The Missing Generations

You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.

For something like 50 to 100 years – it’s actually hard to say how long – various policies throughout the states of Australia resulted in the forcible removal of indigenous children from their families of origin.  There is not easy consensus about what the purposes of such policies were, and some people implausibly deny that they were ever in place.  Some say that the policies were there to protect the children from neglect; others say it was to preserve their Aboriginal heritage; still others say it was to “civilize” a race of people that was not as technologically advanced as the Europeans who had by then long ago claimed Australia as their own.

One reason for removing indigenous children from the bosoms of their families, however, seems to be wrapped up in the perverse thinking of eugenics: through generations of inter-marriage with fairer skinned people and generations of socialization in European customs, this thinking went, you could “eliminate the full-blood and permit the white admixture to half-castes and eventually the race will become white,” according to one of the policy’s best-known proponents.[i]

The children taken during these decades came to be known as the Stolen Generations – and no one really knows quite how many children were indeed stolen.  Can you imagine what it was like?  Here’s how one member of a stolen generation described what happened:

“I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie. They put us in the police [car] and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we'd gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers' backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth.”[ii]  And so it was that several generations of children were taken from their own families to grow up in orphanages and schools other institutions, some of them run by the churches of Australia.  And generations of Aboriginal families were deprived of their own children.

Of course, the policies were not only misguided and cruel, they did not succeed in eliminating the indigenous peoples of the Australian continent, who have never fared very well since Europeans came to those beautiful shores with their supposedly superior culture.  To this day Aboriginal Australians often suffer the same kinds of indignities that Native Americans suffer on our own continent: unusually high rates of poverty, unemployment, addictions, and, of course, the loss of the lands and customs that sustained their lives for generations past.

But I digress.  For, today the Gospel compels us to think about children.  We find Jesus’ disciples engaged in an activity that adults have perfected – arguing about who is greatest, which is a way of saying that they were wrangling over power.  Knowing something about power, Jesus wants to teach them.  So he scurries off for a moment, and then comes back to the house where they are all gathered.  He has with him a child – maybe it’s an infant, or a toddler, but I like to think it’s a child a little bit older, say, a middle-school-aged child.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he says to them.  And then, he takes the child in his arms.  If it’s small enough, he is cradling it in his arms.  Or, if the child is a little older, perhaps he bounces the boy or girl on his knee.  If the child is a little older still, standing beside him, Jesus wraps his arms around his or her shoulders, and draws the child close to him as he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”

This is a recurring theme in the Gospels – not only the lesson that the first shall be last, etc, but also the instruction, the command, the imperative (you might say) to welcome children.  It’s a lesson most forcefully and memorably taught by Jesus when his disciples are yelling at people for bringing their children into the presence of the great teacher, and they are telling the people to take their kids away and get out of the way.  But Jesus intervenes and says, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  The disciples meant well, but they were wrong – not just because Jesus made it permissible to bring children into his presence, but because children have a privileged place in his heart, and in the kingdom of God.

I sometimes think of those generations of stolen indigenous Australian children, ripped from the arms of their mothers, tossed into the backs of pick-up trucks, and then hidden away till they could somehow blend in wit the rest of white Australian society.  And sometimes I think about this parish, which I love, and about parish churches like it, and I wonder, who stole our children?

There are entire generations of children missing from the life of the church in many places, certainly it is the case here in this parish.  The children were not taken from us forcibly – it was all much more subtle.  In urban churches, like ours, it was linked to the flight of so many families from the cities to the suburbs.  And then, of course, the loss of Sundays as free, un-programmed time, protected for worship and family togetherness.  The church has proved to be a weak attraction compared to softball leagues, and football games, and Sunday brunches.  But we didn’t shoo the kids away, as the disciples did; we just woke up on successive Sunday mornings and found that they were simply missing.  We may have wondered who took them, but what could we do?

At Saint Mark’s, for decades now, we have tried to make the best of it – enormously grateful for those few families with their children who stalwartly remain – but generally learning to cope without the children, filling the roles they once filled with adults, as necessary, and keeping just enough small-sized vestments around to fit the occasional boat boy, as a reminder to us – since those boat boys and girls look so right in this place, so much like they belong here – a reminder to us of the missing generations.

There’s something awkward in the passage of Mark’s Gospel that we heard today that may contain a lesson for us.  Mark is very specific that Jesus and his disciples are gathered in a house, as Jesus talks with them, but I doubt that there is a child sitting there in the house with them.  Jesus must have gotten up to go get a child.  Did he go to another part of the house?  Or out into the street?  Who knows?  But I feel certain that Jesus had to get up from where he was sitting and go get the child that he put in the midst of his disciples in order to teach them a lesson.

Perhaps part of the lesson for us in this Gospel passage comes from asking, “Where did the child come from?”  It’s a form of the question I ask around here, “Where will the children come from?”  It’s all fine and well to say that children ought to be a part of the church, after all, but where will they come from?  Out of thin air?

Well, where did the child come from that Jesus put in the midst of his disciples?  Jesus went to find the child, and he brought her in.

My brothers and sisters, our children are missing.  They have been taken from us by forces that we often think are more powerful than we are.  And in so many cases their entire families have gone with them.

Our children are missing, and they are being deprived of a Christian heritage: of the Christian story, of the Christian sacraments, of the Christian community, of the Christian life – all of which are good and useful and holy.

Our children are missing, and after all, the church hasn’t shown herself to be an unreliable care-taker of children?  There are those who are ready to say what a good thing it is that the children are missing from the church.

Our children are missing, which puts us in peril if we truly care about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven, and whoever welcomes a child welcomes not just the child, but Jesus.

Entire generations of our children are missing from the church – including the present generation.  It’s been no one’s policy.  No bands of policemen have gathered them up and carted them off.  They are not locked up in a cell somewhere.  They have not been taken by force from their mothers’ sides.  But they have been seamlessly assimilated into a society that either thinks it has outgrown the kingdom of God, or would rather turn its back on the kingdom of God.

Our children are missing, but we cannot really point to anyone else, and say, “It’s your fault.”  Because the children were missing when Jesus gathered the disciples in that house in Capernaum, too.  The disciples, after all, were planning their own futures, designing their own vestments, arguing over who was the greatest, who would sit at the Lord’s right hand.

I wonder how they arranged themselves in that house, after their discussion – how did they jostle to get the best seat, beside the Teacher?  How awkward was it for them when he got up from their gathering and left them to sit there alone with each other?

How long was he gone?  Did he just go to the next room and find a child sitting there in its mother’s lap?  Or did he go out the front door and ask one, then another passer-by if he could borrow her child for just a moment?  Or did he bring the mother in with him too, and ask her to join them?

Why did they think he had brought a child into their august gathering?  Children can be disruptive, after all.  And they thought they were doing just fine without children; they thought it was best to keep the children at bay.  Let them come to Jesus when they are grown up, they thought.  They had no idea that the children were missing from their midst; they had thought they were doing alright without them.  But they were wrong.

So Jesus went to find a child and hold her in his arms.

My friends, if your children were missing you would go out and look for them.  You would not sleep till they had been found, you would not rest till they were warmly tucked in their beds, you would not leave any stone unturned in your search for them.

If your children were missing you would find them and bring them home.

Well, my friends, our children are missing.  To welcome them is to welcome not only Jesus, but to open our lives to the whole presence of God, to welcome the one who sent him. 

Our children are missing.  Are we just going to sit here?  Or shall we go together and find them?


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

23 September 2012

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

[i] A.O. Neville in The West Australian, 1930

[ii] The Stolen Generation, by Peter Read, a report to the Dept. of Aboriginal Affairs of the Government of New South Wales

Posted on September 23, 2012 .