I recently finished a haunting novel, Before We Were Yours, in which Lisa Wingate tells a fictionalized account of the true story of one of this country’s great scandals, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and its director, Georgia Tann.
From the 1920s through 1950, Tann and her organization facilitated the adoption of thousands of children across the country. Tann was a prominent member of society, held up as the “Mother of Modern Adoption,” and consulted by Eleanor Roosevelt on issues of child welfare.
The truth about Tann is much darker. She actually ran a network made up of police, doctors, and social workers who illegally and immorally brought children to her to be adopted.
Children living in poverty, but with loving parents, were kidnapped by the police. Doctors told poor mothers that their children died at birth, then handed the infants over to Tann. Social workers helped at risk children disappear into the Children’s Home, where they were often mistreated and abused.
As Wingate notes, “Essentially, if you were poor and you lived, stayed, or stopped over in the proximity of Memphis, your children were at risk.”
Children were sold to those who were desperate enough for a child not to ask questions, many of them prominent entertainers and political figures, including the then-governor of New York.
Politicians and judges were involved, allowing the network to thrive for three decades. Thousands of children were adopted over those decades. More than 500 children under Tann’s care died or disappeared.
Reading this novel I wondered: How could this be allowed to happen? How could children be torn away from parents who loved them? Why didn’t anyone do anything to stop it?
And then I turned on the news.
Different children, different circumstances, but the same anguished cries from parents and children torn apart.
More than 10,000 immigrant children are now in federal detention facilities. Many of them came here alone, making dangerous treks hundreds of miles on their own, sent by parents who were so desperate to have their children live in safety and freedom that the risks of such a journey were preferable to the conditions under which they lived.
That is bad enough. But more recently, the children in these facilities, 2,000 of them, have been forcibly taken away from their parents at the border.
In some cases, workers have told parents they are taking their children for a bath, or a drink, or a treat, then do not bring the children back.
In other cases, children are literally torn from their parents’ arms, including one infant who was breastfeeding.
This week a United States senator, Jeff Merkley, was denied entrance to one border facility. After touring a second, he said he saw children being warehoused in cages, sleeping on the floor, allowed out two hours a day.
“This is completely outside the soul of our nation,” Merkley said.
Sadly, Merkley is wrong about that.
We have a history of engaging in such horrors, beginning with the children of slaves being taken away from their parents and sold to the highest bidder, or parents sold as their children were left behind.
After slavery was outlawed, the practice shifted to indigenous children. From the late 1800s until the 1970s, Native American children were forcibly separated from their families and sent to Indian boarding schools, where they were stripped of their names, their native language, religion, and culture.
And now it is happening to children of immigrants, families coming here in search of freedom and a better life.
Every week in our confession we say we repent of the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. What is happening to these families is evil done on our behalf.
What a sad irony that on this Father’s Day, as we celebrate the fathers who so often made sacrifices for us, and as we give thanks for our own beloved children, we must also focus on this heartbreaking situation.
But it is precisely because we know the strength of the loving bond between parent and child, a bond that is a reflection of God’s love for us, that we must protest what is happening on the borders of this country we love.
This week we’ve heard officials use scripture to defend this policy, citing Romans Chapter 13 to suggest that government has been ordained by God, and to resist its authority is to resist God. We’ve been told that obeying the law is “very Biblical.”
Those verses have been quoted by those in authority before – including those who opposed the American revolution, Southerners who opposed the abolition of slavery, and later their descendants defending Jim Crowe laws, purportedly as part of the divine design,
Jesus, who as an infant fled with his parents across a border to escape persecution, did not hesitate to break the law when it was unjust or when doing so helped a child of God.
Just a few weeks ago our Gospel reading was the story of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, a violation of one of Judaism’s most sacred and important laws. After he did so, the Bible tells us that the authorities immediately began plotting to destroy him.
The issue of immigration is a complex one. I don’t pretend to know what the details of our immigration policies should be, but as a person of faith I know that first and foremost they must be compassionate and humane.
Both the Old and New Testaments have quite a bit to say about how children, immigrants, the poor, and oppressed are to be treated.
From the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus had a child stand beside him and said, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
From Leviticus: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
And from the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me…And truly I tell you, when you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded us this week, “For those of us who follow Jesus, his teachings are the final authority.
“For those of us who are Americans, the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty define who we are,” he added. “‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”
“This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue,” Curry added. “It is a humanitarian issue.”
The greatest metaphor of our faith is of God as our loving parent. Scripture tells us that nothing can separate us from that great love – “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God.”
Today we celebrate the love between fathers and their children, a reflection of God’s great love for all of us.
But this Fathers’ Day in America is tinged with sadness as we remember the thousands of children on our border who spend this day separated from the parents who love them.
“It is not the Christian way and it is not the American way to separate children from their parents at the borders of this country,” Bishop Curry said.
We need to be heard loud and clear on this one.