My only daughter is about to get married. Like other fathers of the bride, I find myself lingering over memories of her girlhood.
I remember once when were on a safari cruise in Africa, a hippopotamus came out of the river and started attacking the back of the boat. She jumped into my lap, believing that if she could just get close enough to me, everything would be okay. I thought, I appreciate your trust, honey, but I’m not going to be much help!
Children have a wonderful capacity for trust. The faith they put in adults is unqualified, and that should humble us; we often don’t deserve it.
Sometimes kids suffer from intentional betrayal by a trusted adult, like former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, recently convicted of sexually abusing underprivileged young boys. Other times, they are neglected by society at large, as are the 1.7 million children with a parent behind bars. Many of these kids – like the brother and sister found living in an abandoned school bus after both their parents were sentenced to do time – face enormous obstacles, but get little notice.
In the years I spent as a pastor, I wrestled with the reality of a world in which society’s most vulnerable members can be the victims of such ugly betrayals. When I consider what the Bible has to say about children, though, I find both hope and courage.
The Bible affirms that children are a central focus of God. In the Old Testament, when God established the new nation of Israel, He emphasized that children should be whole, loved, and instructed so they can reach their full potential. The older generation was to be the steward of the younger. In a time when the surrounding cultures sacrificed their children to idols to ensure good harvests, this was a revolutionary principle!
It’s also clear that God expects adults not to give children more than they can handle. The Apostle Paul instructed early Christian fathers not to “exasperate” or “embitter” their kids. In other words, adults should act with consideration for the levels of information and experience that children are prepared to deal with, or risk causing them loads of heartache.
Americans have long gone to great pains to both protect and nurture their children. Particularly in affluent communities, kids’ carefully supervised lives are built around school and enrichment activities. As summer hits, they go on to day camps. Churches get in on the action, too.
Thousands of them host Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) to give kids additional structure and learning opportunities. All this is good.
Our national problem is not that we somehow undervalue children; it’s that we don’t always know where to look to find the children most in need of our help. Inmates’ children in particular get placed on the back burner. They grow up in single-parent homes, or they get shuffled into foster care. They are five times more likely than their peers to live in poverty. Despite the best efforts of loving caregivers, they often endure confusion, loneliness, depression, abandonment, social ostracism, and profound anger. Talk about exasperated children! These boys and girls lose a parent they trusted to keep them safe at a moment of incredible crisis. Should we be surprised if they often follow their parents to prison?
As complex as their situation is, I believe that Scripture directs us to the solution. Jesus once did something that shocked first-century sensibilities: He got down in the dirt with little kids. His disciples rebuked him for setting aside his dignity, but He ignored them, pulling toddlers into his lap and blessing them. He condemned his disciples’ superior attitude, telling them that unless they became like humble, trusting children, they wouldn’t ever enter the kingdom of God.
If we want to change the situation of children who are getting left behind, we need to imitate Jesus. It’s time to get down in the mess with children and families in terrible pain, giving them the support and love they need to break out of an intergenerational cycle of crime.
When I share this message with churches around the country, telling them about Angel Tree, Prison Fellowship’s decades-old ministry to prisoners’ children, they’re not unwilling to help, but they’re often unaware of the scope of the problem, or how intimately it’s woven into their own communities. Leaders at a church recently asked me, “Are there really any kids of incarcerated parents in our area?” There were within blocks.
It doesn’t take much to ease the burden of an inmate’s family. Churches—and other people of good will—can incorporate prisoners’ children into their existing programs, like VBS, youth mentoring programs, or summer camps. They can make sure kids have the supplies they need to succeed in school, or gifts to celebrate the holidays; the opportunities are boundless.
If we take seriously the notion that every child has inherent worth and deserves our society’s nurture and protection, we cannot afford to ignore children with an incarcerated parent. Like Jesus, we must reach out to them, and their trust will for once not be betrayed. In turn we will discover that the blessing goes both ways: They will teach us what it means to have faith that pleases God, faith that presses in close, believing everything will be okay.
Jim Liske is CEO of Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. Prior to joining Prison Fellowship, he pastored a large church in Michigan that partners with the state's Department of Corrections to help newly released prisoners transition back into their communities. You can learn more about his organization at www.PrisonFellowship.org.