Garth Brooks is coming to town. It is funny how associations are made in one’s mind. When I hear the name of Garth Brooks, I think of one fan in particular. His name was Travis. He was a super fan. When his favorite singer came on the radio I could ask who it was. He would dance and yell out the name “Garth Brooks!” I could not let it go. “Who?” I asked. He would shout it again and give me that lopsided smile of his. He knew I heard him. He loved the game.
I was in college in Oklahoma City. It was a small Christian University near Edmond. I needed a Physical Education credit. It had to fulfill two requirements. It needed to fit my schedule. And it did not need to be too demanding physically. The latter requirement was not because of any health issue. I was being lazy. Gym class was never my thing. Exercise to me should involve purpose, destination, and if at all possible adventure. So I read the available course descriptions. I found something I liked. It involved playing with children from the local public schools. The catch was it required the professor’s approval and an orientation.
I was quickly approved after my interview with the “coach.” The orientation was very interesting. The students from the local schools were special needs children. I mentioned Travis had a lopsided grin. He had a cleft palate and several learning issues. He was what older people called “hare-lipped.” I sat in orientation and listened to the coach describe the students. A few of the students were immobile. A few of the helpers would sit and hold them on the large trampoline where the students would receive some stimulation from the gentle movements. The other students would enjoy the basketball court, the multicolored parachute, the foam balls, and tricycles. We would help them with it all. Then the coach said some other things to us. He became very serious.
“The teachers tell me about the children,” he began. I cannot give a verbatim. I will never forget the points he made to us. The teachers knew that some of the children when they boarded the school bus for the special needs students would know it was “O.C” day. The students liked coming to Oklahoma Christian University for the time with us college student helpers. The reason for that, the teachers observed, was the college students hugged the children, held their hands as we walked with them, and remembered their names. The children attended some of the other local state colleges. Those students played with the students and talked to them. They never were able to show them they were loved. The students in the state colleges were restrained from touching the children in any way. Was this about policy? Were the students following instructions from their teachers?” It is difficult to say. My fellow students were loving, helpful, and joyful people. We enjoyed working with the children.
The grim side of what we were doing included the assumption by the teachers that some of their students were neglected at home. Some of the children, my friend Travis among them, went directly to the radio when their favorite songs were being played. A few children knew the lyrics very well. The teachers thought these children were sent to their rooms and listened to the music for the rest of the evening. Travis never knew the words. The fact that he knew the singer meant someone was listening to the music with him. He was not neglected. One student was in the special needs program because of severe child abuse. Another child had a terminal illness. I saw her when the make a wish program brought her wish to her. The work was going to strengthen emotional muscles.
I learned the sheer joy of working with children in that class. During my ministry I took Child Safety and Safe Sanctuaries very seriously. Whether the work was with the church, sports, or scouting, ministry to children has been important to my life. I am saddened when children are not in existing congregations. I am equally saddened when parents leave a church because “there is nothing for the kids.”
I have to ask though. Why aren’t children and their spiritual development more important to the adults? The most well meaning parents will move heaven and earth to get their children what they need in the way of health, education, and future opportunities. And yet, the spiritual development is not as necessary. There are no spiritual practices at home or in the church. How can compassion, the healthy sense of self, and the love of the community be developed in them?
The church has failed children. We cannot seem to get it right. We either ignore children or cater to them. We do not demonstrate the love they need the most. It would be wonderful if the children approached Sunday mornings as joyful times. If the children got excited about being there would we finally live out Jesus’ call to allow the children to show us how to build the kingdom of heaven?
I think it would help us to find more ways to partner with local schools and do more outreach to minister to children. Sponsoring a classroom and teacher may be a good beginning. The ministry focus of the local church should change. It is important for the lives of the church and the local community.