It was a gloriously beautiful morning in Atlanta on September 11, 2001. I was attending the first public event of organizations that had joined together to sponsor a breakfast with several hundred Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, and political and community leaders of every color, to affirm our joint responsibility to ensure a safe and fit nation and world for all of God’s children. I was moved to tears as the angelic Harmony Children’s Choir, who looked like a little United Nations, sang the anthem of our Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome,” as sweetly, movingly and convincingly as I had ever heard.
This taste of heaven and hope on earth was shattered by hate and hell on earth as my friend Andrew Young met me at the door with the news of terrorists’ planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. After I ran to call family members, my next urgently felt need was to go to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Atlanta gravesite to share the loving, hopeful vision of the morning darkened by despair and death and ask how he would react and what he would tell us to do and say.
I wondered what God was teaching us through this unspeakable tragedy. Could it be a chance to bring us closer to our world neighbors, or would it push us further apart? Surely the extraordinary courage, generosity and sacrifice of so many trapped in or near the World Trade Center renewed our belief in human beings and human kindness. One survivor of the twin towers attack said: “If you had seen what it was like in that stairway, you’d be proud. There was no gender, no race, no religion. It was everyone, unequivocally, helping each other.” It was an unforgettable vision of community that terrible day in the very epicenter of catastrophe. Imagine what our nation and world could become if we realized and practiced this example of beloved community in less catastrophic times.
The group of Atlanta interfaith leaders meeting that September 11th had a vision for their own version of a beloved community. Instead of being deterred by terror and hate, they planted the seeds for what grew into the Interfaith Children’s Movement. Luther E. Smith, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Church and Community at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and coordinator of the Pan-Methodist Campaign for Children in Poverty, has been a leader in the movement since the beginning.
He recently shared with me some of their good work: “Three years ago we helped to pass one of the most progressive juvenile justice reforms in the country. Georgia had not had major reform to its juvenile justice program in 43 years. It was a long and stressful journey, full of disappointments, but we worked with other major child advocates to make it happen. We’ve also taken a leading role in addressing child sexual trafficking and in getting legislation passed to address contributing factors to child sexual trafficking. We also helped to pass legislation that offers this November a state constitutional amendment for funding programs to help children who have been trafficked. And just in the last two years we have trained about 3,000 persons on matters of child nurture and advocacy.”
Professor Smith is among the many people of faith who have been part of the Children’s Defense Fund’s annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry every third week in July at CDF Haley Farm that brings together clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children for spiritual renewal, networking, movement-building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children struggling to grow up at the intersection of race and poverty.
This year there will be a special focus on engaging the faith community on behalf of our youngest and poorest children. It’s an experience of beloved community and the sharing of skills and strategies to build the movement for children – equipping others to do the same kind of effective faith-based advocacy work Atlanta’s interfaith alliance has been doing since 2001.
We are at another moment where we desperately need to see and hear strong faith voices for justice for children and to spread examples of interfaith, interracial, multi-ethnic communities rising together above all voices that threaten to divide us. My parents and community elders had faith that we will reap a harvest at the right time if we do not give up and that love is still stronger than hate. I try every day to remember and act on their faith.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org
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