Time Magazine recently carried the cover photo of a two-year-old child named Sincere Smith. Sincere lives in Flint, Michigan, and is twice the size of a normal two-year-old because of steroids he has been taking (unsuccessfully so far) to treat skin disorders that resulted from bathing in that city's high lead-content water. His mother, speaking for Sincere and countless other children like him, said: "The water is like Kryptonite to him."
Children are among the most innocent and most vulnerable of all society's populations. Much of what many of them experience on a daily basis is like Kryptonite. One out of three pre-teen girls, and three out of five pre-teen boys are physically or sexually abused prior to puberty (usually by an adult caregiver). In addition, human trafficking of children in America is at such a level that the U.S. Department of Education has created a guide for educators on ways to help prevent child trafficking in schools. According to the Department of Education, "Trafficking can involve school-age youth, particularly those made vulnerable by challenging family situations, and can take a variety of forms including forced labor, domestic servitude, and commercial sexual exploitation. The children at risk are not just high school students--pimps or traffickers are known to prey on victims as young as nine."
Two and a half million children in our country are homeless, according to a report by The National Center on Family Homelessness. Furthermore, White House statistics on child hunger indicate that twenty-two million children depend on reduced price or free school meals, perhaps with millions among that number eating simply that one meal per day. There is no denying that children who are hungry are physically and psychologically less able to perform well academically. Thus, given low grades and therefore less likelihood of post-high school education, the cycle of poverty is reinforced.
As people of Faith, we understand that ministry to children is a priority. Hebrew Scriptures teach, for example: "Lift up your hands to God for the lives of your children, who faint from hunger at every street corner." (Lamentations, chapter 2) In the New Testament, Jesus stated clearly: "Whoever causes a child to stumble, it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea." (Matthew, chapter 18) Isaiah in Hebrew Scriptures and James in the New Testament both admonish us to "care for the orphans ...."
At Marble Collegiate Church, we have longstanding supportive relationships with several organizations that address the needs of vulnerable children including Housing Plus Solutions, which serves women and families experiencing homelessness, and Icahn House East, a transitional shelter for homeless families with children. We have a tutoring/mentoring partnership program with PS 30. We support an orphanage in Botshabelo, South Africa, where so many children have been left without parents due to the AIDS epidemic. And we continue to look for new ways that our congregation can increasingly address the needs of vulnerable children. So, what more can someone do?
Here's an idea, particularly pertinent in 2016: During this critical year, I think we can call upon candidates for elected office to tell us what their action plans are for at-risk children. I haven't heard enough of that yet from those hoping to inhabit the White House, despite the fact that few topics are more urgent.
This campaign season is a noisy one - noisier and longer than ever before. The focus is understandably on voters, but that excludes children. An old adage says, "No vote, no voice." In short, those who are most vulnerable have no voice ... but ours. At-risk children cannot speak up for themselves, but you and I can. We can ask candidates at all levels what they will do for those children, how they will provide for and protect them, how they will craft for them a viable future that is both safe and replete with potential. We can stand up and speak out for "the least of these," knowing that according to Scripture our faith is verified by doing so. (Matthew, chapter 25)
It's time for those of us who vote to make the needs of vulnerable children a clear national priority. In addition to what is being done in religious institutions and various advocacy groups, a united public voice on this issue needs to be heard. The children look to us. Truly they are our future, but at the moment that future rests in our hands.
The author is Senior Minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. The church is the oldest Protestant organization in North America in continuous service and has a global following online - with worshipers in 47 countries connecting through its live-streamed services.