Children Have More Than "Potential"

We attended Ash Wednesday service last evening, and I was blessed to be a Lay Eucharistic Minister, serving alongside three elementary-age girls, very attentive and diligent “acolytes”. A few years ago, I attended a mass celebrated by our local bishop.  During the preparation for communion, he surrounded himself with young acolytes and with purpose he paused the liturgy to explain why he always does so: “Young people are not our future; they are our present.”  I’ve always remembered his words, though I was never sure what they meant beyond a nice platitude (or a desperate attempt to rebuild sagging church membership!).
But last month, I caught a powerful glimpse of how that mindset might be lived out in our reality, and the impact it could make.  I visited World Vision programs in Honduras with a group of supporters, and what struck me most was how children and youth were part of every visit, not simply as “beneficiaries” of sponsorship and other programs, but also as vital community members and activists.  
Gifted child-preachers led us adults in devotions.  Others spoke beautiful and articulate prayers from their hearts.  Nicole Alejandro, age 10, gave a lovely devotional message. She told the story of Jesus feeding the 5000, how the disciples—like World Vision—didn’t have enough resources to help everyone. “But if we trust in God, God will provide enough.  A little child provided the loaves and fishes, which shows that children can be part of the solution, too.  Those weren’t enough food, but through prayer, Jesus’ prayer, God multiplied the food and made it enough for everyone.  And this miracle prompted the people to praise God…”  As she unpacked each point, she wasn’t proud of herself or coquettish; she wanted us to understand!
At another gathering, a young boy, Benitas, preached to us and to several hundred community members and then prayed for our lunch. “Lord, please use me as your instrument of blessing… And, any strength we receive from this food, may we use it to do your will.”
Young people made the majority of the presentations we heard, and they did so with confidence.  At our very first stop we heard from the “Youth Mayor”, age 13, who casually sipped coffee and, along with his 12-year-old colleagues, walked us through the many programs they are helping organize and conduct.  Now, these were not simply youth-focused programs; these young leaders knew the statistics on how many people had access to clean water and what was being done about it, what the health care needs of the community are, they discussed surveys being conducted to assess various community-wide problems and the solutions that are being brought, and explained through photos and displays the extent of their community’s strategy and programs.  It was quite stunning to realize that these are not simply youth leaders, but community leaders!
Many youth have received training through World Vision’s Channels of Hope program.  This global initiative reaches pastors and faith leaders, to reduce stigma around HIV & AIDS and transform judgment into tangible, compassionate response.  COH has now been adapted for youth, and the HIV training has become a platform for many additional youth empowerment programs.  Our final stop was to a large open field next to a school, where five separate COH youth groups stood in the rain and presented to us.  
One represented her group by explaining, “Through the training we have received, we raise awareness on HIV through expos and AIDS fairs, and we organize marathons to support youth workshops on self-esteem and leadership… It’s great to be able to advocate for change here in our area and — why not? — at the level of the whole nation!”
Following the presentations and some fun folkloric dances, we moved next door to invade the empty school for an actual Channels of Hope carnival.  Three good-looking young men gave us a very energetic and visionary explanation of what was taking place, as scores of noisy children streamed past us to start playing the various carnival learning games inside: “We’ve seen great attitude changes about HIV through this program. In the churches no one would discuss AIDS, but now churches will discuss it openly, and they have become the main actors [in ministry outreach]. It’s been a very difficult topic to discuss here, but Honduras has the highest HIV rate in Central America, so something must be done.”
They showed us a quiz game with a spinning wheel which tested knowledge not only about AIDS, but also gender issues, discrimination, values, nutrition, and spiritual issues. “We adapt the topics for the age of the player.  We always have a specific target audience… children, or adults, or youth. We are all volunteers, and we started this program after receiving training in 2009. A month before our next planned event, we start working at raising funds and ask businesses to donate the prizes.
“COH is different by linking in the Christian component.  We always incorporate spiritual motivations and try to influence youth. Every day more leaders get involved and join us. Now we are even part of the community structure, and we’ve impacted those structures.”  At times, it felt as though we were talking with Latin revolucionados, whose fervent goal was to overthrow the minds and hearts of their entire nation.  They had vision and passion and clearly believed that they could impact their world.  “Now we can say we have become ambassadors of Christ and bring truth with love.”
My mind goes right to my own grandkids: what do they believe about their impact?  It’s certainly true that our own kids could learn from these kids.  Couldn’t we adults perhaps also learn from these programs, these communities, about how to create an “enabling environment,” where our children see themselves not simply as “the future,” able to impact their world once they finish their education and reach adulthood but, as we heard from the Youth Mayor and his cabinet on our first stop, as “the present”?
Beyond the novelty and heart-stirring notion of kids helping their communities like this, what’s the big idea here?  It’s that communities are taking the lead, and “community” extends to include the youth and children as part of the asset base.  World Vision provides tools, and the youth and children, as well as the adults, are taking these firmly in hand to improve their communities.  They are turning their dreams, their desired future, into their present reality, and inviting anyone who has the will to help make it so.  By not giving kids the notion that they are simply “the future”, after you get your education, after you reach 16 or 18 or 21 or 30, new vistas for creativity and energy are opened up, allowing young men and women to not only dream youthful dreams but help make shared dreams into shared reality.
I realize now that I missed an small opportunity to embrace that mindset last night. Though I always strive to learn the names of my fellow LEMs, I can’t tell you the name of one young acolyte.  Yet they—especially their leader—were more attentive to the order of service than I was, performing their roles very diligently.  But most of what they heard from us adults was “Good job!”…exactly what we say to my 20-month-old grandson.  An verbal pat on the head was proffered, yet that affirmation also declares a hierarchy in the relationship between us servers. Reverse age discrimination in a way, perhaps?
The mindset I witnessed in Honduras was different, and convicting. Children aren’t simply “precious in our sight”:  If you are here, you are part of the present, not just the future. So come, bring your ideas and your passions, and let’s work side-by-side to create the future, our shared future.  We need you at the table. We are stronger with you here.
There is much good news in this mindset, a mindset which I want to develop.   And hopefully, a little child shall teach me.
February 2013
PS: On a personal note, after the vision trip, Janet met me on the island of Roatan off the Honduran coast, where we celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary!

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