Engaging the World … as a Family

One of the most challenging aspects of parenting, I’ve found, is striking a balance, being “in the world, but not of it.” Certainly we want to protect our children from evil, at least until they are old enough to recognize it — and, by God’s grace, to escape it — for themselves.

On the other hand, if we so isolate ourselves and especially our children too much from the world, we may miss out on the opportunity to show our children how to be salt and light in a predominantly tasteless and dark culture. In John 17 (vv. 15-18), Jesus prayed:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.

In this passage we see clearly that the Christian life is not supposed to be about removing ourselves from the world, but by fighting lies with truth. For Catholics, truth comes in three distinctive forms: doctrine (with a special emphasis on Scripture as the Word of God), worship (especially the sacramental graces of the Eucharist), and living in community (with a special focus on serving the poor and marginalized, whom Blessed Mother Teresa called “Jesus in distressing disguise”).

It is this third aspect of authentic Christian living to which Jesus was referring when He said: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

The “Protection Trap”

It is also this third aspect of authentic Christian living that can present the greatest challenge. Shortly after we became foster parents, Craig and I enrolled our son in a local Montessori preschool program that (we’d heard) had worked with foster children. It wasn’t cheap, but we were impressed with the teacher — a kindly and devout Catholic woman with a gentle spirit, who spent her summers building schools in Africa. We wanted to give our son the best possible chance to succeed in a classroom situation, and thought this would give him the preparation he needed.

We lasted exactly two months. Just before Christmas, a small group of parents pressured the teacher to have our son removed from the program because of his “bad influence” on their kids. (They thought Christopher’s propensity for pretending to shoot guns and talking about death was cause for alarm. We weren’t exactly thrilled when our son came home and informed us that his new friends called him “stupid.”) The teacher had tried to smooth things over, but it became very clear that if we didn’t leave, other families would.

It made me sad — and more than a little angry — that such “good Catholic parents” would treat us this way, and weren’t even willing to sit down and talk with us face to face about the situation. How tragic, I thought, that these same people who baked cheesecakes and tartlets by the dozen to raise money for the “children in Africa” couldn’t have more compassion for children seated beside them in the church pew.

A few weeks later, we enrolled Christopher in another preschool. The program was just a few hours each week, but was a much better fit for our son. The teachers were used to the rough-and-tumble antics of “real boys,” and encouraged me to stay in the classroom, so Christopher felt comfortable. It wasn’t a “Catholic” program… but Christopher’s academic career got a strong start in an environment where he was welcomed and accepted from the very beginning.

Teaching Our Children Compassion

Many times when I’ve spoken about our experiences with foster care, people say to me, “Oh, I’d like to do that, but I’m afraid of how the problems of those kids would rub off on MINE!” or “I’d like to help, but it would be too hard to say good-bye if they ever went back.”

These concerns are not totally baseless. I would never encourage a family with very young or developmentally disabled children to foster an older child — unless perhaps they already knew the child well, or were related to him or her. Placing a child who has been badly abused or neglected in a home with very young children could put everyone’s physical and emotional wellbeing at risk.

However, families with older children can also benefit tremendously from extending themselves in this way. You see, love is a gift that is never wasted. It expands the soul in giver and recipient alike. I was five when my parents agreed to take a girl from Newark’s inner city into our home for a summer. I had never before met a black person, and remember tickling Monique and asking to brush her hair just so I could touch her. I taught her to pick beans, and she taught me a silly song-and-dance routine about a bus driver. It was the summer of a lifetime.

No doubt this little girl taught me some things my parents wished she hadn’t (they weren’t thrilled, as I recall, with the “dance” part of the “song-and-dance”). But by taking that girl into our home, my parents instilled in me a lifelong habit of generous living that I hope to pass on to my children.

What can you do this week to engage your world as a family? Have you ever considered sponsoring a child through a group such as the Christian Children’s Fund or Catholic World Mission? Maybe you’re ready to explore getting a foster care license, or “Fresh Air” program. Or perhaps you could just make a monthly commitment to your local soup kitchen, or clear out your closet and donate to St. Vincent de Paul or Salvation Army?

It’s never too soon to cultivate a lifelong habit of compassion.

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