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."

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