Slow Children

One night you awaken in the dark to find yourself at the wheel of the car.  It could be that you are dreaming, that remains to be seen.  Driving along the road you can see that the speed limit is clearly posted: 65 miles an hour.  This, you know full well, entitles you to drive at 75 miles an hour, maybe 80, with impunity.  Which you do as you pass the state trooper with hardly a thought.

As you continue to drive, you notice the signs along the road that seem a bit unusual.  You drive past a sign that is a surprise to you.  It reads: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is odd, but on reflection, as you speed along, you realize that, as with the speed limit, you have had to learn to interpret this sign too.  It is not quite as clear as it seems to be.  And anyway, there are fewer police to enforce that particular law.  I mean, I interpret that golden rule all the time.  Every day I pass people on the street to whom I do not apply the golden rule.  But it’s not just the hungry and the homeless I am able to zoom past with hardly a thought.  I drive by plenty of people that I know and love at 75 miles an hour sometimes, hoping you do not know that it’s me in the car that just whizzed past you, on your right.

You are driving south.  Most of the signs are of little interest.  They are for exits you do not need and roads which you have no intention of traveling.  You can pass by those signs with hardly a glance except to no notice that you are well into North Carolina now, or is it already Tennessee already?  You realize that you do not know where you are going or why.  This car, you realize, has a mind of its own.  You never chose this journey, and you are not in charge.  But as long as you are not paying for the gas, you don’t object.  And the radio is set to NPR, so what’s to complain about?

Before you get clear across Oklahoma, the car turns south and you hit Texas.  You speed past Dallas and San Antonio and you push further south.  Somewhere in Texas you see a sign that is familiar to you, but it is out of place because you don’t normally see these signs on the highways.  It is a yellow rectangle, portrait view, outlined in black, with a stylized running figure in the middle, and the words “SLOW CHILDREN” spelled out across the top and bottom.  Clearly the sign is out of place.  Children do not play along the highways – or at least they shouldn’t.  You pause in your mind, but your foot never eases up on the gas. 

You are listening to NPR so by now you have an inkling of who these children are since you are in Texas, but you do not know why you are being taken here.  You do not yet know what the signs mean, since you have not yet seen any children.

Then you see that perplexing sign again: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  And now another sign that simply reads, “Abba, Father!”  And you read it to yourself as you pass beneath it, breathing the words as a kind of prayer.  “Abba, Father.”

On the radio there is talk of the 50,000 immigrant children teeming on our borders in places like Brownsville, Texas.  And you look up and you see a sign that tells you that you are headed for Brownsville.  And then another sign reminds you: “SLOW CHILDREN.”

And a small voice comes on the radio, and it is as though the voice is speaking to you, which makes no sense, since the voice is on the radio, and is also speaking in Spanish, which you do not speak except to order una cervesa now and then.  But you become certain that the small, Spanish-speaking voice is addressing you from the radio, so you find that you are, in fact, compelled somehow to slow down, and eventually to pull over, to stop and listen, the way you very rarely will do when you hear a piece of sublimely beautiful music on the radio and you want to hear it to the end and to find out what it is, so you sit in your car on the side of the road, waiting for the music to end, and hoping the announcer will identify the piece.

Lost in this thought momentarily, your attention returns to the voice on the radio, which, now that you have pulled over, you seem to be able to understand.  It is a child’s voice.  Inexplicably, the child is quoting St. Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

“What are you talking about?” you address the radio.

“I am talking about hope,” the child’s voice replies.  And so now you are talking to the radio – or to the child who is talking to you through the radio.

“Child,” you say, “what are you doing?  Why are you talking to me this way?”

“Because I am an orphan and a stranger in a strange land,” comes the voice.  “I have come from poverty and from murder and from hopelessness.  I have been sent away from certain hopelessness to a blind hope across your border.  ‘Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’”

“Who taught you that?” you ask, “I don’t think that St. Paul was talking about illegal immigrants when he wrote that.”

“Neither do I,” says the child, “but are you telling me that St. Paul had no words of hope for me?  Are you telling me that I am wrong to hear hope in the message of Jesus? Are you telling me that I should return my mind and my dreams to despair?

“Am I an illegal immigrant?” asks the child.  “I am an orphan, I know that.  Do you think my parents sent me away as though this is summer camp and I would return?  I am jammed into a detention center where my lice are dancing with the lice of other children, laughing at us because no one will ever stop them from crossing the border.

“I am here hoping for something that I cannot even name, grasping for something that I am not old enough to grasp for.  I am poor, and malnourished, and uneducated.  I am blind to whatever there is to hope for here, but I am assured that it is better than the hopelessness whence I came.  Are you telling me that I am wrong?  Are you telling me that my faith is misplaced?”

An awkward silence fills the car.

“Child,” you say, “you are too young to understand this, but you cannot stay here.  You misunderstand the Scriptures if you think that they are calling you to hope for something here.  We are not a Christian nation.  We don’t owe you anything.  We can’t adopt you.”

“Jesus was adopted by Joseph,” the child’s voice says.

“Yes, but that was different,” you say.

“How was it different?” the child asks.

This will not be a fruitful line of discussion to pursue.  You change the direction.

“Do you know how many of you there are!?!?  What are we supposed to do with you all?” you ask.

“How am I supposed to know?” replies the child, “I am only a child.”

“You are an illegal immigrant,” you tell the voice.

“I am a refugee,” the child replies.

“No you’re not!”

“Then I am a pilgrim,” says the child.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” you say.

“Do you know where I have come from?  Do you know the desert I have crossed to get here?  How can you say that I am not a pilgrim!?”

“Pilgrims don’t escape hopeless situations only to settle in new lands,” you say.

“Perhaps not,” says the child, “but have you read what you are teaching your own children in Social Studies?  I think you might find there is something there about pilgrims fleeing a bad situation in hope of finding a better one.  So you might want to get your story straight.”

“This is a semantic argument,” you assert to the radio.

“But I am not a semantic argument,” says the child.  “I am a child of God.  The circumstances of my birth, and of my up-bringing, and of my homeland cannot be blamed on me, troublesome though they may all be.

“I have lived much of my life in a spirit of fear, never more so than when I set out on the journey to this place – a journey I never wished for, and which has left me without anything in the world, including my mother.  And now I am here.  At night, remembering what my mother taught me, I pray to God, I ask God to help me.  I say, ‘Our Father, nuestra señor, Abba, father!’  Is it me praying, or is it the Spirit praying in me?  How should I know?  I am only a child.

“How will I go back from here?  Where will I go?  Will my parents be there?  Will they take me?  Do they want me?  Don’t you think these questions keep me awake at night, sobbing into my dirty pillow? 

“So, yes, I am willing to look to St. Paul, I am willing to look anywhere at all to find an argument for someone to take me, for someone to feed me, for someone to care for me.  I am willing to look anywhere for hope.  Am I misreading the scriptures if I find it there?

“Why should the scriptures address your first-world, inner, spiritual problems, but not my third-world, outward, concrete problems?  Don’t you think that the scriptures are more familiar with the latter than the former?

“Why shouldn’t I hope for what I do not see?  Why shouldn’t I wait for it with patience?  Why shouldn’t I groan inwardly while I wait for adoption?  What else can I do?  Did you hear what St. Paul said?  He could have been speaking for me: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

“But, child, this is not was he was talking about!  He was talking about the glory of God, he was talking about the kingdom that awaits us; he was not talking about crossing illegally into America!” you protest.

“Perhaps not,” says the child.  “You have your sufferings and I have mine.  You have your hope and I have mine.  For the moment, mine has brought me here, to this sorry existence at the border of the land of plenty, where I am sneered at and treated as nothing more than a dirty problem, but certainly I am not treated as a child.

“For now, I will grasp at any hope I can, even if it is hoping for something I cannot see.  I will grasp at any faith I can.  And if there is someone teaching that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us, then I am going to pay attention.  Because otherwise I am not at all sure the sufferings of this present time are worth it.  Something better must await me in this world or in the next, and before long it won’t matter to me which it is.

“Otherwise, what am I but a weed allowed to grow here for a time while the wheat grows, only to be bundled together by the reapers and burned in the fire when the wheat is collected?  Is this the message the Gospel has for me?  Am I only a weed?”

You sigh in the driver’s seat, and you pause before responding as tenderly as you can, “Child, you do not understand.  It’s not your fault, but really, you fail to see the complexity of the situation.”

The child replies, “It’s true that I fail to see much that is complex about the hunger in my tummy and the fear in my heart.  Except that now I do not know which would be worse, to stay here or to be sent back; that’s a little complex.  It is hot here, and there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth, but then I have never known anyplace that was not hot and where there was not much weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But what choice have I got but to hope for what I cannot see?  What choice have I got but to believe that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed?  What choice have I got but to wait for it with patience?  What choice have I got but to cry out through my tears, ‘Abba, father!’  What choice have I got but to hope?”

You don’t know what to say to the child.  And the radio begins to crackle with static, and the news from NPR comes on.  And you can see the dim lights of Brownsville in the distance.  And you realize that the car is now in your control, and you could easily turn around and leave this place without ever slowing down for the children.  You can easily avoid them, and so can I.

And here we are on the side of the road, wondering what to do, crying, Abba, father amidst the sufferings of this present time.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

20 July 2014

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 20, 2014 .