My First Sermon - "And, How Are the Children"

Last Sunday, I did something that I have only thought about before. I preached my first official sermon. It was an exciting experience that I will not soon forget.

My friend, Rev. Luana Cook Scott, invited me to speak at her church, Central United Methodist, last Sunday as part of their annual Children's Sabbath. After some initial hesitation, I agreed, and I am very glad that I did.

I was reluctant to deliver a sermon, but after avoiding a similar invitation from another Pastor for Children's Sabbath last year, I felt like I shouldn't avoid it a second time.

Please excuse the long post, but since I have shared various posts about my faith over the years and enjoy being part of the broader the Metho-blogger community in the blogosphere, I thought I would share my sermon as I prepared it for last Sunday.

A huge hat tip goes to my friend and colleague, Ralph McQuarter of the Minnesota Children's Trust Fund, for providing the illustration that served as the general theme for the sermon.

I appreciate Luana's invitation to share a message with her congregation, and I look forward to meeting with them again for an upcoming Wednesday evening dinner meeting when we are going to explore more ways their congregation can support children and families.

Let me know what you think. Thanks!
And, How are the Children?
Jim McKay
Central United Methodist
Huntington, WV
Children’s Sabbath
October 28, 2007
Good morning. I bring you greetings from Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church where my wife Carol is the Associate Pastor. Carol wanted to be here this morning along with our sons, Jake and Jonah, but she is also preaching this morning.

It is my honor and privilege to be with you today as we celebrate Children’s Sabbath together recognizing God’s amazing gift to us through our children.

I am especially pleased to be here with your Pastor, Reverend Luana Cook Scott. I am sure you are aware of the many gifts that she possesses for ministry, and I have especially appreciated her strong voice of truth speaking out to our state leaders and those in powerful positions proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and sharing Jesus’ message of justice and compassion for all in our state and beyond. Luana’s dedication and leadership is well recognized among those of us who advocate on behalf of children and families in West Virginia.

On behalf of all of us and especially my own children, thank you Luana for all that you do.

As Luana mentioned, my name is Jim McKay, and I am honored to serve as State Coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia. We are the official state chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America and our mission is to eliminate child abuse and neglect in all its forms in WV.

It’s a challenging mission to be sure, but the good news is that we know how to accomplish it, and it can be done. I look forward to sharing a few ideas with you for how we can work together to help the children and families in our community and beyond.

How Are the Children?
As I was preparing for this morning, I was reminded of how my friend Ralph McQuarter, who is the Director of the Minnesota Children’s Trust Fund, begins his speeches or remarks. Regardless of the audience, Ralph almost always begins by introducing himself and then asking the question, “And, how are the Children?”

Ralph told me that he adopted the greeting from the Maasai tribe in Africa -- one of the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Kenya. No tribe has a wider reputation for their intelligence and courage than the Maasai and even today the warrior spirit is still present with ritual and sacred ceremony.

Given their fearsome reputation, it may seem surprising that the traditional greeting between Maasai Warriors is “Kasserian Ingera” 
which means ”And How Are the Children.“

The traditional and hoped-for response to this question, even among warriors who have no children of their own, is simply . . . ”All of the Children Are Well.“

The meaning of this response is that peace and safety prevail and that the tribe’s priority of protecting the young and the powerless is still intact. They affirm that the Maasai society has not forgotten its values -- its reason for being.

”All of the Children Are Well“ means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles of existence, even for a poor people, still include taking care of their young.

I think it speaks highly of the Maasai, that they have placed such a high priority on their children and their well-being, and I can’t help but wonder what life would be like for us, if we started greeting each other with this daily question: ”And How Are the Children?“

What if in every situation where greetings are exchanged we asked about our kids, their welfare, their safety . . . how would our communities change? Our churches? Our nation?

Imagine if it became the practice at every presidential press conference for our Commander in Chief to answer the question: ”Mr. President . . . And how are the Children?

Imagine our governors, our mayors, the principals of our schools, our business associates, our neighbors, our friends and families, all being asked that same question everyday . . .
“And how are the Children? Are the Children All Well?”


I believe that this is the same question being posed in this morning’s scripture from Matthew. How do we treat the least of these among us? Are they well?

Depending on our actions, our responses have major consequences in the eyes of God.

Jesus’ example was that we should care for “the least of these” with compassion. We should meet the needs and care for our children, just as Jesus cared for the children he met and as God cares for each of us as children of God.

The noted theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, asked the question in this way, saying, "The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children."

So how are the children in Huntington, WV? Are the children all well?
I wish that I could say that “all of the children are well”, but unfortunately, that is just not true at this time.

Children in America, in West Virginia, and in Huntington specifically, are faced with numerous challenges. As you know, our community ranks extremely low on far too many indicators of child well being.

For example, last year in Cabell County 318 children were victims of child abuse or neglect, and those are only the confirmed cases. Actual numbers are likely higher. This means for every 50 children in our county, 1 child is known to be abused or neglected. In other words, among my son’s classmates in the 2 first-grade classrooms at his school, one child is likely to be the victim of abuse or neglect during this year.

It’s hard to say that “All the children are well” when we know the number of abused and neglected children in Cabell County during the past year would fill an average elementary school, not to mention that number of children would fill this sanctuary.

We also know that children in our community are challenged by poverty. More than half of Cabell County’s students qualify for free and reduced price school meals, and we know that our per capita and family income trails national averages significantly. In fact, in WV a child is born poor every 2 hours.

Access to basic health care is another area of concern. The gospel texts feature many examples of Jesus’ power to heal the sick including children such as Jairus’ daughter and others. Unfortunately, 1 in 6 West Virginians and over 34,000 WV children have been without health insurance at some time during the past year.

For these folks, they are relying on the same health care plan that Jairus had 2000 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I think that faith is very important, and I believe in God’s power to heal the sick. However, I don’t think that Jesus would approve of a system where sick children and their parents are forced to rely on faith and do without access to health care and needed medicine in the name of corporate profits or reduced government spending. Children’s health care should not be a faith-based initiative.

Finally, it’s hard to say that “all the children are well”, when black boys born in the United States now have a one in three chance that they will be in jail or prison at some time during their lives. Latino boys have a one in six risk of the same fate. We have a Cradle to Prison Pipeline because too many poor infants enter the world with multiple strikes against them.

These are children of single mothers who don’t have prenatal care, children who don’t have access to health and mental health care, children whose family and community supports are inadequate to prevent abuse and neglect. These children have little or no early child development opportunities to prepare them for school, and they attend schools that exclude and criminalize children at earlier and earlier ages. These are the children with too few positive role models and few alternatives to the streets.

What to do

If we are going answer the question “And how are the children?” with a positive response, then we will need to start investing more in the play pen, than we are investing in the state pen. But, this change will require a major shift in our shared priorities.

We must start making children a real priority – not just for in our political speeches and our photo ops, but for our communities, our churches, and our families.

In my work, a great amount of research has gone into identifying ways to prevent child abuse and other adverse childhood experiences in children’s lives. In recent years, researchers at the Center for the Study of Social Policy have identified five “protective factors” in families, which enable families to deal more successfully with whatever challenges arise. These protective factors are: parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete support in times of need, and social and emotional competence of children.

When these five protective factors are present in families then there is a reduction in child maltreatment as well as other positive outcomes for children. The good news is that we can all work together to help build these protective factors, and communities of faith are already doing many things that build these protective factors for families in our community.

Churches and communities of faith play a vital role, as well as our actions as individuals, as neighbors, as extended families, and as communities. The decisions of our political leaders and policy makers are crucial, as well as the actions of non-profit organizations, schools, businesses, organized labor and civic organizations working together in partnership to help ensure that “all of our children are well.”

When that happens, then we will be following the example of the Maasai warriors and the commitment that they have to their children, and more importantly we will be following the example of our Mes-si-ah, Jesus, and caring for children and “the least of these”.

When we start following HIS example, then we will be able to answer the question “And, how are the children?” with sincerity and say "All of the Children Are Well".

* This sermon is adapted from remarks originally offered by Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O'Neill in a well-known sermon that he delivered in 1991 at the First Parish in Framingham, MA.