31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
January 16, 2022
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
This past summer, a 9 year old girl named Little Amal walked from the border of Syria to Manchester, England, fleeing the land of her birth and searching for her mother. Little Amal is not a human child though. She is a puppet created by Handspring Puppet Company and Good Chance Theater. Neither is Amal little. At 3½ meters tall, which is almost 11 ½ feet, it takes three puppeteers, one on stilts and two on each side to move her body and hands.
This past summer, Little Amal, which means “hope” in Arabic, and her puppeteers walked 8,000 kilometers across “Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the UK to focus attention on the urgent needs of young refugees.” According to the Little Amal website, through 100 extraordinary events and 65 cities, towns, and villages, this living work of art and representation of a refugee child, asked one question, “How would you welcome her?” (Walkwithamal.org)
Two thousand years ago, another refugee child had to flee the land of his birth. His name was Jesus.
This Bible story, often called the flight to Egypt, is not one we often focus on because it is not a happy story. It is not a comforting story.
After the Christ Child was born in Bethlehem and the angels proclaimed his birth to shepherds watching over their flocks by night, after Mary pondered their message in her heart, after the magi followed a star in the east, after all of that, the story continues.
King Herod, who desires to be the only king of Israel, does not like hearing that the wise men have come seeking a child born the king of the Jews. King Herod does not want the Messiah. King Herod wants the status quo where he continues to be in power. King Herod wants his kingdom, not God’s, to reign.
So Herod “secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.” And then he lied to them and said, ‘when you find the child, come back and tell me where he is so that I, too, may come and worship him.’
Worship was the furthest thing from Herod’s mind. Herod’s plan was to eliminate his competition, as he had seen kings before him do. To get rid of this infant Messiah before the child could challenge his authority and power. When it became clear though that the wise men were not coming back, Herod was furious. If he could not find this one child, then he would just get rid of all of the children.
Joseph though, ever faithful Joseph, had already been warned in a dream to take the Christ child and his mother and flee to Egypt until Herod was gone and it was safe for them to return. Like Little Amal and so many other children throughout time and throughout our world, the baby Jesus, our Savior and Messiah, was a refugee child, fleeing persecution and the country of his birth, searching for a safe place to live and grow.
Throughout the Advent season, we pondered and reflected on how we could prepare our hearts, homes, and world for the Christ child. It is the same question that those who created Little Amal are asking, “How would you welcome this child?”
How would you welcome Little Amal? How would you welcome the Christ child? How do you welcome any child?
This past summer, I attended a webinar about intergenerational church. The presenter began by telling us that she is a children’s liberation theologian. A theologian is someone who studies beliefs about God. A liberation theologian is someone who studies how Jesus Christ can free us from political, economic and social oppression. A liberation theologian lifts up those who are marginalized, pushed to the borders or pushed outside society, lifts them up as precious to God and a part of Christ’s community.
So when Rebecca Stevens-Walter said she was a children’s liberation theologian, what she was saying is that she lifts up children as beloved by God, as an essential part of Christ’s community. She echoes Jesus’ words, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14)
That was not the world Jesus was born into; that was not the world Jesus ministered in; neither is that the world we live in today. Children are not lifted up as precious to God. Children are not prioritized in society. In too many places in our world, children do not live in safety, enabled to live and grow.
It’s overwhelming to consider all of the places in our world and our country where children are not welcomed, are not safe. Let’s focus instead on the children God has brought into our lives, our church, our community. How can we welcome these children?
Almost seventy years ago, the First Congregational Church created Century Nursery School. At the time, it was a playgroup for members’ children. Over the years though, it has become a leader in our community, providing outstanding preschool education, thanks to the devotion of so many FCC church members as staff and board members.
As Century has nurtured hundreds and hundreds of preschoolers over the years, this ministry has also advocated for children. This ministry has said to the entire church that children are important, children are precious to God, children are a part of the body of Christ, not someday, now. And this ministry, our ministry, has said to our wider community that preschool isn’t playgroup, it’s education. Century Nursery School has helped pave the way for the creation of Bristol Public School’s Preschool Academy.
Welcoming children in, providing them a safe space to grow did not begin with Century though. FCC Bristol has been dedicated to nurturing and welcoming children for centuries. We quickly embraced the Sunday School movement of the early 1900’s that focused on helping children learn to read and write as they also learned about Christ’s love. In 1914, when the community of Bristol could not come together to build a recreation center, our church community built the Parish House, with a basketball court downstairs and classrooms upstairs – all to welcome and nurture Bristol’s children and youth. And even before that, FCC Bristol created Bristol’s first secondary school called the Academy.
It is a history to be proud of; however we cannot stop there.
We need to keep asking – what’s next?
How do we live out Christ’s call to welcome children?
How do we advocate for their needs, lifting them up as members of the body of Christ and members of our world?
How do we continue creating safe spaces for the children in our lives, in our church, in our communities?
And most of all, as they journey through life, how do we help all children to walk with amal, to travel with hope?