Like many children, I grew up singing, “Jesus Loves Me,” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all taught me that Christ loves everyone, and that He loves sinners so much that He died for us. They did this with actions far more than with words. Love was the rule in my family. It was not unusual for my parents or for my grandparents to take in strangers, offer them food, give them something out of their closets. If someone was different or a misfit in this world I was taught to love them more because they needed it more. I was taught this was what Christ would want from us all.
My mother was a registered nurse, and a angelic hero in my eyes. My father was a good man with many friends, a generous and loving heart, and a problem with alcohol that he fought regularly. He was my knight in shining armor, and I was far too young to understand the issues of alcoholism. I knew Daddy acted silly when he drank too much and that it made mother sad, but I also knew Daddy loved Jesus because Daddy talked about Christ with that same special glow and love that he had when he talked about anyone he really loved. I knew he taught a special Sunday School class sometimes, I didn’t know it was actually a class for alcoholics.
I was five when we began attending a large church located halfway between our home and my grandparents’ home. At first I loved it. I would sing and skip on the walk to church, and when church was over I couldn’t wait to get to tell my grandmother the bible stories I had learned, and sing the little songs we had learned with her. So when we were told our children’s group would sing on the televised noon service I was excited!
The morning of the televised service they marched us into the sanctuary and lined us up, and I was put on the front row. A few minutes later another teacher moved me to the back. The first moved me forward again. The second moved me back. This went on until the front-row advocate demanded the back-row advocate explain. That is when these two women forgot that children have ears.
In front of me, and a choir-loft full of children, the back-row advocate said that my dress looked tacky and homemade. Front- row advocate said she thought it was cute. Back-row advocate hissed, “It’s obviously homemade,” as if that was a terrible thing, then added, “You know, her father is a drunk. He teaches that class for drunks.” The second gasped, and the gossip fest began.
I don’t know how long I listened, nor do I know if they ever noticed I had disappeared. I remember the pain more than anything. The horror of finding out that these people who were supposed to love everyone didn’t love my Daddy. I snuck out a back door of the choir loft and hid and cried. To this day I wonder if they ever noticed I was gone. Did they look for me?
After the sorrow came rage. How dare they talk about Daddy!? How dare they not like the dress my grandmother made?! People paid her to sew! How dare they talk about mother like something was wrong with her because she worked?! She was a nurse?!
Something inside of me broke that day. Fury consumed me for days and weeks afterwards. At first my anger was only directed at those two women, but it quickly spread to everyone who had ever spoken to me about God’s love, including my family. I thought I was surrounded by liars. I kept the anger to myself, nurturing it, letting it grow. I understood that telling them what I’d learned would somehow hurt the people I loved, so I began to live a life of deception.
On Sundays I would pretend to be excited, and I would run ahead of my family into the church, pretending to go to my class, and instead hiding, then slipping out a door to the playground behind the church. I would spend the next hour swinging. If an adult came by I would hide. My parents thought I was in class. My teachers thought I was either absent or with my family. When the Sunday School let out I would slip back into the building and meet my family, pretending I’d spent my time in class. After church my grandmother always asked my sister and I what we’d learned at church that day. I would repeat the story of Zacchaeus, which I’d always loved, and sing her the little song that went with it. I did this so often that she suggested my mother and father talk to the pastor about the fact that my teacher was giving the same lesson every Sunday.
If it had been left up to man I would still be angry at God and Christians, and I would not know my savior. I have no doubt in my mind about that fact. God, however, doesn’t leave the important things like a person’s soul in the hands of mere men.
The swing was located right outside the window of the senior pastor’s study. As Dr. Prince would go in to read over his sermon notes and pray he would glance out that window. It had to have been God’s hand that made him put aside his sermon notes and come outside, personally that day, to ask the little girl in the swing if she wanted to come inside the church. He could have sent someone else. He could have just ignored me. He did neither. He, like any senior pastor of a large church, had a dozen things to do before the service, but he set them aside and came outside and asked me if I lived around the neighborhood, and if I wanted to come inside and be with other children, and learn about Jesus.
I let him have it with all the pent up rage of a betrayed child. I told him that all that stuff about Jesus and love was a lie. I told him that everyone said Jesus loved everyone and that people who loved Jesus were supposed to love everyone, but they didn’t love my Daddy and if they didn’t love my Daddy they were just stupid and liars. I told him all the cruel things I’d heard them say about Mother and Daddy and my dress. I told him all the wonderful things I loved about my family. How Daddy gave that man Daddy’s favorite shirt and introduced him to a friend to get him a job, how Daddy told me that God loves everyone, and how Mother helped the stranger who was bleeding after his car crashed. I told him that all the stuff people said and sang about love was a lie and that I wasn’t stupid and that I didn’t want to play that game.
When I was done this pastor with a PhD who lead a large Southern Baptist Church knelt, in his fine suit, in the dirt of the playground and sobbed. Then Dr. Prince hugged me, and with tears on his face he told me that my mother and my grandparents and my father had not lied to me. That God is real. That Jesus DOES love all of us. Especially my Daddy.
Dr. Prince said that people, even very good people, make mistakes, and they can be very mean and very hurtful because they want to be like Jesus, but they aren’t. He told me that Jesus loved people like my Daddy so much that Jesus came to earth just for people like Daddy. He told me that Jesus would be proud of how Daddy gave the man clothes and how Mama saved the man’s life.
Then he took my hand, and asked me to let him introduce me to other people who really knew that Jesus loves everyone. He led me to the church and Mrs. Johnson. She would, in a few years, become my third grade public school teacher. That year, he called her to the door of a Sunday School class that was designed for children older than I was and asked her to let me join her class. Mrs. Johnson looked at me and smiled, and then smiled at him and said, “I think she is a little young for my class.” I can still see the look he gave her as he said, “She needs this room.” It was the look that children see a thousand times as adults speak that secret language of the eyes. He was right. I needed her room. Mrs. Johnson is still alive in my memory as an example of how Christ would like us all to be.
The months rolled by, my sixth birthday came and went, and one day all the children were moved to the sanctuary and told we had a very special visitor that was going to talk to us about something important. I was still feeling rage at most of the church and most Christians, and was not at all interested in this special guest – until the door opened and my friend walked in. The adults in the room were nervous in that way that many congregation members used to be nervous around ministers.
Because it was my friend, and because it was obvious to me that even the teachers were impressed that this man was here, I sat still and listened as Dr. Prince told us that he knew that sometimes when you’re a kid it seems like no one has time to listen to you, or they don’t understand how important something is to you. He told us to think of someone we loved, who we knew loved us back, and to imagine what it was like if they were never too busy to listen, never doing something so important that they couldn’t stop and help us, someone who loved us even if we were bad. He told us that Jesus loved us more than anyone else in the whole world, even our parents or grandparents. He told us that Jesus even loved us all so much that He asked God to punish him instead of us. He quoted Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” He said we could give Jesus the key to our hearts and invite Him.
A seed was planted in my heart that day. A seed that bloomed several days later. I was at home when Dr. Prince’s words came back to me. There was a terrible thunderstorm outside, and down the hall there were angry voices as my parents argued with one another over whatever it is that adults argue over. I was scared, terrified in fact, but I couldn’t go to Mother or Daddy. Not then. Not while they were fighting. I remembered what Dr. Prince had said about Jesus never being too busy, and I began to pray, though I didn’t know it was prayer.
I told Jesus that I didn’t know I had a key to my heart, or understand that part, but that I understood that everyone I loved, loved Him. That they all said Jesus loved them back and that Dr. Prince said Jesus loved me too, and wanted to help me and I told Him that He could have my key. I told him that I understood that everybody did something that Jesus didn’t like, and that I was sorry if I made Him sad. I spoke to God about great theological issues with the understanding of a child, and it was enough. I felt like a light went on around me. I felt like loving arms wrapped around me. I felt a rush of love like I have only felt when in God’s arms. It was like a veil had been pulled away between two worlds, and now I could see into God’s world. It was emersion in love, peace, joy. Fear vanished instantly. It was as much a physical sensation as an emotional one. In that instance came understanding. Over the years many Christians have shared similar experiences with me. No non-Christian can understand it.
The very next day I ran to tell my best friend about my “new friend.” She accepted Christ as Lord and Savior on the floor of my bedroom where we were playing dolls.
Days later I made a public profession of faith, and the amen-pew of the church objected. I was too young. I couldn’t possibly understand! Best to make me wait! Dr. Prince suggested a meeting, a one on one talk, with a few deacons present, to see if I understood or not. When the meeting was over my baptism was scheduled.
That’s been almost a half century ago, and God has never let me down, though I must have made Him cry many tears over the years. When I look back on it all, I wonder when God first stepped into my life. Was it when Dr. Prince looked out that window? Or was it when that window was built in that church building? It doesn’t matter of course. What matters is that God’s love prevails even against human error.
The lessons I learned from all of that have helped me as I worked with children in the church over the years. I try never to forget that children hear the adults around them. I try to remember that no matter how tired we may be, how frustrated we may be, we have a duty to display the love of Christ, not only to fellow Christians, but especially to the non-believers. How can they believe in the unconditional love of Christ if we keep showing them hate and prejudice? How lost would we be if Christ treated us the way we often treat one another?