Our local newspaper recently ran a very long article about at-risk children in our area, reporting that nearly 70 percent fall into that category. Criteria for being at-risk included not just poverty, but lack of parental involvement in their lives, exposure to substance abuse, crime, physical abuse, homelessness, little or no access to medical care, and lack of education. Physical and mental disabilities were not considered, but I think they should have been. Most of us know from our own experience that disabling conditions can limit our possibilities.
As I read the article I realized that I was one of the at-risk children, although we weren’t recognized or called that when I was a child. I heard the whispers of relatives. I knew that I was unwanted, and was able to laugh when my father finally confirmed it when I was 18. I grew up in an angry, alcoholic household and was actually relieved when my father left. I was tired of the drunkenness and the cruelty, both physical and emotional. In those days you didn’t talk about such things; you kept them secret.
But God gave me a happy heart. I’m convinced that is what saved me, and what keeps me going now as I struggle with some depression over my physical struggles. God and I have always had a special relationship. I remember when I was baptized. I was five years old, and I had a dress the color of the sky. When the pastor told me I had a Father in Heaven who loved me forever, no matter what, I was overjoyed. After the ceremony I went outside and looked up at the sky, and down at my dress, and it was if it were a sign - the color of my dress and the sky were a symbol that God would always be there for me, no matter how bad things were at home.
And I had two people who loved me, a great-grandfather and a great-aunt. They thought I was special and encouraged my talents. I only saw them a few times a year, but that time was precious. My great-grandfather listened patiently to all my stories, and saved every letter and picture I ever sent him. My great-aunt taught me to sew, and shared her love of genealogy and antiques and cooking with me.
And so I think of the children today. And not just the children, but all those in need of love and support - all the “least of these.” Everyone needs someone who will listen to them, who thinks they are special, who will encourage their gifts. As the family of Christ I challenge each of us to reach out to the least of these, to love the unlovable, to listen to their stories and encourage their gifts. Some of the best hugs I ever received came from a homeless woman at a former church. Her hair was scraggly, her coat was dirty, but her eyes and heart were filled with the love of Jesus.
One of my favorite passages is Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, praising those who fed Him when He was hungry, clothed Him when He was naked, visited Him when He was sick and imprisoned, welcomed Him when He was a stranger, and gave him a drink when He was thirsty. When asked how they did these to Jesus when they did not see Him, Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Who knows what joy we will provide when we too reach out to the least of these? And what joy we will find? It is certain we will make changes for the better, and this is good.
Dear Lord, We are reminded that although we are made in your image, we are all broken in some manner. Help us to reach out to others and extend your healing and loving touch. Help them see their beauty and potential as we invite them into our fellowship. Bless our friends who are working to include all your children in the church and in the world, Help us all to strengthen ourselves to be effective witnesses and workers. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.