CWM Assembly 2024: GA Moderator reflects on The Day of the African Child

On 17 June, the Revd Dr Tessa Henry-Robinson, Moderator of the URC General Assembly, reflected on The International Day of the African Child in a sermon delivered at CWM Assembly 2024 on 16 June.

The day is in memory of the Soweto Youth Uprising which took place on 16 June 1976 in South Africa against the Apartheid government.

Dr Henry-Robinson greeted Assembly with a Zulu greeting, saying: “Sanibonani (I see you) and greet you in the name of the One living, loving Liberator, through Jesus Christ, our Saving grace.”

After expressing blessings from her family and a short prayer, the Moderator delivered the following sermon:

Friends, today we rise — we rise in celebration and in awe of God’s children — pioneers, who possessed a particular kind of boldness, brave sacrifice and courage, that rose up in 1976 and stood against the injustice of the apartheid regime.

So, friends, today is a special day. A day of rising to recognise and embody their courage!

In the same way I see the critical necessity of reading and re-reading passages of scripture freshly every time, I see the importance of revisiting and facing events with fresh eyes.

And this opportunity to preach on this day that is set aside to commemorate the African Child, is not lost on me.

The Scripture passages I chose, Mark 10:17-31, and Matthew 19:13-15 are, to me, very familiar ones. Yet, this time they touched me differently.

I grew up in a large family in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean with two parents and nine siblings: a household where every event and time seemed to have been underpinned by music.

So, I hope you will permit me to extract, sometimes loosely, from a singer who for me underscored in her music the world events of the 1970’s because some of the lyrics of her song Trade Winds seemed to freshly disturb me while I was preparing today’s sermon.

She sings…

“Here I stand looking, looking around me,
while all around me, what do I see,
unhappy faces behind painted smiles,
heartache and loneliness dressed up in modern styles.
Children both rich and poor searching for the truth…”

I turn to you and ask — What do you see happening to children and young people, when you look around the world today?

Like Roberta (Flack), still today, young people are searching for the truth, and if they don’t find it, like the song says, “Lord help tomorrow’s youth”. These are the signs  they are caught up in the trade winds of our time.

In our time, these trade winds reflect the societal conditions that push children into open spaces of suffering where they find themselves fighting for survival sometimes losing that fight, amidst hatred, lovelessness and despair on many levels.

And so, it becomes for us a question of how do we revisit, reimagine and transform experiences such as this?

What if these signs were not just reminders of our collective failures? What if they are calls to prophetic action?

Because who are we, if we are not called into action by God, as members of one body?

Our theological underpinning compels us to read these signs through the lens of our prophetic calling, which gives rise to urgency — this is actually an emergency, which is urging us to respond with faith and witness.

And in my interpretation, Jesus’ interaction with the rich man in Mark 10:17-31 presents what can be a challenge to us, to examine what might be holding us back from fully flourishing.

The young man’s sorrowful departure after Jesus’ command to sell all he possessed and give to the poor, gives us a glimpse into the grip that material wealth and societal expectations have on our lives.

At Matthew 19:14, Jesus says: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

And if nothing else, this should offer a profound theological foundation for our prophetic calling.

If heaven belongs to the children, then our faith demands that we create environments where children not just survive but thrive and where their rights are upheld, and their potential is nurtured.

This day in 1976, which started with hope and vision for the future and ended with death and weeping, is now transformed to a day South Africa celebrates as a reminder of the historical struggles and ongoing challenges faced by its children. It is a day when we are called to rise in the fashion that Jesus did on the Sunday after that fateful Friday.

Just as Jesus welcomed the children and blessed them, we too are called to embrace and protect them from the harsh signs of our time, and to guide them towards a future filled with hope and opportunity. The singer observes that “love is the answer”, and then laments that, no one is buying.

Yet, our mission mandate compels us to rise to respond in love, where our faith and witness demand that we engage in the kind of mission that addresses the root causes of the challenges children face, and work tirelessly towards justice, peace, and reconciliation, ensuring that our actions reflect the love and compassion of Christ.

In South Africa, this day is an immensely important day to remember children whose rights had been taken away and who had long been minoritised and marginalised.

It is a day marked by activities that promote children’s rights — a day that places focus on the need for improved education and healthcare systems, protection against abuse and exploitation, the elimination of child labour and poverty as well as the negative impacts of climate change.

And in an attempt to answer the earlier question — who are we, if not called to action, by God? Perhaps we need to ask additional questions — what is our true mission, and, where is God in all of this?

When and how are we going to support the efforts, to advocate for policies that protect our children, and to provide resources that enable them to thrive?

In our journey through the signs of the times, our prophetic calling, and our mandate, it is important to root our understanding deeply in the presence and action of God.

Aren’t we already doing this, you might ask?

We acknowledge God as the Creator and Sustainer of life, the one who breathes life into every child, who knows them by name, and in whose hands their futures are held.

Acknowledging that God’s heart breaks at the sight of injustice, oppression, and suffering is radically transforming. In the face of the brutal force that was meted out against the children in Soweto, God’s presence was with them, sharing in their pain and crying out for justice. For the God we worship is not the God whose heart is hard, who wreaks havoc and causes pain. Our living, loving Creator is a God of justice who sides with the oppressed and stands against the powers of this world that seek to harm and dehumanise.

I grew up knowing that the word apartheid meant something horrible happening to black South Africans. And when the news broke about what happened to the children (some of whom were the same age as me) protesting peacefully in the streets of Soweto, I was deeply troubled and tearful.

Though I was not physically present, my heart resonated with their struggle. I could not understand why children who were bold and brave enough to recognise the importance of having and speaking in their own voice and learning in their own language were met with such brutal force — for me their courage would have been something to celebrate. It was a moment that shaped my understanding of justice, of the need to stand up for what is right, and of the critical importance of education that empowers rather than oppresses.

This experience brought me closer to self-reflection and recognition. I saw myself in those children and it made me realise that God’s realm is one where every child is valued, where their voices are heard, and where their potential is nurtured.

God calls us to be co-creators with God in building a world of justice, peace, and love.

I understand now why Roberta Flack’s lyrics touched me so deeply, because when I reflect on Hector Pieterson and the children of Soweto, I see reflections of myself. I am caused to reflect on my own journey — and could see even at that age — that life was no easy game. It is easy to get caught up in the trade winds of our time.

Now, instead of merely observing, I see the faces of the children who marched for their right to education, for their right to a future, and I am reminded of my own responsibility to continue their legacy.

Their courage and sacrifice are not just historical events but living testimonies that call us to action today.

Although Trinidad and Tobago is geographically far removed from the physical space of Soweto, the spirit of their struggle resonated deeply within me. It re-awakened a sense of solidarity, a realisation that the fight for justice and equality knows no boundaries. The struggle of the children in Soweto became my struggle, their pain, my pain, their hope, my hope.

This profound connection to the children of Soweto is rooted in the theological understanding that we are all part of God’s family. When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer.

When one child is oppressed, all children are affected. This is why the Day of the African Child is so significant—it is a reminder that we are all called to rise to life together in transformation.

To effectively respond to this calling, we need to consider what this means for an organisation such as CWM. What are the key implications and insights for governance, location, finance, and communication?

If we are who we say we are—an organisation that is interested in creating life-flourishing communities—then we need to embody the values of transparency, accountability, and inclusivity.

Then, we are called to boldly and bravely challenge the injustices committed against children, ensuring their voices are heard and their needs are prioritised.

Yes, our efforts need to be rooted in the regions and communities we serve, but the body is wider still. We need to be present where the needs are greatest, understanding the unique challenges and opportunities within each context.

Are we, or are we not called to at least acknowledge other people’s pain? What makes it acceptable to be openly dismissive of other people’s pain?

If who we are, is who we say we are, then members need to recognise with urgency that financial resources need to be justly allocated towards programs that directly benefit children living through legacies of historical wrongs — and acknowledge their suffering by honouring the promise to repair the breach.

Education, communication and acknowledgment are key to showing respect and recognising people’s dignity. And the students’ desire for effective education is core to why they took to the streets in protest. It was to enhance the way they communicated with each other and with their communities. Having the freedom to use your own voice to tell your story is life giving, and crucial for advocacy and action.

Rising to life together in transformation is an intentional, non static activity. As we reflect on the prophetic reading of the signs of our time, our theological calling, and our mission, may we be intentional about recognising that the Day of the African Child is not just a day of remembrance, but a day of renewed commitment to the rights and welfare of all children. Indeed, I would be remiss if I do not also mention the children of Gaza, Sudan and Congo in this context.

We are called to be agents of change — to create a world where every child has the opportunity to thrive — not merely survive. This requires us to confront the trade winds of our time, that is — the systems and structures that perpetuate inequality and injustice today, and work tirelessly towards a future where love, justice, and peace prevail.

While I was inspired by Roberta Flack’s song in the 70s: I pray that the day will soon arrive for new lyrics that go something like this…

“Here I stand looking, looking around me, while all around me, what do I see?
I see that while these trade winds may blow around and about us,
we recognise that we are not powerless, and boldly harness the power within us,
to rise, transform, and build a better future together.”

But this means remembering to charge our batteries by plugging ourselves into Jesus urging to let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the realm of heaven belongs to such as these.

Friends, in this space, where we gather together to commemorate the Day of the African Child who courageously went ahead of us in rising up and boldly taking their place in history, may we commit ourselves with the same spirit of boldness and courage, to be and to become the change we need to see and to be, and to rise to life, together in transformation, ensuring that we are doing the best we could possibly do, to ensure that every child has the chance to live, to learn, and to grow in a world that values and protects them.

May God bless us all as we journey together in this mission of love, justice, and transformation – Amen.

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