Are places of faith – our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples – safe for our children and families in South Africa? Headlines where priests, pastors or leaders who have exploited young men and women, boys and girls under their care aren’t unfamiliar – yet the question we need to ask is what has permitted this to continue too often in the name of healing, wholeness and faith?
Arise was recently gifted custodianship of the resource “Children, Church and the Law” which was developed for The Warehouse by Erica Greathead. A resource which not only unpacks the Children’s Act of 2005 but also the Constitution and many other policies that affect children. It also seeks to address the response of churches with regards to the children within their church community. The questions it poses are,“How do we better advocate for the children known to us, in our homes, our neighbourhood and our communities?”; “How do we ensure that children are protected when they are in our care?” and, “How do we support and strengthen families (no matter how they are formed) so that children are in safe nurturing environments?” These are the questions, that as faith communities, we need to be addressing.
One of the biggest challenges is that too often we forget that children’s rights have commanded their own sections within our constitution – as well as detailed rights within the law itself. We forget that while we are gifted the right of many freedoms in South Africa, that the practice and realities for our South African children do not reflect these rights.
What does this have to do with the church or any faith community? Our law makes us all responsible for the wellbeing of children. We are the proverbial village responsible for raising the children who are not just in our homes but also in our communities. This means as a community acknowledging what we know, as well as what we don’t know when it comes to the rights and legal requirements of the village surrounding a child. The rights to a name, to dignity, to heritage and belonging; the rights to security and housing, the rights to education and nutrition to name a few rights of those enshrined in our constitution – the constitution we so often brag about.
Our blind spots, our traditions – across all cultural groups in South Africa and our own biases will inform the way in which we respond to the needs, the rights and the place of children within our spaces. Children don’t exist outside of adults, requiring that we also interrogate our personal beliefs about who we believe are best placed to care for children.
Too often as a faith community, more especially in wealthier communities (that includes the middle class) of South Africa, we have projected expectations onto families that are outdated and impractical, which makes families and children feel judged and shame. Too often in history, but also in the present, we move children from poor communities into adoption or into what were called ‘orphanages’ and now ‘alternative care’, without committing to addressing what has driven the removal to care initially.
Too often as communities of faith, we have operated as if we are exempt from mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse, as if we are exempt from screening any volunteer working with children and from ensuring that volunteers are competent in understanding the needs and development of children in appropriate ways. If we are honest, too often we avoid this part of the conversation because we don’t want to believe that it could be needed within our spaces.
Yet, in all honesty, we also know that communities of faith can be sanctuary or respite for children, they are the communities that can advocate and raise the standard of what honouring children and their rights in the world looks like. We know that communities of faith are the spaces where families, in their beauty and their brokenness, are present. This does not exempt us from the law of the land. It raises the bar of where and how we respond, to firstly ensure the safety and wellbeing of a child, recognizing the role players who are needed to ensure that this is done appropriately as well as what this is means for the others in this child’s story.
In the 3 major world religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the texts all reference the wellbeing of children and how they are seen. If what we say we believe is to align with what we do, then the way in which we engage with children needs to align too.
It needs to align in our willingness to have the hard conversations, be open to learning and willing to put measures in place that communicate and speak to children that they are seen and that they matter. It means that as adults we hold ourselves accountable, not just to what we believe but also to the legal requirements shaped to honour and protect children – both as individuals and as communities.
The invitation, legally, and within our faith is there – how we respond as communities of faith and as individuals is our responsibility.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the training that Arise provides for this guide.