“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in God’s sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” I imagine that a lot of us remember that song. You probably learned it in church school. I can’t even remember the first time I sang it. In retrospect, it was probably my first introduction to the idea of difference—everyone in the world did not look like me with my skin, my hair, my way of walking and thinking; other children might have families that were different from mine, live in homes that didn’t look like mine, or eat food that I had never tasted.
While I was first singing these words, white people and African American people were drinking from separate water fountains. Ruby Bridges was walking past crowds of people who were seeking to prevent her from going to first grade in an all white school in New Orleans.
As we sing the song today, the world and the church have changed in so many ways—and yet we are still far away from the dream. We sing that God loves everyone, yet we know there is a but. For example consider these questions:
- God loves everyone, but what about those who don’t know or love Jesus—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists? How wide and big is God’s love? What is a Christian response to religious diversity? How does the church support interfaith families?
- Jesus loves all children, but if those children learn differently because of ADD/ADHD, autism, or Downs Syndrome, how is that love expressed in the ways they and their families are welcomed in the church? What happens when they are old enough for youth ministry activities? Will our confirmation education programs welcome them or exclude them?
- God’s creation is good, all of it, every living thing, but when that precious teenager realizes that she or he is lesbian/gay, how far does the love of God extend to them and their families? Are the promises made at their baptism still remembered?
- Jesus loves children of every skin color, but we still struggle with how to live together with this difference in the church.
- In God’s eyes everyone is loved and welcomed, but when a family with two children and two dads comes looking for a church home, how open are our doors?
And to think that these challenging questions are evoked by the affirmation of a simple children’s song. A challenge for faithful Christians in the 21st century is how we will respond to and be shaped by difference. How do we learn to live with diversity in the ways that families are constituted and the ways that children learn? The faces of our congregations are being radically changed. Are we ready to consider these changes and their impact on the ways we teach and learn, the ways we worship, the ways we care for families, and the ways we are in service and mission?
In a worship service I attended recently a father and his tall teenage son were walking toward the communion table. Just as the communion servers were getting ready to return the chalice and plates to the table, the son stopped, and you could see the father talking to him with his hands placed gently on his shoulders. It was apparent the teenager wanted to get to the table, but he was also hesitant. There they stood, the father and his tall son, in the center aisle just steps from the table. Finally the youth left his father, walked toward the table and joined the servers. One saw him and offered him the bread and the cup. He communed and then returned to his seat with his father. Alex, the teenager, is autistic. He has a place at this table in this congregation who welcomes him and waits for him and feeds him the bread of life and the cup of the new covenant in God’s love.
When we consider how difference and diversity are changing how we live together in our communities, our neighborhoods, our schools, and our families, we are challenged to think about our response to these questions: Whose baptism do we recognize, affirm, and support? Whom do we welcome to the table where Jesus Christ is the host? Whom do we exclude? Water, bread and cup, are the formative symbols for the life of faith for all Christians. We are welcomed with water into a life of faith, and we are nourished at a table where all are welcome.
Two years ago I taught a workshop at APCE on this topic. I began by asking the participants to name the ways their congregation is experiencing diversity. I started making a list on newsprint, and we began to cover the walls. We heard each other’s stories and began to realize that we all shared a common commitment to learning with and from the richness that comes from living with difference. In that room I heard again and again that every family matters. Families with children adopted from this country and from China and Russia and Central America matter. Families who live with religious or cultural difference matter. Families who live with children who realize they are homosexual matter. Families who live with children who have mental and physical challenges matter. Families who are bilingual matter. Families with one parent or two parents matter. Families with two dads or two moms matter. Families with grandparents raising children matter.
And because this is the reality of families today in our congregations, it matters how we welcome them, how we learn with and from them, and how we educate the congregation about what it means to welcome and live with all of this incredible diversity.
God does have a very big table. In my mind’s eye it sits on a beautiful grassy space or on a very large street in the city. The construction of the table is a mystery. It has the ability to expand to fit the needs of those who are there. It’s like the story of Jesus and the feeding of the large hungry crowd. A small lunch of two loaves of bread and five fish, when taken into Jesus’ hands, became enough to feed everyone who was there. So too with God’s big table as I imagine it—as soon as anyone walks up, or rolls up in their chair, or is carried by another, the table begins to move. Place settings are added and food is replenished. Indeed it is not our table, but it is the table where Jesus Christ is the host, and so it must be very big. It must have many leaves, because at God’s table all are invited, all are welcome. No one is excluded. Miracles still happen!
In a new translation, The Common English Bible, the title of the familiar story of God’s people building a tower in Genesis 11:1-9 is not “The Tower of Babel” but is “The Origin of Languages and Culture.” My colleague, Theodore Hiebert, is the translator and in giving this text a new heading, he is trying to give a “heads up” to the reader to pay attention to a new translation and interpretation. The diversity that was the result of God’s action of “mixing up the language” and scattering people all over the earth was not punishment but rather a part of God’s original plan. God wanted the homogenous group of people living in Shinar to learn to live differently. And so too today.
Just as God looked over the world of her creation and pronounced it good, so too God’s face smiles when we see that goodness. Our life together in this world requires that we learn how to listen, how to teach, how to repair the fractures among us so that together, persons of faith can accomplish what the prophet Micah reminds us is all that God requires of us: to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
Parts of this article are included in my book, God’s Big Table, Nurturing Children in a Diverse World, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2011. Writing this article gave me the chance to reflect on what I heard and learned from participants in the APCE workshop in 2011 and confirmed for me the importance of the ministry of welcoming, educating about and learning from all the diversities present in our congregations.
Elizabeth Caldwell is the Harold Blake Walker Professor of Pastoral Theology at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is a past president of APCE and is the author of God’s Big Table, Nurturing Children in a Diverse World, Pilgrim, 201