Shame on the Shamers
“Well they just don’t know any better.”
“Their parents don’t care.”
“It’s no wonder they act like that when they come from that background.”
“Their mom is never around, so what else do you expect?”
If Jesus’ disciples were around today, these are the kinds of things I would have expected them to mutter when the kids rushed to meet him, when Jesus then chastised them for their attitudes towards the kids.
These are the sad comments I hear way, way too often from church leaders today. Lay people and ministers who don’t know how to handle kids that are “too much” and who, more often than not, are poor. Leaders who don’t realize the power of the words coming out of their mouths, who don’t think that the kids can hear, that the message it sends to other adults isn’t damaging, that don’t realize that repeating the words out loud causes the words to sink into their hearts and minds and color how they interact with and love those kids. Leaders who seemingly want to help and to minister to kids, but don’t see that these attitudes are shaming kids instead of loving them.
I know that kids who grow up in poverty are more likely to be mal-/under-nourished, have lower literacy rates, lower test scores, more behavioral issues, lack the guidance needed, aren’t always given medications they need, and have to grow up faster than they should – none of which is their fault. And none of that may be true for some kids.
I grew up poor, with my parents relying on public assistance and unemployment at times, using beat-up cars that we just hoped and prayed didn’t fall apart when one of us sneezed; I came home from school to an empty house, and got into trouble with my teachers because my family couldn’t afford the gym shoes I needed in sixth grade. I also happen to be a genius who tests well, who never had a behavioral issue, and who, if I’d heard you make those comments about poor kids, would have been too ashamed to ever show up at church again.
Those of us who minister primarily to kids from rough settings have really big jobs in front of us. Ministering to middle-class white kids in suburbia is not the same as ministering to other kids. Having ministered in a variety of settings, what I know more than anything else is that ministry (especially youth ministry, which is not at all my comfort zone) is always adapting to the kids, leaders, and setting. What works in the UP doesn’t always work in Iowa. What works for one 8-year-old Mexican-American girl may be all wrong for the next one.
But their need for love isn’t any different than the needs of anyone else. It just looks different sometimes. It means that feeding them isn’t just a gimmick to get them to come to the program, it’s sometimes filling in gaps in their nutrition. It’s not only buying the materials for VBS, but adapting them so that the kids understand them. It might mean that your ministry is executed by holding a screaming, crying preschooler until he is calm because otherwise, he is alone and afraid and doesn’t know how else to tell you that what he needs is to be held.
And for the love of God, if they don’t know any better, teach them! Stop writing off unacceptable behavior just because it seems like they aren’t going to listen! When kids are disrespectful of others/rules/property, correct them. When kids aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, get them back on task. Of course there is the need for grace and adjustments for developmental stage. It can seem stupidly impossible, but part of our ministry is helping them develop the abilities and traits that will help them be healthy, helpful members of our church and society.
Love them enough to teach them. Respect them enough to not insult their homes, parents, or education. If Jesus isn’t shaming them for being poor, we shouldn’t either.