Remembering the young ones


Remembering the young ones


By Jeremy Lensing

Children in every community experience hardships but some experience violence. Some children experience it disproportionately based on where they live.

“Where a child is born, grows and plays is a social determinate of one’s health,” says Judith Roberts, program director for ELCA Racial Justice Ministries. “These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. Violence can take the form of youth and gang related violence, random attacks, physical abuse, emotional abuse, rape and sexual assault.”

How can children have a healthy life when they never feel safe in their own neighborhood? Rachel’s Day offers a time to mourn the children lost and to take action against the violence children experience, says Judith.

Striving to raise awareness of violence against children, members of Bethel Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation on the West Side of Chicago, started Rachel’s Day. Members of Bethel cleared a vacant lot in their neighborhood and turned it into Rachel’s Garden, which became a place where people in the community could go to remember their lost children killed by gun violence. 

“No one living in the United States is immune to acts of violence,” says Judith. According to news reports, there have been more than 70 school shootings in the United States since the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 students and six educators. Following the event, people were looking to the nearby churches for some direction.

“Violence doesn't just affect the individual or a family; it shatters entire communities, especially the most vulnerable among us – our children,” says Judith.

“Prayer is one of the best responses when people don’t know what to do,” said Doug Ryniewicz, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Monroe, Conn., the ELCA congregation closest to Newtown and the Sandy Hook shootings. “Each church will then choose their own way to participate and act in service and kindness. The response of Christians to violence is to act with kindness.”

Not only is it the response of Christians, says Judith, but “this church has a responsibility to see violence through a race and class lens.

“Communities that are predominantly African American and have lower income are affected by violence on a regular basis at a far greater rate,” she says. According to news sources, more than 1,200 shootings have occurred in Chicago alone since the beginning of 2014. Many of the victims were children.

“Many ELCA congregations never have to think about violence in the same way communities in urban centers respond to violence. There are underlying factors attributed to this ongoing and increased urban violence. Violence is a symptom when communities are in crisis, and racial groups have been historically denied access to quality schools, good paying jobs, adequate housing and harsher sentence within the criminal system – we must understand the impact of both race and class in the United States,” says Judith. “Poor public policies and racial attitudes have produced inequities that have created accumulated advantages in the form of housing and wealth that benefited whites as whole and disadvantages for people of color.”

“Our churches must become places of hope, healing and community involvement,” she says. “We need a holistic approach. This means we equip leaders to be peacemakers and to be practitioners of racial justice and restorative justice to break the cycles of violence and to repair the breach.”

According to Josselyn Bennet, a member of Bethel, “The church needs to go out of its walls, offer prayer and show God’s love to communities. Violence has a profound effect on the community, but God’s love can calm the spirits of all.”

“Any day could be Rachel’s Day,” said Valora Starr, director for discipleship for Women of the ELCA – the women’s ministry of this church. Women of the ELCA encourage recognizing the first Sunday in May as Rachel’s Day. “It could even be every day; we just want congregations to be there for the communities’ children,” says Valora.

Rachel’s Day, which started in 1994, gets its name from Jeremiah 31:15-17. In this verse, Rachel weeps greatly and has a deep sense of despair over the loss of her children. She weeps for them because her culture believed children represented the future, and without them, there is no future. But God gives hope by saying, “They will return from the land of the enemy,” showing that God will take care of his children.

“As advocates we can help close the gap on inequities that contribute to violence, especially when it comes to shaping public policies that create better schools, a fair livable wage, and job creation programs,” says Judith.

“Congregations can also practice restorative justice,” she said. “Restorative justice seeks to bring together the victim, offender and other members of the community harmed by crime to develop a plan to try to repair that harm. The ELCA criminal justice social statement, ‘Hearing the Cries,’ calls for congregations to consider be­coming host sites for restorative training and programs. There are ELCA congregations building capacity and leadership to create a different society with better outcomes for all. Every child deserves to feel safe regardless of where they live.” 

Jeremy Lensing was a public relations intern at the ELCA churchwide organization and is a student at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill., majoring in multimedia mass communication and communication studies.

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