There are girls I think of often.
One was my best friend as a child. In the third grade, we cut holes into trash bags and then put them on so we could be black horses, and pranced around in the yard neighing and pretending uncooked spaghetti was hay. She visited me all the time, but I was intimidated by her house when I went: it was filthy and falling into disrepair. Her parents were unfriendly, disinterested, and profane. Her father shouted a lot, and I wondered sometimes if he ever raised a hand to her, though she would not tell me that he had. She came to church with us often, and Vacation Bible school, but in middle and high school the administration placed her in different classes, and she started skipping school. She stopped calling. At sixteen, she got pregnant, and left school entirely.
Another was a close family friend. She came from a disadvantaged family whose members struggled with poverty, writing fraudulent checks, and prescription pill abuse. Her mother struggled to help her with her schoolwork. But she was tall and friendly and strong and we made up dances and lip-synched to popular songs together, played with our Cabbage Patch dolls, and invented stories. Because she was younger than me, I didn’t see her much at school, but we remained friends over the years even as she fell into the same traps some members of her family had: first prescription pills and then heroin, then fraud. Jail sentences were interspersed with rehab, which was interspersed with relapses. The cycle remains ongoing.
What strikes me about these girls is that they weren’t much different from me. We were all bright and creative, hopeful, energetic. I like to imagine we all had a lot of potential. But my parents, and the authority figures around me, cared. They cared deeply. My parents were involved in my school and personal life, and shared their faith with me. I had teachers who took note of me and encouraged my gifts or pushed me on to do even better. I had a community of church members and local adults who knew enough to report me to my parents if I misbehaved or acted out of character. In my life existed this immense safety net meant both to keep me safe and to help me grow, to keep me from falling.
These girls didn’t. Both of them, and many other boys and girls I knew, fell through the cracks. Their parents either didn’t know enough, or didn’t care enough, to help them. Teachers wrote them off as a lost cause, or never really noticed them. They were isolated from a community of people who might help them, coming into contact only infrequently with groups who might provide a useful support network. The people who were able to provide support or encouragement to them – like my family – still only had a minimal impact against the tide of other influences in their lives.
In light of that, I try to remember that the church is meant to be a home for these children.
Yes, some of them are troublemakers. Some will come to church ill-cared for, uncertain of social graces, mischievous. Some will have lice. Some will say inappropriate things. Others will seem precocious and bright and shining even in their difficult circumstances. And they all matter exactly the same. They are all precious. And it is the church who can step in to see them and remember them and provide a place for them when they fall through the cracks of the system: unnoticed by overworked teachers who simply cannot save everyone, disregarded or abused by parents, left to fend for themselves because they seem “fine enough.”
“Your eyes saw my unformed body,” the psalmist remembers, “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Every living being is precious to God, and children the weakest and most vulnerable of them all; these children who visit our churches infrequently, passing through and flickering briefly in our lives before disappearing, need us desperately. May our care for them, and our remembrance of them, be something that we do not allow ourselves to forget.