“Every child thrives, belongs, achieves ... ka whai oranga, ka whai wahi, ka whai taumata ia tamaiti.”
By Lyn Campbell
Sounds like heaven on earth, doesn’t it? This vision certainly fits with my understanding of “Thy Kingdom come ... on earth.”
The Government’s Green Paper for Vulnerable Children describes a vision which every Christian would surely support – a New Zealand “where all children can succeed and reach their full potential, with better job prospects, greater life choices and, in turn, a society with less dysfunction, unemployment, welfare dependence and crime.”
The Green Paper has been a chance for us to share our ideas with government leaders on how they, and we, can do better for vulnerable children and their families.
Certainly the damning statistics on child abuse have been a catalyst for discussions as to what needs to change. Think about these statistics – notifications of child abuse nationwide have grown from about 63,000 in 2006 to more than 150,000 in 2011. Substantiated cases of child abuse have jumped from almost 14,000 in 2006 to more than 22,000 last year.
While these statistics may reflect increased awareness and reporting due to campaigns such as “It’s not OK,” we should all be horrified at this underbelly of abuse that is a blight on our communities. Change will only come when all sectors of society, including churches and individual Christians, place the welfare of children and families at the centre of our attention. Jesus did. It has been encouraging to hear of various churches, individuals and Christian organisations making submissions.
Recently I facilitated one of 17 public forums around the country for members of the community to interact with Minister Paula Bennett to share ideas on how to bring change. I was impressed with the numbers who took time to attend, the quality of the debate, their ideas and passion.
They focused on the 160,000 children considered to be vulnerable at any given time – at risk from abuse, neglect, truancy, and hospitalisation. Many urged the Minister to look more broadly at the current social and economic climate, where most children could be termed “at risk” and likely to become part of the cohort described as “vulnerable” through illness, family breakup, unemployment, earthquakes, death, debt and so on. For behind the damning statistics lie more tragic stories of many other children whose lives are blighted by drugs and alcohol, poor parenting and caregiving, fatherlessness, mental health issues, chronic neglect, ignorance, and violence.
Of concern to me was the apparent lack of representation (and interest?) of Christian church leaders. The Salvation Army was, as always, there – informed about issues and contexts and able to articulate possible interventions. I was disappointed that a major issue of national importance appeared to be low on the churches’ radar in terms of where we need to be informed, thinking about the implications for our faith communities, our call to mission and the need to bring influence.
In 2002, I was a member of the External Advisory Group during the development and public consultation phase of the national Agenda for Children. It was a costly and time consuming exercise aimed at key actions for government and communities to “make NZ a better place for children and families.”
The report and action plan were launched in Parliament with due fanfare and hope for a better future, but languished due to the neglect of government to put in the resources and determination to place children and their families high on the agenda across government.
Within three years the Agenda for Children was gathering dust on the shelves of the Ministry of Social Development – almost a complete waste of time and money, which made me justifiably angry. There is a risk that this government’s good intentions with the Green Paper, and a subsequent Action Plan, will have the same result.
If it does, and I hope it doesn’t, we will probably be quick to criticise the perceived ineptness and bureaucratic governmental barriers, which might be causes. But we would also have to ask ourselves, as God’s representatives on earth: “What is my responsibility in being an agent of change in my neighbourhood and community, especially where vulnerable children are concerned? Where am I having influence? What’s changing for children, families and the wider community because our church is in the neighbourhood?”
I’ve recently been impacted and stirred by a situation described by Landa Cope in her book The Introduction to The Old Testament Template – Rediscovering God’s principles for discipling all nations, published in 2006. Putting aside my annoyance with what I felt was a misleading and confusing title, I was impressed with Landa’s description of the work of a journalist who discovered that the city of Dallas had the highest church attendance of any community in the United States on any given Sunday – real Bible belt territory! (Maybe a bit like South Auckland or Tauranga?)
The journalist then looked at the statistics on social demographics of Dallas to see if the presence of so many people, involved in churches, might have a possible impact.
He looked at crime, safety of streets, police enforcement, justice, imprisonment, health indicators, infant injury and mortality, participation in education and so on.
The statistics were devastating. Crime, safety, discrepancies and racial injustices disqualified this community from having an adequate quality of life for many of its residents. Yet this was the most “Christianised and churched” city in America. When this damning picture of vulnerable communities was taken to a respected Christian leaders, they were asked: “What is your response to the condition of your community?” Without exception, in various ways, all had the same response – “Not my concern. I”m a spiritual leader.”
I doubt we would get this response in New Zealand. There is an increasing desire amongst churches to be effective change-makers in our communities. The evidence is in the huge numbers of initiatives, big and small, involving thousands of volunteers and paid staff in community initiatives.
At the same time, there is expressed concern that discriminatory attitudes, fear and a failure to both “see” and “hear” (Mark 8:18) keeps some churches locked in the comfort of their own church communities, out of touch with the more challenging aspects of day- to-day life in our wider communities. These are not seen as missionfields, to which we are all called.
Feedback from Christian leaders around the country also indicates a desire to know how to be more influential voices at all levels. Many want to address discrepancies between what is taught and preached in churches and the experience of children and families, especially the most vulnerable.
How can we both speak and live out the gospel of salvation and the kingdom? How can our transformed lives bring the kingdom to earth in our families, streets, neighbourhoods and cities to make them better places for everyone – where the influence and impact of good people is greater than evil?
• Lyn is National Leader for Baptist Community Ministries. An abbreviated version was published in Community Ministries’ e-news prior to submissions on the Green Paper closing on February 28.