Tag Archives: Children

SAFE SPACES FOR CHILDREN CONVOCATION by Kirsten Lee, Second-year M. Div.

The Wartburg Seminary community recently met for a convocation entitled “Creating and Maintaining Safe Spaces for Children” in our congregations, communities, and homes. Victor Vieth, Senior Director & Founder of the National Child Protection Training Center at Gundersen Health System lead the convocation. Victor is also a current Wartburg Seminary student expecting to graduate with a Master of Arts this spring.

The convocation addressed the impact abuse can have on a survivor’s spirituality during and after the childhood abuse. A study of 527 child abuse victims reported having “significant spiritual injury”, but also reported praying more frequently and having a “spiritual experience” (Lawson, et al, Child Abuse & Neglect (1998)).  Every child is impacted spiritually; questions of faith, love, and forgiveness remain long after abuse ends. Questions, such as, “How is God present in my abuse,” or “What does this say about God or me” remain long after the abuse occurs.  As church leaders, we are encouraged to find similar questions in scripture as we help survivors find their own words through scripture. Religious and spiritual forms of coping “contribute to decreased symptoms, greater self-esteem, and overall greater life satisfaction.” (Bryant-Davis 2012).

Tragically, clergy may sometimes use a “religious cover” to justify the abuse (i.e. their “good works” overshadow the abuse; God gave this child to me).  Clergy often communicate this cover to the victims, which leads to a greater impact on spirituality. Offenders often seek churches because of weak policies, unconditional love and forgiveness, and as a safe place to have access to children.  This demands a need for churches to create and regularly update policies to protect children from abuse (click here for more information) and provide educational opportunities for both clergy and parishioners.

Vieth also shared insight on how church leaders might address the spiritual needs of both survivors and offenders. He offered practical tips for providing pastoral care to both groups of people based on their unique needs, including the need to stay within the pastoral field of expertise and coordinate with law professionals, mental health therapists, and community leaders.

The following are quotes from students who attended this convocation. Students were asked to reflect further on how they were impacted as church leaders by this convocation. Several students responded with comments on how their own experience with child abuse has impacted their spiritual growth and their growth as a church leader.

“It is a great tragedy that these abuses happen not only at home but also in churches, as the media has been opening our eyes to in recent years. I feel all church leaders should be aware of this and for their own sake take courses on boundaries. Once leaders know their boundaries, it is crucial to become informed on how to spot abuses happening and how to respond. The church should never have and can never again ignore abuse or use Scripture to keep people in abusive situations. In my opinion, the worst thing to happen is for leaders to say to themselves in retrospect, ‘How did I not see this? All the clues were right in front of me and I missed it.’ The Church’s business IS the well-being of the lives of humans.”

“Aside from leaders being educated on the signs of abuse and what to do, churches need to also educate others. We need to offer educational events that are free and open to all to come and learn. Churches can also make it a part of their constitution/mission to safeguard children and all who are abused. In cases of caring for the abused, it takes a village. Churches and their members can offer safe spaces, food, basic needs, resources in the community, and someone to talk to. The worst thing the church can do in any situation of such grief is to ignore or deny the problem/situation. If the cross is truly part of the Church’s identity, we must be ready and willing to enter into the death and darkness of this world.”

“I have attended two ‘Safe-guarding God’s Children’ workshops through the ELCA.  I highly encourage that we students attend one of these training sessions.  After having done so, I saw that my home congregation was very negligent in having safety policies and screenings of volunteers working with children.  We immediately worked on implementing policies and guidelines, as well as background checking all volunteers. This convocation affirmed the necessity for continual reevaluation of policies and training.  I had not previously thought of the abuse that occurs with religion used as part of the abuse.  This was very eye opening to me.”

“My heart is broken, and also uplifted. I was hurt as a child, so it hit particularly close to home. The convocation shows a stark reality of the church’s failure, yet it offers hope because a room full of church leaders were similarly heartbroken. We will go into the church shaped by what we learned, protecting children, and perhaps leading predators to get the help they need. I also see the enormity of the work we have to do. There is no excuse for the church to have let itself become a place where predators go because it’s easy. The church has failed in this. And I hope we can make it succeed.”

“The subject of child abuse of all kinds is often taboo. This convocation brought the language to light. Child abuse must be talked about. The stigma towards admitting the church has a problem must be overcome. The Church can host community forums and offer training, or at least, a location for another organization to do trainings for their volunteers. Churches need a policy with an annual review. Volunteers must be trained. For the sake of children, complacency isn’t good enough. The topic needs to be brought out into the open.”

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WHO GIVES VOICE TO ABUSED CHILDREN? By Victor I. Vieth, 2nd Year MA DL, Sr. Director and Founder, National Child Protection Training Center, Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, WI

In the 28 years I have worked with and for abused children, I have learned three things.

First, I learned that love and courage is often found in the midst of great sorrow. I know children who wrapped their bodies around a sibling to absorb the blows meant for a brother or sister. I know children who risked their lives by sneaking food or toys into the room of a sibling being tortured. I know children who bravely testified about sexual abuse even though their entire church had condemned them for speaking the truth. In many of these instances, the children expressed forgiveness, even compassion for those who hurt them.

Second, I have learned to see Jesus through the eyes of children. A survivor of abuse once told me she loves Jesus because he is a descendant of a sexually exploited woman (Heb 11:31; Mt 1:5; Josh 2). A boy told me he knew it was OK to flee his abusive parents because Jesus fled those who tried to kill him (Mt 2:16). Many survivors have told me they found the courage to stand up to their churches because Jesus challenged religious leaders who failed to practice “justice and mercy” (Mt. 23:23). Many survivors have found understanding in a God who was also a victim of abuse. To the survivors I’ve known, the radical words of Christ concerning children (e.g. Mt. 18:6; 18:10; 21:15-16; Luke 10:21), take on a much deeper meaning than for most of us.

Third, children have taught me to look for the “faithful remnant” (1 Ki 19:1-18). With the possible exception of the earliest days of Christianity, the church has seldom been a friend of abused children and, in many instances, has directly contributed to the abuse of children (e.g. Michael D’Antonio, Mortal Sins). Nonetheless, maltreated children have helped me see that although the church has largely abandoned them, there are often individual Christians who will extend a hand or go the extra mile even when doing so jeopardizes their career. This is the invisible church known only to God and those who are suffering.

 

VISITING OUR COMPASSION CHILD IN TANZANIA By Christin Flucke, Final-Year MDiv Spouse

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During January term this year, my husband Daniel (final-year MDiv student) and I traveled with a group of seven people from Wartburg Seminary to Tanzania. Our goal on the trip was to witness the work God is doing there, and we spent an incredible two and a half weeks visiting a wide variety of ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) including multiple churches, primary and secondary schools, a university and a vocational training school, a rehabilitation center for people with physical and mental disabilities, a hospital, an orphanage, and even a coffee cooperative. We also experienced the tremendous beauty of God’s creation during safari tours through two different national parks, a definite highlight of the trip!

For me, the most meaningful part of the trip was getting to meet Naomi, the young girl I sponsor through Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship organization whose mission is releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name. After traveling almost 10 hours from where we were staying in Arusha to the capital city of Dodoma, I finally came face-to-face with this girl I’ve been sponsoring for almost seven years.

While there, we had a chance to visit the Compassion center and the church Naomi attends. I learned from the site director that I was only the second sponsor to ever make it to that site for a visit, so everyone was very excited to see us. Naomi was fairly shy and a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation, and I’m sure the fact that we didn’t speak the same language didn’t help much (though we did have a translator there to assist). That being said, she became a little more comfortable and relaxed throughout the day, and she and I were able to share a beautiful moment as we sat and looked through the collections of letters and photos we had exchanged over the years.

After our tour of the site, we walked to a local shop where our Compassion host helped me to purchase items like flour, rice, beans, and cooking oil to present as gifts for Naomi’s family. Then we had the opportunity to walk to Naomi’s home and meet her family.

Her house is very modest, consisting only of 1-2 small rooms with clay walls and a dirt floor. There is no electricity in the house and the only furniture was a few wooden stools and a mat on the floor where the family sleeps. However, we were warmly greeted by the entire family and graciously welcomed inside. Naomi lives with her parents and 3 siblings, but we also met her grandparents and multiple aunts, uncles, and cousins whom we suspect also live in the house or nearby.

 

After being introduced to everyone, I presented the gifts of food as well as a backpack I had brought along packed full of toys, school supplies, hygiene products, candy, etc. Daniel and I also received gifts from the family: a shawl and several clay cooking bowls for me and a ceremonial bow and arrow set for Daniel. We also exchanged words of thanks and prayed for one another, and of course, took lots of pictures. It was an incredible blessing to witness the work of Compassion first-hand, and it’s a day I’m sure I’ll remember and treasure forever!

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In addition to visiting Naomi and tour her Compassion site, we also happened to visit two additional Compassion sites located at ELCT churches as well as the main Compassion office in Tanzania. We witnessed again and again the work of this amazing ministry and the real difference it makes in the lives of children. We learned there are about 75,000 children in Tanzania who receive assistance from Compassion and have sponsors just like me. My family has been a supporter of Compassion for many years now, and it’s a commitment that Daniel and I knew we wanted to continue when we got married. Daniel and I have even volunteered at several Christian concerts to help find sponsors for Compassion children.

However, it’s one thing to hear the talks, watch the promotional videos, and hold the child packets, and another thing to actually get to see those faces in person, to hug the girl that you send letters and money to each month, and to meet the incredible people who make sure that money actually helps to make a real difference in the lives of those children.

Through all of these experiences we witnessed the amazing work God is doing through the Lutheran church in Tanzania. We experienced generous hospitality from so many wonderful people who are passionate about proclaiming the love and salvation of Jesus through worship, education, and service. We learned about the challenges of ministering in a nation where the average person lives on about $200 a year. We were reminded of the many things we take for granted here in the U.S such as reliable electricity, paved roads, access to affordable education and quality healthcare, and clean drinking water.

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But most of all, I was reminded of the simple yet profound truth that God is God no matter where you go. God’s church in Tanzania is not all that different from God’s church in the U.S., and while we may look different, dress or eat differently, or face different challenges in life, God is still God, and God is still good!

THE BROKEN BODY by Daniel Morris, WTS Final Year, M.Div

For some, Reformation Sunday is the Christian equivalent of the Fourth of July, a day to celebrate freedom from an oppressive overlord. For others, Reformation Sunday is a day to remember that the Church is called to read the times and respond faithfully in every generation. For some, Reformation Sunday is simply a Sunday to commemorate events lost to the past, the memory of which does little more than make Lutherans feel good about “beating” the Roman Catholics.

During this Reformation week and as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we should question practices of exclusion at the Eucharistic table where Christ intended to unite us. We should wonder at our treatment of children when we in effect teach them they can partake of Holy Communion only when they have reached a certain level of intellectual agreement and assent. We should wonder how we can ever hope to overcome the much greater forms of segregation (ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) if we cannot even come together around the table of our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

When in practice we teach justification through right belief, we return to pre-Reformation thought. The practice of excluding children from the Sacrament of the Altar reinforces the notion that God draws an invisible line between those who believe rightly, and are therefore worthy to receive Christ, and those whose lack of acceptable understanding makes them unworthy to receive God’s good gifts.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther says that “a person who has faith in these words, ‘given for you and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ is really worthy and well prepared [to partake of the sacrament].” Trust, not understanding, makes one worthy to receive. Yet we teach our children through our communion practice and through Reformation history in confirmation that only those with understanding and right belief are acceptable to God.

When Jesus’ disciples squabbled over who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus placed a child in their midst and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mt 18.3, 5) He also told them, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Mt 18.6) When Jesus’ disciples prevented children from coming to him, Jesus scolded them saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Mt. 19:14)

“THE BIKE RIDE”: A POEM by Carina Schiltz, MDiv student

AUTHOR MINI-BIO: Carina was inspired to write this poem by her work at a local elementary school.

“The Bike Ride”

Dearest child who cried today:

I can’t tell you your life is going to be better.

When your mom came and rode away with you on the bike
all I could think about while you sobbed was
the air flowing in and out of your lungs
as the sobs built to a wail
rolling over all who heard it
but tried so hard not to.

I have no idea how she balanced you
or balances her life–
her reality.

I live in utter privilege
and it makes me sick that I cannot escape it.
Instead I add to it; I encourage it
I bow down in homage to it.
I am bound to it and it separates me from you–
your reality

How I wish I could duck my shoulder
and crash into that barrier
pulverizing it; shattering it into something smaller:
perhaps a mirror where I could see you in me
and I in you–
but sin prevents us; society prevents us; I prevent us.

You have challenges ahead of you I cannot begin to imagine
and you are five.

You cannot even zip up your own winter coat yet.
As I helped you today your huge eyes bored into mine.
Will you remember tomorrow?
Will I?
Will we remember that my eyes looked at you in love?

Your braids bounce against your face as you run and play tag.
Even during the game your countenance is so solemn.
I hardly see you laugh or smile.

Once in awhile–how my heart flips when I see it–
your face breaks open to reveal that you are still a child
still find wonder
still grasp the joy of realizing that somehow,
life
is
good

But today,
your face crumpled instead.

You instantly start to cry when your mother
does her best
to transport you from here to your home in 25 degree weather
driving a bicycle and clutching you to her through the dark streets:
I curse my own warm, empty car.

How hollow is my drive home
as I imagine your tears freezing to your face
on your night journey past neon-lit bars
and vacant front porches.

How universal is your story?

I pray you rest well tonight;
that someone tucks you in
tells you they love you that you are important
that you can change the world.

You changed mine.

DADS AND DAUGHTERS by Shawn Brooks, M. Div. Junior

DADS AND DAUGHTERS: Role Model Marketing

I have a daughter who just turned seven. Before she was born, I thought I had some idea of the issues involved in trying to raise her to be a strong, smart, capable, independent woman who could think for herself and make her own choices. I knew that body image could eventually be an issue, and that the sexualization of our culture would need to be dealt with at some point. I would need to help her learn that she need not be limited by others’ ideas of what is “proper” for her to do or be. I was not prepared for the thoroughness of gender-based marketing.

I should have been, I suppose. Looking back, even in my childhood, Saturday mornings featured commercials for “action” toys that starred only boys and other toys for “domestic play” that starred only girls. I owned one of the original 12″ G.I. Joe “action figures”–a phrase coined because boys  supposedly don’t play with “dolls.”  But I didn’t think much about all that at age eight. When I played with girls, I often played house. When I played with boys, I often played cowboys or war. It didn’t matter; we just played something that everyone agreed on.

I started to recognize the pervasiveness of gender-based marketing to kids when we were trying to buy baby clothes before my daughter was born. We deliberately chose not to know our baby’s gender before birth, and we tried to find clothes in gender-neutral colors. It was almost impossible. Every item of clothing for newborns is either pink or blue or, occasionally, white; I think we found one green and one yellow outfit in all our searching. Little did I know this was just the tip of the iceberg.

As our daughter grew older, she inevitably discovered Disney movies, both the classics such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and their modern peers: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and others. I have to admit that I was an accessory-before-the-fact: I enjoyed the music and animation in the newer Disney movies. As a single man I had never thought much about the messages their heroines might be sending to young girls. By the time I started to think about that, it was much too late–my daughter was into everything princess.

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, Disney realized the power of packaging their various princesses together in videos, books, toys, and almost anything else you can think of that children use. In her essay “Princess Dreams,”* Katherine Turpin explains her own history with Disney Princesses and her daughter, and discusses not only the pervasiveness of the brand in children’s lives, but how the messages of both consumerism and gender stereotyping can affect a child’s developing spirituality. One of the many interesting points Turpin makes is about the falsity of the relationship a child develops with a fictional character:

Children put enormous amounts of energy and investment in the lives and happenings of nonexistent persons. However, when children are in need of assistance or support, these relationships provide neither support (of a material or emotional variety) nor, in most cases, an example of agency to inspire young girls.

The constant stimulation provided by the ubiquitous nature of products such as the Disney Princesses leads to another problem: if something is not entertaining, it’s boring. I have seen this with my own daughter. Some days it is a struggle to get her to read, even if she is not interested in her toys. As Turpin says, “This emphasis on excitement … limits the perceived value of non-entertainment activities with children, many of which are critical for children’s spiritual development.” Things that help one grow, especially spiritually, quite often are not “fun,” but they are necessary, and it is our job as parents to provide such experiences for our children.

How do we combat the messages consumer products are giving to our children, and replace them with solid spiritual values? In particular, how do I, as a dad, show my daughter that she does not have to conform to the gender stereotypes conveyed by the stories behind her favorite toys, even though I have often in my life been guilty of perpetuating those very stereotypes? Turpin examines several possible strategies:

■            Fight Fire With Fire – “Here, watch some VeggieTales.” Products such as VeggieTales may have better messages and teach the Gospel, but they do nothing to fight the “it has to be entertaining” issue.

■            Abstinence – “Such-and-such product will never be found in this house.” The problem here is that such control ends at one’s front door, and the messages of consumer culture are everywhere. If children are attracted to it, they will find it, whether it can be found in their own house or not.

■            Contestation – “How could Character X make better choices for her life?” Talk to your children about what they are seeing. As Turpin notes: “This parental work is not in vain. Children’s interactions with the stories and iconic characters proffered by the media are deeply impacted by the values and responses of those who surround them.”

■            Forge Authentic, Noncommercial Connections – Make sure your child has the opportunity to create relationships with adults or adolescents who can be good role models themselves. These relationships can be found many places, but if they are found among the congregation they have the added benefit of having a spiritual component already present. Speaking of her daughter, Turpin says, “she knows the value of these relationships; they are connections with real people who call her by name and love her as she is.”

■            Change Social Policy Through Collective Action – Fight back. Work to create changes in the relentless marketing to children. Join groups that put pressure on companies to be accountable for the messages they send.

In my case, it’s too late to put the genie back into the bottle. Now I have to work to counteract my daughter’s devotion to all things Princess. There is hope: she recently announced that she wasn’t interested in the Disney movies so much anymore, that now she likes movies with “real people in them.” But the pull of the princess storyline remains strong. We constantly remind her that she doesn’t need anyone else to be what she wants to be as a person. I can only hope that if I tell her that often enough, with enough love behind it each time, she’ll remember it when the cultural pressure of marketing lures her with its siren song.

*Katherine Turpin, “Princess Dreams,” in Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World, edited by Mary Elizabeth Moore and Almeda M. Wright, pp. 45-61, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008.