Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest

Throw away children

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

What a week this has been! The entire state blacked out after weather such as no-one can ever recall having happened in South Australia; winds reaching over 100kph, rains exceeding 120mm over the week in places like Mt Lofty (that’s 5” in the old scale), widespread flooding, all against the backdrop of unseasonably cold weather for September.

For most of us, the blackout was something of an adventure; it has become a memory which we can share in the “I was there category” – something to share with those interstate and overseas who, for their part, may enjoy teasing us with jokes of the “will the last person to leave turn out the lights” or ‘they have electricity in South Australia?’ categories.

For me, it was the heavy traffic during the blackout that was so memorable. After the lights went out at 3.48pm last Wednesday, I had to drive from the Cathedral carpark first to Kent Town, then to Walkerville and then back to the CBD; a journey that, in ordinary circumstances would have taken 30 minutes or so to traverse through 24 sets of traffic lights – but on that day, it took over an hour and a quarter. Not that I am complaining.

Responding about the situation to our daughter, who lives in Sierra Leone, where the power so often fails,  I said this of the traffic gridlock:

All the traffic lights were out; about a fifth had police manually directing the traffic, all the rest had the traffic organising itself. I really enjoyed the drive as it was wonderful to see how well Adelaide drivers rose to the occasion – there was no road rage, people let people in; at intersections, there was some subconscious choreography of  cars that played out resulting in every road entering an intersection getting a fair go. It was beautiful to be a part of it.

Many others have also reported the amazing social harmony we all exhibited at rush hour last Wednesday. It was, in its own mundane way, a beautiful reminder that God made us to be social beings, living in community.

As part of that special blessing of how we might live as living beings called humans, God created us as part of the mammalian category. Mammals are amongst those varieties of living forms that care for their young – not all living forms do – many others just procreate and go on their way leaving their progeny to cope as best they may. The very word Mammal comes from the Latin for breast – “mamma” – signifying care the young.

Thus humanity has survived and thrived through millennia not only by procreation but by caring for our young. And the relationship has not just been parent to child, but has gone wider than that. Human beings are one of very few species on the planet who extend that caring beyond the two generations of parent and child. Because we have evolved well beyond child-bearing age, a third generation entered the caring frame – grandparents. There are remarkably few species that show signs of ‘grandparenting’ – even amongst mammals. The Granny Club so far seems limited to us, some monkeys, pilot whales and, extraordinarily, the Seychelles Warbler. Research reported in 2008 identified for the first time grandparenting in a bird species in this African song-bird.

There is also evidence in a number of species of collective responsibility of some sort for the young – for example, herds typically protect their young, whomever their parents may have been.

I always find it wonderful to see evidence of human traits in other species. But one trait, or perhaps I should it call it obligation, which seems to be unique to humanity is that of caring for the young of our species regardless of any connection we may or may not have directly with them as family, or even as a local community. I am not sure if you picked up on it in our Gospel reading this morning, but it is there:

It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

Jesus was talking about all children – not simply our own children, nor even just those of our own community – he was referring to our collective responsibility for preventing any child from stumbling on the dangerous road of life.

If you think I am reading too much into this, then I suggest we reflect on this quote from the Epistle of James:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world [James 1:27]

Here the term used is not ‘your own children’ or the ‘children of your wider family’ but those who by definition have no family at all – ‘orphans’.

This morning, I want to share some facts about just who these children are in our modern world. Not just orphans in the strict legal definition, but those children we might call abandoned.

First in our own community, there are two such groups. Those who cannot live with their own immediate families; and secondly those who are termed homeless.

Do you know that in our own state, (and our figures are pretty much reflected nationally), the number of children who cannot stay with their own families into which they were born is growing at the rate of 7% a year. 7% a year in a state where the birth rate is less than 2% – that means that every ten years we are seeing an approximate doubling of children in ‘out of home care’. Where do these children spend their childhood? On any given night, in this state, about 45% will be staying with relatives (Grannies and Grandads in many cases), 42% will be staying with foster parents (thanks to the wonderful facilitating work of agencies such as Anglicare); most of the remainder will be in some form of government-supported hostel accommodation. But there is a residue, that can be up to a hundred or so on any one night, who will have to spend the night in a motel – not that they are on holiday, but simply because there is nowhere else to put them, for there is no-one else to care for them. Restating, this means that, not only do we have this alarming crumbling of family within our own community that sees so many becoming refugees from their own natural-born families, but some of those will spend portions of their childhood without anyone specifically wanting to care for them – that’s about as abandoned as it gets.

The other group, the homeless, may not actually be as abandoned, as children in this group may be homeless with their own families – sleeping in cars with Mom and Dad, or squeezing with one or both of them into overcrowded accommodation with others. Currently in Australia, Homelessness Australia estimates that about 100,000 people are homeless on any one night. Of these, one half will have been under 24, with 10% of them young people between 12-18, and 17% under 12. For its part, the Salvation Army has reported that, in any one year, one in forty children under five years of age in our community will be in need of the support of a homelessness service.

[Parenthetically, the figures also noted with deep concern, that 2% of the homeless in Australia, are aged over 75]

Some of these homeless young people are in supported accommodation for the homeless (20%), some squatting temporarily with others (17%), some living in boarding houses (17%), some in overcrowded dwellings (39%) – one in sixteen, however, is living in what is euphemistically termed ‘improvised dwellings’ – that means tents, cars and sleeping out.

This past week, in all the appalling weather we experienced, about one thousand South Australian children would have been in one of those states of homelessness; with possibly about sixty of them sleeping in tents, cars or sleeping out. Our society has not only allowed them to be abandoned from the sheltering world of homeness, but has burdened them with conditions of living that may so easily cause them to stumble as they grow up. Studies on the backgrounds of prisoners in our society reveals a disproportionate number of them who either came from broken homes and/or suffered homelessness at some point of their childhood.

Behind the comfortable facades of our own community, it really should distress all of us that such is the state of life for so many of our children.

But the definition of ‘our children’ cannot be allowed to stay geographically limited to our own backyard. There was nothing postcode-specific in any of the commandments of Jesus about how we should help others.

So this brings me to the street-children of our world. UNICEF estimates that there are about one hundred and fifty million street children. These children literally live on the streets of the city, or squat in unoccupied dwellings or wastelands. Through my eleven years with World Vision, I met many such children and some of the wonderful people who work with them.

Street children, by our lights, have nothing going for them. Their primary task is to survive each day so that there may be a following one. And, in order to succeed in this challenge – the challenge to survive to the next day – they will not have the luxury of living by our accepted norms. They will simply have to survive by whatever means they can. Kwaka Oppong Asanta, a Ghanaian doctoral student spent some time interviewing street children in Accra and converting their lived experiences into poetry rather than a sterile academic report. Here is part of the poem he wrote about what they told him:

We sleep in a group
To avoid being raped
If you sleep too deep, your money gets feet
If you sleep alone, you are sexual meat
Yet, silence is hold and behold
Or either weakness will show
Here on the street; that’s not to be known
‘We are not lazy’; maybe a bit crazy
Working makes us busy
Scraps are our route to making money
Playing football is our way to nakeding our mind
Music and dance are our style to barring our miseries
Do you want to hear more?

These children, for that is what they are, are sometimes referred to as the ‘thrownaway children’ but they are the ones who don’t fit our usually shared perspectives that ‘children are our future’ or that ‘children are our greatest resource’.  For these children are a resource to no-one and nobody’s future. But to even think of them this way, that children’s worth is measured by their use to use is to think with the world’s eyes not God’s.

So we come back to Luke’s gospel reading this morning.

God did not create children for us, he created us to have children. In doing so, he created us as beings who were not only designed to have and to love our own children but also to feel a responsibility for the children of all of us. What is to ‘feel responsible’? To Jesus that meant not putting stumbling blocks in the way of any of them.

When I worked for World Vision I was told of a comment made by a church minister in Myanmar about programs to help street children. His perplexed response was: “But why would you water weeds?” What didn’t this church leader understand about Jesus’ injunction about not putting stumbling blocks in front of children? Or rather, about removing the stumbling blocks that this world had already put in front of them?

What that minister of God had actually done was to prejudge these street children –these children – on their own responses to the stumbling blocks that this world had laid before them not on the stumbling blocks themselves that we as a world threw in their path.

In our reading this morning, what Jesus did was to go back to the stumbling blocks that we might lay in the path of children not on how those children might respond.

This week has presented us with just a taste of how the natural world might make life difficult for us – just inconvenient in most cases. I pray that we might use the inconvenience that may have been caused to each of us to reflect upon how we ought to think and act in terms of a world that incessantly throws stumbling blocks of great moment in the paths of the children whom we are called to protect

The well-being, or the absence of it, of the world’s children is a symptom of our own rightness, or wrongness with God.