It changed everything.
It changed my community.
It changed my family.
It changed me.
12 weeks ago I began to bury children. Twelve weeks, eleven children. About one per week. My journey to the graves of children began a year earlier when the vestry of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church (HIEC) invited me to take up the task of asking and answering: what would it look like for us to be claimed by the stories of the 300–500 children who die per year by violence in Georgia — the Holy Innocents of Our Day? In short, the missional question to which we desired an answer was: what might happen if we, a church named for children slaughtered by King Herod in an attempt to prevent Jesus from living, were to be possessed by the names and stories of child victims today?
Now don’t get me wrong, I do not believe any of us imagined we would be where we are today. No one, not even I, thought we would actually be burying children. The early days of our discernment had all of our best ideas, resources, and capabilities in mind. We were thinking after school programming for kids (which we offer), ESL classes (which we have) and justice-centered worship experiences (which we curate). But the more we journeyed, the more stories of children and Case-workers we heard, the more we realized that we could no longer collude with society’s denial of reality.
Let me be clear, the real saint and pioneer of this work is the Reverend Cliff Dawkins. Rev. Dawkins is a chaplain for Fulton County Georgia and a bi-vocational pastor of a church in one of the most forgotten places in Atlanta. Rev. Dawkins has been burying people in the state of Georgia for almost 15 years. During this time, Cliff has buried somewhere in the neighborhood of 4500 people. Yeah….sit with it. 4500. Mostly, he’s done this by himself. And yet, Cliff’s work is holy, as he gives dignity to every person who arrives at the grave even when no marker will follow.
It was just four months ago that Cliff and I finally met and discussed HIEC’s call to bear witness to the deaths of children in Fulton County. He was moved by our desire to bear witness with regularity and with our decision to dedicate columbarium space to children who die by violence. In truth, while I knew that not all children who were buried in “indigent graves” were necessarily deaths by violence, my sense was — and has proven true — that something has gone awry in a culture where thousands of predominately poor men, women, and children are buried in unmarked graves often with only the loving gaze of Care-workers (not simply Case-workers) to bear witness.
And let me just suggest this while I’m here: the next time you see anyone who works for the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) out and about, treat them like you would any other heroic civil servant (military, police, or fire). Hell, treat them better! Buy them a coffee. Give them a “thanks”. Tell them how much you appreciate their work. It is time that we in society take responsibility for the burden that we have placed upon our compassion-fatigued, over-worked, underpaid state employees who remain the front lines of our republic’s response to families in crisis. Let’s just admit it: we love it when they fail because at least we can blame them for our lack of caring.
#Ouch. Yeah, I know.
But if it weren’t so, why aren’t we celebrating their successful keeping of families together? Why do only stories of failure from the DFCS system pepper the news more than the jobs-well-done daily? Why don’t they get the same support and access to care as our other civil servants? Why? Well, that’s just something for us to think on at a different time.
Yes, twelve weeks ago, I said yes and it changed everything. I guess in these many weeks you might say that I’ve begun to comprehend what Abraham Joshua Heschel once famously said, that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” I guess I’ve begun to hear in the cries of mothers, and in the absence of weeping at the graves of children, a call to live into the “mending of our every flaws” — America! America! Yes, I guess you might just say that in seeking to answer a simple question about mission, I (and we at Holy Innocents) have found a purposed work that is at the very least inescapable and at the most a holy, messy, honorable thing so close to the heart of all that is wrong with our world that I can not avoid but bearing a hopeful witness to it.
Children are dying y’all. They are dying for all kinds of reasons, many of which are preventable in a society where people truly care about their neighbors. And in 2016, if no one else will, we neighbors of faith must give a damn for our kids. For kids are being born right this moment. Some to parents who will care for them. Some to a mom who only has them to love. And yes, there are children being born right this painful instant to moms and dads who can not imagine the horror of raising a child to live in/through the dangers and difficulties of utter-systemic-poverty.
It’s your turn. Your turn to say yes. Your turn to wake up and open your eyes to see newly. Let’s have our reality augmented together and decide to see the injustice of things right in front of our faces — right in our own backyards. Then, let’s put the yes-best of ourselves to work so that we can transform our community, our cities, and our nation into safer, nay, into holier places for all God’s children.
I don’t know what you alone can do, but I do know this: now that we know, we must do something. Let’s go.