Keeping faith for children

At the close of the century in which the average child's health and welfare has increased more than in any period in history, poor children receive little benefit from this progress. With a relatively minor expenditure of effort, intelligence and wisdom, the basic gift of health and education could be extended to the full family of human children.

But we lack the moral will.

Thus the century closes with a sense of despair, a drift backward into an almost tribal interest in protecting me and mine against the glaring opportunity for an inclusive future. For the first time in history, it is possible to imagine a world in which all children of every race and country can be protected from the common diseases and be literate.

Why are they not?

It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. What is less often said is that the entire world has become a village and no child anywhere is born outside its family. Now it takes a world to raise a child.

Nearly two millennia after Jesus bid the children to come with him-a surprising act in his day-they are still vulnerable to simple disease, injury, ignorance, neglect, malnutrition and abuse. Carter Center Health Fellow William Foege has pointed out that millions of children are still being born into 14th-century conditions, with no benefit from the medical, social, political and technological advances most of us enjoy.

In November, the United Methodist Council of Bishops agreed to a four-year initiative on youth and poverty that will include several facets of Emory's community. According to the bishops, "Nothing less is required than the reshaping of the United Methodist Church in response to the God who is among `the least of these.' The evaluation of everything the church is and does in the light of the impact on children and the impoverished is the goal." Other faith groups also are beginning to recognize the challenge of the children.

The UNICEF State of the World's Children 1995 details goals set at the unprecedented World Summit for Children in 1990, attended by 70 heads of state. That report aches with a sense of the imminent opportunity that cannot be attained without a full mobilization of the moral energy of the world.

The opportunity to close the gap in children's health is not likely to remain open for very long, because unattended problems expand in number and seriousness. And the cost of our failure to act is not only paid in actual dollars spent needlessly dealing with instability and chronic disease, but also in the uncountable lost potential in human lives.

It is realistic to see choices being made that will lead to worldwide expansion of opportunity, innovation and participation. It is equally realistic to see humankind choosing, through lack of better choice, to participate in a global pattern of ethnic violence, poverty, hunger and political/social disintegration eventually involving us all.

We are moving through this time of choice.

Unnecessary suffering, inexpensive prevention

It may be asking too much for the human community to understand this opportunity, for this is the first generation in history to have the capacity to implement what has only been imaginable so recently. Technicians and scientists have brought these goals within reach, but they cannot be expected to have the tools to spark moral commitment.

Even if it is well within our ability to prevent a large proportion of suffering-suffering that has been inevitable throughout history-the idea is so new that few government leaders, or parents, find it credible. Therefore, prevention lacks a serious moral claim on our resources.

Yet the 1995 UNICEF report argues that "In the past many may have been dissuaded from this struggle by its apparent hopelessness, by the idea that meeting the basic needs of all children is too difficult, too vast and too expensive to be achieved in the immediate future. One of the great tasks of the people and organizations working for this cause is to dispel these myths...

People must be convinced that much, perhaps most, of the suffering that children experience worldwide-from measles to gun violence-is unnecessary and relatively inexpensive to prevent. If this can be done, it will establish a moral claim that few adults, especially parents, can resist.

And who is better equipped to carry the message than communities of faith?

Untangling the poverty-health link

The first step in untangling the poverty-health link is to do all within our power to break its cycle by building strength and economic capacity in children and youth. It may be beyond the moral courage of any religious group to undo the damage for adults in poverty. But it is still possible to help children, especially in the three critical areas of nutrition, preventive and primary health, and education.

Faith groups have many assets to offer at this critical moment of opportunity. About 300,000 local congregations of all faiths dot the streets of the nation. Billions of dollars in health facilities are owned by religious groups-more than are owned by any for-profit hospital groups. Denominational structures have major educational and communications capacities. The greatest resource of faith groups in advocating the health status of children is not their own professional employees; it is the energized lives of their 150 million individual members who express their faith through their professional capacity as public health workers, policy makers, teachers and community leaders.

The voices of faith were barely heard during the health-care reform debate, despite strenuous efforts by parts of the religious community. Some political groups even used religious vocabulary to argue against children's health programs, against "the least of these." While mainline religious groups quietly accelerate their ministries for the homeless and the poor, public debate cynically uses religious compassion as an excuse for public callousness. Thus, while achieving some success in their role as service providers, religious groups have failed at their other primary task of providing coherent and credible ethical guidance for the larger society.

If we cannot speak hopefully here, then the center of our identity as parents and as disciples is hollowed out with despair almost too deep to speak. This, I believe, is exactly the root of the silence that afflicts so many faith members and, yes, even so many leaders.

A pastoral word spoken with open-eyed confidence and such unshakable clarity that the people of faith are ignited to become advocates for the world's children would be good news indeed-and would be the right word at the right time, the power of which should not be underestimated.

Gary Gunderson is director of operations for the Interfaith Health Program at The Carter Center. This article originally appeared in that program's newsletter, "Faith & Health."

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