I was inspired to go into ministry while working in a residential shelter with abused and abandoned children under the age of 5. I was inspired by the resilience of their spirits, and the power of love to heal what was broken in them. (I also saw clearly the limits to what love could do, when they were sent back to their families of origin, and the violence cycle repeated and they came back, over and over again.) I became a minister because I wanted to make a life where I could unapologetically make it my priority to contribute more love into the world.
For those young ones at the shelter, a sense of safety was absent from earliest memory in their homes. Their homes were the furthest thing from sanctuary imaginable. Yet, as we provided structure and love, we would watch them bend towards it, as sunflowers bend towards the light. As they slowly relaxed into the care provided by a staff of multiple people present around the clock with nothing to do but care for them, we saw remarkable changes in them. It was clear that, given the choice, they would choose love, even if they had to test that love relentlessly before they could believe it.
Loving them could be challenging—these kids knew how to push every single button imaginable and some I could never have thought of to stay in the terrain that was familiar to them—terrain where the adults in the room were angry or neglectful and the children were punished. I know that, alone, I could never have provided adequate resistance to their incessant testing.
The operating theory at the shelter was that, often, if kids’ behavior seemed inexplicable, we should look to what we, the staff, were doing with ourselves and each other. Often the solution to improving their behavior was improving our own communications, attention, care for each other. Without verbalizing what they were doing, the managers of this facility were teaching us about family systems, and without knowing it, I became a big believer in systems analysis. One of the shelter’s mantras was “99% of your control of the children comes from your relationship with them.” It was a highly relational environment.
As we work to make this congregation a sanctuary for ourselves, one another, and the wider community, thinking about our own relationships here is helpful. We, the interim ministerial troika, are working to know as many of you as we can, and yet we won’t be deepening into the kind of long term relationships with you that your settled minister eventually will. Building strong relationships with one another is a vital task for you to accomplish this year, and one that only you can do! None of us can create sanctuaries alone. We need one another for this most sacred task of learning how to love. I’m thrilled to be here, learning with you, this year.