Last year when I arrived in Ecuador, I spent time in the initial days playing with the kids. I am like a large, living toy. Playing usually takes place in the large field in the center of the village where people play sports. So this time, a large group of little kids began to gradually grow, playing games, and I have a lot of fun, getting a big kick out of it.
Now and then, a spat would happen, and then I would be the intermediary leading to reconciliation. After that, the play would start again. We spent about an hour or so in the field, in the center of the village in front of everyone.
At one point, one of the kids yelled out, “Let’s go into the church!” The church faces out into the field, and I usually leave the doors wide open when I’m around. With the doors open, we headed off into the church.
One by one the kids shared their prayers and petitions. By the time they had enough, we left. And I thought to myself, that was easy. Later on, kids were coming to the Christmas novena. A mother told me that one night, her daughter was going out the door, and her mother was surprised. “Where are you going?” “To the novena. Jerome is there.”
There was no arm twisting, no haggling, no warnings or threats, no dangling of rewards, no bargaining. The kids themselves wanted to go to church and be with God. That’s what can happen when adults come down from the adult perches and enter into their world. You just have to have an open heart with love at the center, and they’ll come in.
This year, I arrived and the kids were out in full force. There was nowhere for me to hide. One day a few of the kids were walking with me next to the church to go the field. The church doors were wide open. I said, does anyone want to go into the church? They literally jumped for joy. We went inside and knelt and sat. Then began some of the most priceless moments, as each of the kids talked about what and who they wanted to pray for, what was happening in their families where they wanted God’s help, what they were afraid of and what they were grateful for.
See, with our religious ed programs and sacramental preparation programs and bible programs and classes and all that stuff that we adults like to put together – because it makes church people feel like we’re being responsible and getting something good done – we make things complicated. We think *we* know God and that children don’t, that we have to instruct them about God.
You know the story about the children and Jesus. People start to bring kids to Jesus, and the disciples want to tell the people to get lost. The disciples are probably thinking, they first have to sign up for the baptism prep course, and then after that they need the first communion or the bible course, and then after another year or two … and then … and tehn … maybe they’ll actually be a priest or a minister or nun, and THEN they’ll really know God.
And Jesus corrects them. It’s the kids who already have a closeness to God.
“Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt 19:14)
See, kids want help discovering the closeness to God that they already have. It’s the adults that get in the way. Adults set up for them all the same types of hoops and obstacles that we’ve become accustomed in the “adult” world as *we’ve* drifted from the innocence that they possess.
But if you trust that children already have a closeness to God, if you come down from adult life into their world and listen, then they will trust you. You won’t be an obstacle in the way. Instead, in you, they will have access to the God they know and are looking for.
And all you have to do is leave the door open.