Our house sits behind an elementary school, and when school’s in session, we can hear children greeting their friends before school and giggling during after-school games of tag.
I worked in that school for several years, my office just across the hall from one of the kindergarten classrooms. On school days, children often peeked into my office, and I still miss the chorus of small voices wishing me good morning or goodbye.
Because I wasn’t a teacher, I didn’t have any well-defined responsibility for the school’s students. Sometimes I filled in for recess duty or afternoon read-alouds, but often I was just the extra adult, the slightly-taller human being who had more experience using a camera or crossing the street. As the school’s de facto photographer I had the privilege of accompanying classes on field trips and taking photos of students doing interesting things, and I had the advantage of being able to return students to their teachers whenever the going got tough. I had the pleasure of all the benefits of being with children, without the hassle of any long-term responsibility. It was, I thought, like being an aunt.
This spring, one of my sisters made me an aunt for real. All of a sudden, life shifted. From the moment my brother-in-law texted me to say that my niece had arrived, I began to see the world through the eyes of someone who had a real investment in a future that belonged to a tiny little girl. That feeling has only grown as time passes. I worry about what she’ll encounter in this world and how I, only an aunt, only an extra adult, can help shield her from the worst of it and can help her be a light in dark places.
As anyone with any real responsibility for children knows, this is an extraordinarily difficult task. But caring for another person, whoever that person might be, starts small. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.”(1)
The world is a difficult place—more dangerous for some than for others. It requires all of us to be more than just the extra adult. It requires us to see each other. I’m lucky: I was hardly older than a child myself when I attended my first PW Churchwide Coordinating Team meeting and learned firsthand from dozens of women who saw the people around them—even when those people were half a world away.
Not long after my niece was born a rainbow-colored rubber ball appeared in our driveway, a casualty of some lunchtime game, probably. A few weeks later, a gunman massacred 49 people at an Orlando nightclub; police killed African American men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul; five cops were slain at a protest in Dallas; the General Assembly met to hash out some big issues in the PC(USA); and the Bramble Cay melomys was reported to be the first mammal wiped out by climate change.
The world doesn’t require us simply to see the pain—it requires us to act. Recently, I received an email from a PW I knew from my CCT days. She wrote about the social justice committee she was chairing, the women’s economic justice book club she was organizing, the educational trip she was planning with women from her presbytery. Her life was impressively justice-oriented, but here’s what stuck with me: for this woman, taking action to address the needs of the people around her was a normal, everyday act, like sending a rainbow-colored ball back over a schoolyard fence. It reminded me of something else Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote. “Anyone can bless, whether anyone has authorized you to do it or not,” she wrote. “All I am saying is that the world needs you to do this, because there is a real shortage of people willing to kneel wherever they are and recognize the holiness holding its sometimes bony, often tender, always life-giving hand above their heads.”(2) It turns out none of us is the extra adult; we’re all here to see each other and to serve.
Horizons: The Magazine for Presbyterian Women, November/December 2016
- Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: Harper, 2010), 102.
- Ibid., 209.