The Common Good
April 1994

The Children We Have In Trust

by Jim Wallis | April 1994

Marian Wright Edelman's ethic of service.

Jim Wallis: You were once asked in an interview what was next for you—"the Supreme Court? A Cabinet post?" You answered, "Of course not. I am doing what I think I was put on God's Earth to do. I wouldn't do anything else." I sense faith when you write and speak, that you can't speak of your work very long without some reference to the faith tradition that has shaped you.

Marian Wright Edelman:

Yes. I grew up with people who lived their faith. My father was a preacher and a teacher who really committed himself to service. Both my parents, whenever they saw a need, really tried to respond. I guess I have tried to run my life in the same way.

There are just endless people in my life who live with such grace and such dignity and such sharing. That's the Christianity that I've grown up on. It allows people to get through life and get through the external things, never losing sight of what they thought was important. Sort of reminds you not to take Washington too seriously and not to take yourself too seriously.

Wallis:

How does faith shape service, making it different from, for example, social service agencies that become too institutional and bureaucratic?

Edelman:

You start with an ethic of service: You're there to empower others, you're the means not the ends, and service is a temporary response to crisis. Then you can enable people to live with dignity and have a capacity to struggle. So careerism or personal ambition really is not important.

That certainly has been a key, I'm convinced, of the success of Children's Defense Fund. For the first 15 years, we didn't know what a public relations person was. And we understood the way to get things done was to share and give to others and let them use and translate it.

Wallis:

In your book you used the term "servant leadership." Servant leadership seems out of place in our nation's capital. How do you maintain that posture in a town obsessed with power, results, and image?

Edelman:

It's tempting sometimes to begin to feel a little bit too self-important. You really do have to keep grounded in why you're doing this and who you're doing it for. Then, in many ways, this town is not very tempting. It really isn't.

And being able to go off to church every Sunday morning—thank heavens for Shiloh [Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.]—and to have people with whom one can share a common sense of mission keeps things in perspective. This town is a means to the end.

Wallis:

When the Clintons came in, you were caught up in some of the media swirl because of your connections with them. How does your faith help you to navigate those waters of power?

Edelman:

Again, it keeps you grounded. The reason why the relationships are important is because of what they enable you to do for other people.

I don't know about others' perceptions of what this all means for us—the pronouncement, "My God, your ship has come in because you're in Newsweek." My ship comes in when we get every child immunized, when we get national health insurance, and when we really get jobs out there. To be frank about it, the media are necessary evils.

I believe deeply in what I do. I believe it's the most important thing anybody could be doing in America, which is why I always try to say, "How am I going to be most effective?" It's clear to me that I'll be most effective on the outside. There are many people who can be Secretary of Health and Human Services. I would die doing that.

If your job is on the inside, you have to listen to everybody. You have to be balanced. You have to represent everybody. Kids—they need parents or somebody who's crazy about them. I mean, kids as a group need somebody whose only attention is on them and their needs.

We're trying to make this country place its children—nurturing its children—at the center of everything; to rebuild family and community. The only way we're going to do that is by building a massive movement of "outside" folks. There's only so much people in power can do, if there's not an outside constituency.

Wallis:

We learned that during the civil rights movement. There has to be movement in the streets for it to make a difference in the courts.

Edelman:

We also have to talk about a new generation of servant leaders, to understand relationships between policy and program and community empowerment strategies and politics. But again, all wrapped in an ethic of service that can be sustained over long periods of time. At bottom, this has to be a spiritual movement, because you cannot build community around people who [just] have careers. You need centeredness and a sense of common vision and commitment.

Wallis:

Keeping that centeredness must be a very difficult thing. How do you—in a practical, personal way—maintain that center?

Edelman:

I find that I'm in a constant conversation inside my head. Tapes of childhood music or messages run through my head all the time. Bible sermons, passages of scripture. I keep journals. It's interesting to see how you had dips and you look and say "Aw, it's not so bad today as it used to be."

I have a meditation guide that I am never without. There are some that have become internalized, and so even in the middle of my frenzy, I try to keep my frame of reference about what this is about. I tend to be a terribly impatient person. I'm very impatient and I talk to myself a lot—probably when I'm most awful, you know, when I feel terribly ashamed of myself. It doesn't always work, but it does keep me going and kind of corrects me from point to point.

There are times when I know I just need to go and be quiet, when I go up to a convent. I feel it when I have gone for months and have not taken a day or two days just kind of to correct myself or to be with myself. That is the way I keep going.

Wallis:

How does faith or religious conviction help you to move beyond the ideological straitjackets—liberal and conservative, Left and Right—that often paralyze political conversations?

Edelman:

There's nothing I hate worse than labeling—having people try to fit you into some predictability, just because you're a woman or you're black or you're a this or you're a that. I never could stand boxes.

Like all of us, on some things, I'm deeply conservative. On some things, I'm moderate. I'm liberal on some things. And on some things, I'm very radical, and again, you do what you have to do. You try in each instance to say, "All right, what is the problem here? What groups are you trying to help? What strategies do you need? What allies do you need?"

Wallis:

What are you conservative about and what are you radical about?

Edelman:

Oh, I think I am a pretty conservative parent. You can ask my boys. I believe in limits. Thank God, I suspect.

Wallis:

They say you were strict.

Edelman:

I really do believe in basic family rituals and certain things. I don't care if everybody's doing it. By many standards, I probably am conservative about that.

The more I love and think about what I want for my kids as a mother makes me terribly radical about what I want for everybody's kids and terribly impatient. I couldn't care less about the labels, if a child is being hurt. The more conservative I am in wanting to protect my own kids, the more I get radical about what one needs to do in order to move the country more quickly, because children are just children once.

There are just some things I don't understand. I do not understand how anybody can stand 2-year-olds and 4-year-olds and 6-year-olds being mowed down by guns and not do anything about it. Is our moral and social development so absolutely arrested that we can put up with it? Children are shot, put it on page 18 in The New York Times, and the next day go on and do something else. It should be front-page news every time a child is shot.

I saw a 19-year-old man last week on Connecticut Avenue—the handsomest young man, working as a security guard down in a major office building. I walked out with a very distinguished black lawyer, who said that boy had told him how proud he was that he was going to make it to his 20s. What in the world have we adults let happen when the ambition in life for young people like this, who play by the rules, is to see if they can make it to 20? We've really failed in some fundamental way to protect those children we have in trust.

Wallis:

Isn't it a religious crisis at root?

Edelman:

I think it is. Where are the churches? Churches ought to be the moral locomotives speaking out about this, and they are the caboose. Who are we to say to churches, Why aren't you opening up your doors and why aren't there after-school programs and tutorials in every place? Who am I to say to the preachers, Where are you, you've got these kids all around you.

CDF has developed something called Child Watch. We've been taking groups and ministers out to see a child or a child's life. We take them over to D.C. General Hospital and let them see those two-pound babies, starting off without anything. I'm always amazed how few ministers have ever been in an AIDS baby ward or near the intensive care ward.

We take them to the range of neighborhoods, to day-care centers and homeless shelters, to juvenile court and the morgue. We've got to force people to see and to hear and to feel what is happening to these kids.

We really have gotten ourselves disconnected and disengaged. In many ways, we're scared of our kids. We hear many of our ministers talk about adolescents as if they are the enemy or the other. It's tragic. We have abandoned our children in fundamental ways.

Wallis:

As one street pastor has said, "If the churches won't go into the streets...

Edelman:

...the streets will come into the churches."

Wallis:

We're really calling for conversion at some level.

Edelman:

Yes. We don't live what we say. Our children see our hypocrisy. Our kids aren't going to do what we tell them to do, they do what we do. We decry violence and yet we relate to each other in violent ways in our homes. Children are more likely to view violence in our homes than any place else.

They watch our military expenditures and the way we resolve all of our disputes and they think that the way that you are powerful and resolve disputes is through more and bigger weapons. They see—whether it's on TV or in all of our cultural signals—that what is glamorous and powerful is behind the barrel of a gun.

The religious community in this country is going to have to look at its faith and say, What does God command of us in terms of our treatment of children and the poor? What does this mean in terms of how we relate to our children and how we speak to our children and how we serve our children as a question of faith? What does it mean for us as congregations?

More important, how do we build a more just society? All the soup kitchens in the world are substitutes for jobs and for a just society and just opportunity. You can't have a movement without a strong religious and moral base. We need to change the paradigm, to speak from a different perspective and never let the right wing or the moral majority, whatever they are, define these agendas for children and families again. But the church has got to find its role and find its faith again.

Wallis:

Where do you find your hope these days? What keeps you going?

Edelman:

Well, nothing in our faith says we're going to win, right? Things were not wonderful in the old days, OK? But what we did have was people of faith who got up every morning and who were there for us kids, who said, "I'm going to be with you."

We've got to reconnect and give our kids the sense that you can struggle and do something about these things. That's what I had: All the way through have been folks who said, "Segregation is not right, and here are the ways in which we can work together to try to change this; and things are going to be better tomorrow."

So we never lost hope, because we always had adults out there struggling and that struggle was put into a deeper spiritual perspective grounded in the Christian ethic. When I went off to Spelman College, compulsory chapel was the thing I rebelled against most, but it also is what I remember most. We had extraordinary speakers—Howard Thurman, Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, and Martin Luther King Jr.—teaching us that life and education were about service. We clearly thought that we were a part of a cosmic struggle.

Wallis:

A cloud of witnesses.

Edelman:

A cloud of witnesses, that's right. That is what we have to re-engage and do. And I'm going to see it happen. There're always victories. Betty Johnson was a kid in the first Head Start center in Mississippi in 1965. Betty's now passed the bar in Ohio. There are countless wonderful things like that. Every time you get down, you get reminded of the flowers; you plant seeds and you water them in these lives and they grow. There are a lot of flowers out there.

Wallis:

So you do feel hope?

Edelman:

Of course I do. Of course I feel hope. I have to have enough faith in who we are as America if we work hard enough. We're at a point of crisis, and crises are an opportunity to do what is right, if avenues are out there. One of the things that we keep telling our young people is to do things for themselves. But we haven't given them the opportunity.

What I'm finding so exciting now about my job is that you give them skills and avenues and say, "Let's start." They're doing it. Kids see kids from their own area who are doing things. The role model they need is not Michael Jordan. They need the kid from around the corner to somehow manage to get up, go to college, and come back and help.

Yes, I'm very hopeful. No illusions about how hard and how difficult. But things are beginning to happen.

Wallis:

There must be times of doubt and struggle for you. What are those times like? How does your faith help you then?

Edelman:

If you let go and understand that this is not about you, you're not the point, you're not in control, and it really is about surrender, [then] you thank God for everything: bad times and good times. My daddy's tapes playing. You're never alone. I tell you, there's never a time, when you're absolutely at the bottom, where you don't get a sense of presence and just have to let go.

Many people remember all the good times about Martin Luther King Jr. I remember all the times when he was terribly depressed. He was one of the few adults in my childhood who could say, "I'm terrified. I have no idea what I'm going to do next." And he'd talk about his fears, his depression, and his struggles; that was terribly important. But you go ahead and take that first step, step out in faith.

You cry, and you get up the next day and try. That is the tradition of all those folk out there who got up every day when there was a hell of a lot more wrong than we'll ever have. Nobody ever promised anything was going to be easy.

Wallis:

But in those moments, for you, it's those tapes of your father's sermons, it's the memory of those people who helped to raise you, and it's prayer that gets you through. What is prayer to you?

Edelman:

Well, sometimes it's just trying to listen. The old folks say, "He may not come when you want Him to, but He always comes on time."

Wallis:

When you read the Bible, do you have a favorite passage that you go back to again and again?

Edelman:

Oh, my most favorite psalm is Psalm 90. That psalm is never ever far away. Also the 139th psalm, which is my father's favorite. Howard Thurman said, "You can throw away all the Bible and leave the 139th psalm; it would be enough."

Wallis:

Give me some words from the 90th psalm that keep you going.

Edelman:

Again, it is just that you're part of an ongoing thing. It really is there, "my dwelling place." "Teach us to number our days and our hearts to wisdom." Asking God to establish the work of your hands.

I find that in crisis, something will come. Like my mother's favorite verse, "In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy path." [They] constantly remind you that you're not alone, that somebody is there. Those are precious legacies.

I can't believe I'm telling you all this. I don't talk about religion a lot; I think you live it. But I do worry a lot about how you transmit that to your children. Passing the faith on is absolutely crucial. I do hope that there are anchors there that young people can find. When things are tough, there are things that get you through.

Jim Wallis is editor in chief of Sojourners. Marian Wright Edelman was founder of the Children's Defense Fund when this article appeared.

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