A few years ago, I stepped away from my dysfunctional family, and though at times I am still grieving and angry, I feel mostly resigned. Until my kids ask about them and why we don’t see them every week, and then the doubts and longing start up again. Maybe I am blowing things out of proportion. The image in my head of what I want our family to be still doesn’t quite match up, but after all, nobody’s perfect, right? On the other hand, we have tried this several times, and how often do you get burned before you quit trying? I believe that my children have a need for more family, and am trying to figure out how to introduce them and keep my kids safe, but to be perfectly honest, I feel like giving up. Not on our biological relatives, our church family.
I didn’t realize the issues we were facing before my kids were born. I bought into the idea that programs and classes and activities for the kids were an indicator of the church’s love for children. But then I started really paying attention to the attitude toward kids, and noticed that in so many churches, calling children “little monsters” was not entirely an affectionate jest. There was love for them, but also a real and disturbing underlying view of children as enemy combatants to be subjugated.
When our eldest was a baby, it wasn’t bad. She would snuggle in my arms during the worship time, and then we would head back to the nursing mothers’ room during the sermon. Of course, even there the other moms gave dire warnings against nursing her whenever she wanted. She needed a strict schedule to teach her who was boss! We tried leaving her in the nursery a few times. I’d peek back minutes later and find her red-faced and screaming, gasping long, hiccuping sobs and holding onto me with all her might. We got rolled eyes from the nursery workers who assured us that she would eventually give up and realize that we weren’t going to rescue her. Perhaps, although my kidlets have all been incredibly tenacious. I suspect they would have reached the point of vomiting first. I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of teaching my daughter that church was a safe place of love, joy and peace, when it meant that from her perspective she would be abandoned, frightened and distressed to the point of screaming, choking sobs. I couldn’t.
For awhile, the solution was for my husband and me to both become volunteers and then one of us could be with her. As our family grew, that became less practical. It meant that essentially we were attending church just so that they could play with the germy toys in the nursery. I guess it strengthened their immune systems or whatever, but the McDonald’s play place would have provided the same viral/bacterial exposure with better coffee.
Along with the peer pressure to leave my kids to cry it out and the frequent explicit and implicit reminders that babies are sinful, selfish little creatures out to manipulate us, and must therefore be shown that their whims don’t come first (ironically, the proposed solution was for me and my husband to exercise our *own* selfishness and disregard of others), there was a strong emphasis on the necessity of corporal punishment. We live in the buckle of the Bible belt, and they take that whole belt thing literally. Nearly every church we have visited has had the pastors push spanking from the pulpit as “God’s way” to parent. The jokes and derogatory comments about children were such a stark contrast to Jesus’ words. Even when I attempted to ignore it, I noticed that it would insidiously affect my attitude toward my kids. I would be less patient, less kind, less likely to look for the good, and more prideful in my position as a parent instead of being willing to wash their feet.
My parents, grandparents and parents in law were all pastors, and my husband and I fully understand that no church is perfect and that we all make mistakes or see things differently and that we all desperately need to show each other mercy and grace. But what about mercy and grace for the smallest of these, our tiny little brothers and sisters in Christ?
I have been so grateful for the voices of my family of God who are crying out for mercy and grace for all peoples, for the poor, our LGBT brothers and sisters, immigrants, our sisters, the abused, the broken, for all who are marginalized, denigrated or ignored by those in power. I have to to cry out for how our churches treat our children. There are so many important conversations going on about including everyone at the table. We are missing Sunday dinner because the food at the kids’ table makes my family sick.
Prizes and programs and playgrounds are nice, but all I really want is for you to love on my kids and to help me show them love. For all people. Isn’t that the point? I just want a shepherd who welcomes the bleating lambs and wants to use the rod and staff to comfort them instead of hit them.
We have visited so many churches now in our area, and I am so discouraged. Each Sunday brings heaviness, guilt, and accusing voices in my head quoting things about “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” I want my kids to grow up spending regular time with their family in Christ. Some of it will resolve itself–my older kids now happily go off to classes when we try a new church. That doesn’t change the disparaging, adversarial attitude so many churches have towards children, though. I am trying to convince myself that finding family is worth it, but I know that this weekend the temptation to sleep in and skip the Sunday dinner will be strong.