, emotional support and physical assistance? Whose children are they?

I toyed with the idea of offering to buy them lunch, but something held me back. I wondered if I should simply give them a twenty and tell them to buy themselves something with it, but I debated. Whose children are they?

And then I saw the person I assume to be their father. He was sitting in a different part of the restaurant, so I didn't make the immediate association. Now that I was aware of an adult figure with the chidlren, I could see that his glances and directives were quickly interpreted by the children. The glowering oldest child reluctantly complied while the two siblings mindlessly flitted from one table to another.

I knew that there was little I would be able to do. There were too many strikes against me ... a white stranger obviously not from Nashville would not be well received by the domineering father whose dignity I felt I must respect.

It was an odd few moments for me, though, wrestling with what I had heard preached moments before and wondering how to respond to what I witnessed. I'm not sure I made the right decision. At what point and when does one person's compassion become interpreted as something else by another's sense of personal dignity? What is the most appropriate way to respond?

I was perplexed, too, by the internal conflict I feel within knowing that as a white person in our culture I am privileged in ways I do not even recognize and surely do not deserve. I've learned not to see it so much these days, but it wasn't that long ago when our family would be together in public places that I would get "that" look as onlookers tried to do determine "whose children are they?" in our family unit. It troubles me to know that in the lives of my children of color they will always have to do more, know more and act better simply to know the privileges my white children are conferred because of their genetic heritage.

I'm still not sure I did the right thing. (Editorial note: as I was typing the last sentence I erroneously and perhaps tellingly first typed "white" instead of "right"). I'm not sure because I know whose children they are ... these children, like countless others across our nation and globe ... may not spring from our loins or bear our surname or our physical traits ... but they are all our children. In God's world there are no "our children" and "their children," there are only "God's children."

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Hardest Thing in the World

As I type these words I feel more than a little disjointed. It feels odd for me to blog something I haven't even had an opportunity to talk with my spouse about yet (but as will become clear in a moment, there's a very good reason for that). It is 3:30 AM, and I have been awake for more than hour, roused from sleep by my ten-year-old son who came bursting into my bedroom to let me know, "Police are here. They want to talk with you." For reasons too complicated to explain here, he was sleeping within earshod of the door-pounding, doorbell-rining police officer, so he heralded the news before wearily tumbling into his mother's side of the bed.

Claudia is out of town on a business-related trip (which also includes a trip with our favorite thirteen-year-old daughter to the orthodontist in a town near the one we recently moved from ... long story, but for those of you have "orthodontic relationships" you know how the billing and process require a multi-year commitment that cannot be changed even if you move 150 miles away). I had an unsettling week already with our seventeen-year-old son who continues to ride the edges of unlawful activity. On Thursday night he verbally assaulted me, threatened me and smashed his fist through the broom closet door in our kitchen. He was incensed because we would not buy him a new coat (he lost his other coat in one of his recent run-the-town jaunts) or a new hoodie (he has several, but wants another), not are we giving him rides to aid and abet his behavior. Our agreement with him is that until he spends two weeks following the guidelines of our family (which are as foundational as checking in at meal time if he doesn't plan to be here and to be home by 9 PM unless he has made other appropriate arrangements), we will not be providing him with his wants, especially when our family rules-abiding children are receiving nothing out of the ordinary for their fairly appropriate behavior.

So, back to the story. It was 2:20 AM as I dragged myself to the door to meet one of our community's peace officers. He apologized for the intrusion and told me that a neighboring police department officer had been attempting to reach me by telephone unsuccessfully, so he was delivering the message to call. I wandered into our darkened kitchen to dial the seven digits which would provide me the details of Mike's arrest du jour.

The officer asked me to come to the police station for the interview because of Mike's juvenile status, but I politely refused, indicating I was not comfortable leaving my sleeping children alone in our home when their mother was out of town. The officer said he would, with my permission, mirandaize him, take his statement and followup with paperwork detailing the details of the charges against him. Our son, who is not licensed to drive, evidently stole a vehicle with two of his thirteen-year-old buddies, I learned from the police officer. Mike was driving with the headlights off in a wasted effort to avoid detection. I told the officer I would be unable to come to the police station to bring Mike home, and that as far as I was concerned juvenile detention was an appropriate option. Unfortunately, the JDC in our area has only one open bed, and they prefer to keep that open for more violent offenses, such as assault (as I heard those words my mind couldn't help but revert back to Thursday night's drama, but I said nothing).

So at 3:30 I opened the door to receive Mike and the police officer. Mike, of course, had no words to say to me (nor did I attempt any with him), and the officer dispassionately told me about next steps. The paperwork will be processed, but first they have to find the owner of the car in question to determine that, in fact, it was stolen, yadda, yadda, yadda.

For years now we have attempted intervention in Mike's life. Early on it was therapy that resolved none of his issues. After that we enlisted what we thought to be the support of our county's social service agaency, only to discover that we would be the ones blamed for Mike's behavior. This eventuated in a report, no less than five months ago, in which the court was informed that Mike should never live in our home again because of our cold, distant parenting style (a style, which if in fact an accurate reflection of us, might make any number of our other children feel relieved, but alas it is not now, nor has it ever been, so). Mike has been in residential treatment placements, shelter care placements, a sheriff's program (kind of an independent living skills model), a group home, foster care and most recently a Department of Corrections facility. It was from that DOC facility that he came home in mid-September. At that time Claudia and I decided that we needed to let Mike come home (after al, we are his parents, and we claimed him as ours years ago), and that we would expect him to follow our family's guidelines, but that we would be unable to keep him out of situations he himself chooses. He will be eighteen in four months and considered in the eyes of the law an "adult." We will never deny him a home, we will always have expectations for his behavior, and we will never reject him.

But right now I am wondering how it might all turn out. I am not feeling that positive about Mike's future, and I wonder to what extent legally, ethically, morally, spiritually we parents are responsible for what may very well ensue. Parenting this one, very special needs child has made me a much more compassionate, understanding, patient person. No longer do I spend much time judging or analyzing others' parenting successes or failures. I realize the folly of such kernels of "truth" as: "Well, have you met his/her parents?" "All he needs is a little more love." "Have you tried consequences?" "Aren't you going to do anything about his/her behavior?" "You mean to tell me you *let* him/her do that?" "I'd never let my child do that in a million years."

There are no guarantees, there are no easy answers, and a sense of success often is elusive. I realize, having learned and continuing to learn the hard way, that parenting is the hardest thing in the world.