The Mission of Religious People to Create a Brighter Future for Children
Sister Mary Rose McGeady, President of Covenant House
We are gathered today as leaders of programs directed at improving the lives of children. We come here as religious leaders whose programs have a faith basis. We come at the invitation of a buddhist organization which believes that we have the potential to make enormous changes in the future of children all over the globe. Each of our organizations strives to make an impact locally or nationally and some of us have an international mission. We try to make an impact in more than one country, as does my own organization, covenant house, which serves street kids in six countries.
Although there are differences among us, we have much in common. I have spent some time examining our common call to care about our brothers and sisters who suffer, or children in extermely difficult circumstances, as they are sometimes called, i found many references that make it evident that each of our religions demands of us a commitment to care about, serve and try to improve life for the less fortunate among us. Some of the quotes i found are:
From the Buddhist, Dalai Lama: “the purpose of religion is not to build beautiful churches or temples, but to cultivate positive human qualities such as tolerance, generosity and love cccwe must reduce our selfishness and serve others”
From Islam: “all creatures are the family of god, and he is the most beloved of god who does most good unto his family.” and “the poor, the orphan, the captive, – feed them for the love of god alone, desiring no reward or even thanks.”
From Taoism: “extend your help without seeking reward. Give to others and do not regret or begrudge your liberality. Those who are thus are good”.
From Hinduism: “human beings all are head, arms, trunk and legs unto one another” and “the noble minded dedicate themselves to peace and the happiness of others even those who injure them” and “bounteous is he who gives to the beggar who comes to him in want of food and feeble”.
From Judaism: “love thy neighbor as thyself” or “blessed is he that considereth the poor, the lord will deliver him in time of trouble”.
From Christianity: “the lord says, whatsoever you do to the least of mine, that you do unto me”. Or “god is love and he who abides in love abides in god. And god abides in him.”
The call of this forum is for us to strive to live to the fullest those calls of faith and to examine how we can strengthen the impact that we make individually by working together, sharing goals and striving in a more united way to change the world of children. Beyond question or doubt the world of children indeed needs to change.
We are in the third millenium and there are more children suffering today than a thousand years ago. What a disgrace. What an indictment that even as the world in general grows richer, our children grow poorer and suffer the terrible results of neglect and indifference.
We heard yesterday of the efforts or failures of the world community to deal with the united nations “convention on the rights of the child”, a document that my own country, the united states, has not yet ratified. Although much has been done, much more remains to be done. Signatures on documents and verbal commitments need to be matched by action in many nations. The u.s. congress has not ratified the convention because some American legislators feel that children do not have rights — that parents have responsibilities — so they refuse to ratify the convention.
Every day in our newspapers we hear of the affronts to children. We hear of the thousands of orphans resulting from tribal wars in Africa. My community, the daughters of charity, have just sent a group of sisters, volunteers from all over the world, to Rwanda to initiate service for the orphans there, who number more than 45,000.
We look in the newspapers, and we see homeless families in Bosnia, of sexual exploitation of children that grows exponentially in many parts of the globe. On my annual visits to central America to visit my programs for street kids in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, i confront the ever increasing numbers of homeless children who live in the streets, and i hear again of the millions of street kids in south America. My agency, covenant house international, this year h as served over 61,000 runaway and homeless teenagers — kids like Michael, age 15, who slept in an old abandoned care for 3 months after running away from an alcohol ridden home where he was constantly abused — or like Lilian, a 17 year old girl who was thrown out of her house when her mother discovered she was pregnant.
In some of the places where we have programs, one can hardly believe the level of poverty — the numbers of hungry children — the numbers of children in central America who cannot go to school because they have no shoes or uniforms. In Managua, Nicaragua, in some schools they must bring their own chairs because there are none left for newcomers.
Can you believe that in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, there are dozens of children who live at the city dump. They run after every garbage truck which arrives, looking for scraps of food or articles they might sell. Think about gloria and Carlos, a brother and sister from Guatemala city who were brought into the city to beg — they don’t know where they lived, they don’t know their last names — they work around the market and depend on dropped food for survival.
We hear that there are 32.4 million cases of adults with aids and 1.2 million children living with HIV, with 15,000 new cases every day, 90% of which are in Africa. We hear that within the next ten years there will be a million orphans in Africa as a result of the aids epidemic. We hear of high infant mortality rates stemming from poor sterile technique in the birthing process which could be easily overcome by simple modern methods. And throughout the first world we hear of the tragedy of family breakdown, of divorce, separation and child abuse. In my own country, the highest number of children in history are placed outside their own families in foster care because of parental failure, of alcoholism, drug addiction, or crime. I would like to tell you about kevin, who came to covenant house after running away from his 17th foster home. He is only seventeen years of age and says he never felt wanted or loved in any of his previous homes and was constantly moved from one family to another — he has no remembrance of his own parents.
I see growing attitudes of negativism which condemn the poor for being poor and policy development geared to punish rather than eradicate neglect of our children. I see cuts in public funds for day care even while we demand that single mothers work. I see children failing in school even as the schools fail to adapt to the needs of disadvantaged students. In some countries we see children forced to work at an early age without opportunities to attend school. The list is sad and very long, but no individual problem is beyond being reversed. Such is the task we face as the friends of children on an international scale.
Paramount among the calls of the new Unicef report on “the state of the world’s children” is the call for leadership. It cites that as the 21st century begins, the overwhelming majority of the people of the world who live in poverty are children and women. They are also the overwhelming majority of civilians who are killed or maimed in armed conflicts. They are the most vulnerable to infection with HIV/AIDS. After listing the sad reality that faces women and children, the report immediately sets forth the hope that these tragedies can be lifted, that the conditions responsible are neither inevitable nor immutable. All over the world alliances have been formed and continue to be formed to redress the wrongs. The Unicef report looks for leaders throughout the world to take on the challenge. I believe each of us is so called, and the demands of our faith and our commitment to god increase our responsibility. The report also looks forward to an extraordinary meeting next year which will examine how much success really followed united nations 1990 summit on children. This summit of ten years ago set forth seven goals to be met by the year 2000. These included: reduction of mortality rates for both mothers and children, reduction of malnutrition in young children, and of adult illiteracy rates, with basic education available for all children, and the provision of safe drinking water, sanitary conditions and improved protection for children in especially difficult circumstances.
The 1990 world summit indeed brought about many improvements in the world of children – millions of children have grown healthier, been better nourished and had access to quality education: their rights have been acknowledged and laws to protect them enforced at least in some countries; polio, once a global epidemic, is on the verge of eradication and deaths from measles and tetanus have been reduced by 85% and 25% respectively: some 12 million children are free from the risk of mental retardation due to iodine deficiency and blindness from vitamin a deficiency is markedly reduced.
The Unicef report now looks for leaders throughout the world to take on the challenge. It also looks forward to next year’s summit meeting with the hope that representatives of various groups will form a global coalition committed to fully meet the previous goals more completely and add to them. New efforts to address the aids crisis are needed from every country in the world. We all need to be part of an unprecedented international movement on behalf of children. Our coming together here in this international forum is indeed a predecessor of this new movement and we need to go forth from here resolved to increase our action on a world scale. Our coalescing here is an indicator that the movement has already begun and the Arigatou foundation is to be congratulated for its foresight in convening this forum. The religious motivation behind each of our programs is a powerful incentive for us to continue this effort. God asks it of us on behalf of all his children.
Each of us can play a dual role. First of all, let each one strive to offer every child we now serve the faith experience and education which will enrich their lives and give meaning in this world which is becoming more secular and lacking in faith. We espouse different faiths, but we all believe and foster belief in god, and there is no greater gift that we can offer to our children than conviction and faith in the love and care of our god.
Secondly, let us strive in the places and programs which we have to provide the highest quality of service possible and expand our programs where feasible. Our covenant house agency has done that by opening programs in 9 new cities in the past 5 years. This meant hard work to raise the money to make that possible, but the positive impact of new services being available to hundreds of homeless street kids is gratifying. Also, we were convinced that for the economic survival and future happiness of our thousands of teenagers, and therefore we initiated extensive job training and job placement, and collaboration with the economic community for the jobs which would offer each kid a vastly improved chance of having a decent life. This was a head-on confrontation with the reality that most of our kids come from poor families with little chance of moving out of poverty in their lifetime without a job geared to earn a decent salary. This program has been wonderfully successful and we now have 800 companies working with us to provide good jobs for our kids. We cannot talk about fighting poverty in other places unless we try to reduce it where we are.
It is my conviction that it is essential that we initiate specific new endeavors which can make a difference both at home and abroad. Research in recent years has demonstrated that giving to every child a spirituality that can sustain and strengthen them will enable them to survive the hurts of life and that resilience is largely the result of the presence of some caring person in that child’s life. My experience supports these findings of resilience and it is wonderful to see how healing and new growth can replace crushing experiences in children in whose lives someone offered loving support. To be for a hurting child that instrument of god’s love and care and to fulfill that powerful human need is a wonderful gift for those of us who serve these children. To know that the giving of that love can be the source of the resilience that brings about healing and new hope and energy for the future is likewise a great gift from god.
I propose three specific efforts that each of us can undertake as the fruit of this conference: e to become experts who are knowledgable about the needs of all children – reach beyond the confines of our own programs to really know what is needed in other places in the world to improve the lot of hurting or needy children. To promote the concept that spirituality breeds resilience, and that love is the ingredient above all others for the healing of hurt children. e to become advocates – to use every avenue available to us to become the voice of voiceless children – to speak to those in power on behalf of the needs of children – to approach leaders in our respective governments to insure that they take their appropriate responsibility – to make specific proposals for better laws and have personal contact with legislators and policy makers to propose and defend good practice and good policy – to use our talents to write or speak publicly in support to such ideas and to undertake demonstrations of their feasibility if possible to share ideas and actions with others concerned about the needs of children – to coalesce where possible for greater strength and a more powerful voice – to use the contacts and unity initiated in this forum to form partnerships with international agencies so the voice of children can be louder – to work in cooperation with local and national alliances and with Unicef to insure both good input and good outcomes of the forthcoming conference on children at the united nations in 2001 we have not only a great concern to do these things but we have a great advantage – we are in regular touch with the god who created and loves all his children and will indeed be our courage and strength as we struggle to make the future better for every child alive. As leaders we are a small group, but the membership of our various faiths is in the millions. If we could raise the consciences of our members to an increased level of awareness of the plight of the world’s children, what an army of support that would become. I am blessed with a donor base of close to a million persons who believe in and support the work we do for homeless children. We try regularly to keep this group of a million people informed and involved in defending the rights of and supporting advocacy on behalf of all children. Every member of our churches shares the mission of our faith, and we all have an obligation to invite every member to live out that mission by prayer, action and support of local and global efforts for god’s children.
If i may close on a personal note. I have been called by god to a religious vocation, a vocation to be a servant of the poor. This has been a great gift from god and i thank him for it. The faith that i learned in childhood, the call and responsibility of our faith that asks us to see god in each one of our brothers and sisters, and to love and serve them as we would god himself has brought great joy to my life. The model of such devoted service, st. Vincent de Paul, the founder of my community, has been for me a constant source of inspiration and motivation to live out the belief in Jesus’ words that “God is love and he who abides in love abides in god and god abides in him”. My life of service to god’s children has been an honor and grace for which i can never be sufficiently grateful.