I was surprised when five year old Dylan (not his real name) broke ranks with the group of older children, most of whom he knew – one was his brother, to cross the invisible line and hand another child the pair of shoes he was holding. He did this without anyone prompting him. In fact he was instructed, as were all the children with him, to ignore those others, the ones sitting in the corner begging.
This incident happened about ten years ago when I was a member of a small rural Methodist Church. It was my Sunday to head up Junior Church for First to Fifth grade children, a hard group to teach due to the age differences. Dylan technically should have been with the pre-schoolers, but he wanted to be with his older brother, so we let him stay. On any given Sunday you never knew if there would be 2 kids to teach or 20, and there was no set curriculum, just a Children’s Bible and coloring pages. So the usual class started with a short Bible story, a few questions and comments, then coloring pages or a cut and paste craft, followed by juice and cookies.
It was the third Sunday of Advent and I had an idea, something I wanted to try out with the kids. So first we read that Sunday’s Gospel story from Luke 3:10-18 where we hear from John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming Messiah. When John is asked “What should we do?” in regards to his previous exhortation to repent, he answered “Whoever has two coats should give one to the person who has none and whoever has food should share with one who is hungry.” After the Bible story we led the children out to the empty church hall, where the 15 or so kids were randomly divided into two separate groups and sent to opposite sides of the room. Group 1 was told to go sit in the corner and remove their shoes, lining them up along the back wall. They were then told to pretend they were cold and shoeless and had no money to shop with. Meanwhile Group 2 was told they were going Christmas shopping, to pretend the empty church hall was the mall. And as they walked around the parameter they each were to pick up a pair of shoes and carry them around with them. Group 1 was told that each time the shoppers passed by they were to call out, asking for shoes, a coat, or food. Let them know you are cold and hungry. Group 2 was specifically instructed to ignore those guys in the corner. They are just a nuisance.
And so our little experiment started. All the kids got into their roles, the older ones improvising their dialog as the game progressed. The poor retches in the corner wailed and cried and said “Hey [name here] give me my shoes back.” Another yelling “I’m cold”, as he mimed shivering. And the Christmas shoppers said things like, “I’m going to Target,” or “I want to buy [latest fad].” When the shoppers were on their second iteration around the “mall” the youngest shopper broke out of the group and gave the shoes he was carrying back to their owner. We, myself and my helper, were impressed with this spontaneous act of charity, but continued the game, not making a big deal of the aberrant behavior. After one more go-round, we stopped the shoppers, shoes were returned and roles reversed. It was interesting to see the hesitancy of Group 2 now that they knew what to expect. One boy refused to go into the corner and remove his shoes. We had to bribe him with the promise of cookies and juice.
The game complete we returned to the classroom, served the snacks and asked the children how it felt. Most of them said they did not like being without their shoes and they did not like the way the others ignored them. Asked how it felt to be a shopper with shoes and money while the others did not, they responded they felt guilty or bad for the others. We closed with prayer and an exhortation to please remember those who do not have what you do this Christmas. We explained that many of their families have taken tags from the Giving Tree and will be bringing gifts next week for these families. “That is one way we do as John asked, to prepare for the coming of Jesus. Another is to live this way all year round.”
But I learned more that Sunday morning than I could ever impart to this group of children. I learned from the five year old rebel that sometime we just need to break ranks with our family, our clan, our party, our church our race, and do the right thing. Speak up and give voice to the unpopular view, give that extra amount to charity, support those who are suffering at our border. We are all children of the same God and we must not just say we are “saved” or “baptized” or as John put it “Children of Abraham” and believe that is enough. Instead we must do as John the Baptist told his followers. To truly repent means you must change your ways and Do the Right Thing Always. [see Luke 3: 7-14].