Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 10:13-16: Jesus Blesses Little Children
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
One hundred and thirty-four miles. Who here has ever walked 134 miles? I don’t mean 134 miles if you add up all the miles you walk in a month. I mean in one trip, over the course of several days or maybe even weeks. In 1903, a group of kids and their parents marched about 134 miles over the course of three weeks. I learned about this in an article by a write named Gail Friedman. In the early 1900’s, children as young as 10 years old were recruited and permitted to work in coal mines and clothing mills. It wasn’t rich kids who felt like they had to do this. It was usually kids from families that were poor and where the adults weren’t paid enough to take care of the whole family. The kids, just as soon as they could, would go to work to help pay for their family’s food and rent.
At work, they were often asked to do dangerous jobs in the day time and the night time, too, and the adults around them weren’t always interested in taking care of them. An organizer named Mother Jones realized that getting some of the kid workers and their families to march a long way from where they lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania through cities in New Jersey and then into New York City could help more people know about the strike and realize that kids shouldn’t be asked to do dangerous jobs. So, a bunch of kids and their parents started marching. By the time they reached New York City, 60 children and parents were left and they marched through the city. Five of them even went to the president’s vacation house to try to get him to pay attention to how bad it was to be a kid working a dangerous job.
Seeing all these kids and their parents march for so long in big cities helped get the attention of people who wanted to change things and agreed to try to make things safer for kids. Some places would start making laws to protect kids in dangerous jobs, including Pennsylvania, where these kids lived. It would take a while longer, but eventually, the national government passed laws that said that companies couldn’t hire elementary and middle-school aged kids for those kinds of jobs anymore. And, high school kids can only work some kinds of jobs, none of them as dangerous as the ones the kids who marched did. So, even though the March of the Mill Children didn’t immediately fix all the problems, having kids and adults work together to tell the truth about how the kids were being mistreated in their jobs helped make it easier for all these big laws to be changed later.
For it is to such as these that the realm of God belongs.
In 2016, a group of about thirty 13-year-olds set about to protect the land, the water, and their sacred spaces where they lived. I learned about them from an article by Matt Petronzio. These kids, who all were a part of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, heard plans to move an oil pipeline so that instead of running through the city of Bismark, it would run through the area next to where they lived. These kinds of pipelines often leak, polluting water and land. Some of the places where this pipeline would run were also holy sites, kind of like our church or the cemeteries where our families are buried. The kids from Standing Rock were worried that the pipeline would mess up their water so they couldn’t drink it or hurt the land or destroy holy sites. So, they started a huge social media campaign and shared petitions to stop this pipeline from being built.
These kids were really smart and used social media as a tool for good. Their work helped so many more people learn about the risks of building this kind of pipeline near water, land where people and animals live, and through special, sacred places. One of the kids, Tokata Iron Eyes was interviewed by an adult activist and they posted the video on Facebook. In just 24 hours, that video was watched 1 million times. Ann Lee Rain Yellowhammer, another one of the kid organizers, started a petition on-line and 460,000 people signed it.
The kids didn’t just organize on-line either. They worked with adults in their communities to set up a camp to get in the way of the pipeline, slowing down the construction. While adult leaders of the Standing Rock Nation were working on legal challenges to the pipeline, the 30 young organizers organized rallies to educate and inspire people, and organized two very long runs, first a 500-mile spiritual relay race from Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to the district office of the Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, Nebraska and the second a 2,000-mile relay race from their home to Washington, D.C. to deliver their petition. Like the long march of the mill children in 1903, these long relay runs helped get people’s attention and teach them something about the risks of the pipeline.
When they learned that the company that wanted to build the pipeline got permission to start, the kid organizers went back on-line and invited other people to come to their camp and help get in the way of construction. Thousands of people, even a pastor I know from here in Maine, went to help the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and try to stop the pipeline. Like the kids who marched in 1903, the kids from Standing Rock were not able to stop all of the problems they were fighting immediately. They and the adults they worked with were able to have construction halted for some time, though the company was given permission to start again and they were able to build the whole thing. The pipeline leaked 5 times in 2017, just like they were worried it would. They are still fighting though. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has won one important victory in court, and the company that built the pipeline is going to have to do a big study to tell the truth about what affect the pipeline will have on the environment where it was built. And, the kids, now almost ready to graduate high school, keep fighting for the rights of their community to have safe land and water. Their work reminds me that even if you don’t win at first, it is important to keep fighting for what is right.
When Jesus was alive and teaching, many grown-ups worried that kids were in the way or couldn’t understand what he was teaching. When his adult friends tried to keep people from bringing their kids to be blessed, Jesus got really mad at his friends. He said that kids deserved to be there with him. And, in fact, the kids could teach the adults something important about being brave and learning new things. In fact, he said, adults would have to re-learn how to be brave, curious, and tough the way kids are if they were going to be able to follow him. As you go about your week, if you’re a kid, I hope you’ll remember that Jesus said kids will teach grown-ups how to follow him. And, if you’re an adult, I hope you’ll make sure pay attention to the brave, curious, and tough kids that you know. Do not prevent them from doing what’s right. And, follow their lead. You just might meet Jesus along the way.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Proper 22 (Closest to October 5),"Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
William B. McLain, “Proper 22 ,” Preaching God's Transforming Justice, A Lectionary Commentary Year B, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Here are some great resources about kids' activism:
-Gail Friedman: https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/march-of-the-mill-children/
-Mark Petronzio: https://mashable.com/article/standing-rock-nodapl-youth
Some specific information about the Dakota Access Pipeline:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.