You Are a Child of God, Dignified by His Love

You are a child of God, dignified by his timeless and unconditional love. “Things” become important later — or, if you are truly blessed, not at all.

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), "Let the Little Children Come Unto Me"
Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), "Let the Little Children Come Unto Me" (photo: Register Files)

When I began my 30-plus year teaching career in public education long ago, all I wanted was a steady job with good benefits. But after only a couple of years, instead of burning me out, my job morphed into God’s call, a sacred vocation to love, to teach, and to let go of my students – like any good parent substitute.

For my vocation prep, all I received was a call from a worried black mother with a heads up: Her daughter “might be acting kind of crazy tomorrow.” The next day, that same seventh grader called me “Daddy.” In that moment, I saw what I didn’t see coming: our plague of lost childhoods that crosses all racial, economic and social boundaries. God’s call demanded that I help in the field hospital called Family.

Like any other cradle Catholic spooked by the call to holiness, I sputtered excuses. I’m an unmarried Boomer, and I have no children and no patience. Yet, from the beginning, young people who were longing for any parental love and commitment asked me and many others to be part of their families.


Heartbreaking signs of a lost childhood

During my first parent conference, a mother gave up on her own 15-year-old daughter in front of her and us educators. Mom said the girl trusted us more.

In another classroom a few years later, a student who was repeating ninth grade said, “I wish I grew up like you; at least they cared.” His dad had just given him a brand new car for his 16th birthday.

In another school year, I met some bright seventh graders, none of whom had any excuse to be in a remedial summer school class. The following summer, one of the boys asked me to take his dad’s place at his church’s celebration of Dia de los Padres.

But my most heartbreaking witness to the loss of childhood happened when I subbed for the English teacher at a local youth detention center over three years, including two stints of summer school. There I met incredibly intelligent young people who had committed crimes of equally incredible stupidity. Toward the end of the first summer, we were beginning to understand each other through my favorite short story and theirs, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. At the end of a long discussion, the young people’s final question haunts me still: “Mr. B, you gonna forgive us … like that dad?”

Or more powerfully, from an angry “crack baby” who had just learned that Child Protective Services had taken custody of his three children, including his unseen newborn: “Tell us the Hollywood story of your normal childhood.”

I complied.


Finding joy in a Catholic orphanage

Once upon a time, I savored an orphanage childhood that was safe, happy, loving, and profoundly sober. Life itself, the times, and my teachers employed no tricks, no labeling, no manipulation of words or people, no prejudice. Even pity had long since been expelled from the curriculum.                                                     

The lifelong lesson plan had a simple, two-part objective. Love the Lord your God with your entire self. Second, sometime around the age of reason, make up your mind about your acceptance or rejection of God’s plan for you.

Pre-K natal school began when Mama Maxine Bowman became pregnant with me in July of 1946. Because she was unmarried, I was born in the Florence Home for Colored Girls in Kansas City, Missouri, in the spring of the next year. When she returned home from exile, Mama surrendered me to Catholic Charities, conforming to the custom of the day. After that, I grew up first in the Infant of Prague Nursery and then the nearby St. Clara’s Orphanage, which was operated by a German order of Franciscan sisters in Denver’s slumbering old North Side. Father Leo C. Gainor, O.P., baptized me at St. Dominic’s Church on June 17, 1948.

Given my birth and baptismal dates, I should have grown up in the normal setting of the 1950s, but because the sisters were still living in the 1930s, I was stranded back in time to the Great Depression.

When we became thirsty at night, some of us drank from the toilet bowls to slake our thirst. Our clothes and shoes were hand-me-downs, mostly from the war years, and we went barefoot during the summer to spare our shoes. We moved everywhere in groups – to meals, bathrooms, the park, the library and Mass – straight lines, two by two. We ate simple meals and often licked our plates because there never seemed to be enough. Every child between seven and twelve had a short, daily chore in the morning before school. At the end of eighth grade, I was sweeping down two flights of granite stairs and washing them down on Saturdays. We touched U.S. currency only when Sister Cordula, the bookkeeper, budgeted us a penny to pay for pencils at one cent per two, or when she allowed us to hold nickels or dimes to put into the offertory basket for the poor.


Son, sinner, sufferer, servant

That orphanage childhood was happy and healthy because it taught me what Viktor Frankl called the “last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I chose to be happy, following some basics of Catholic teaching.

You are a child of God, dignified by his timeless and unconditional love. “Things” become important later — or, if you are truly blessed, not at all.

You are a sinner when you digress from God’s plan for you. In confession, first person singular is the language of personal accountability: I confess that I have greatly sinned. But as in the parable, the loving father always interrupts your confession.

You will live in hac lacrimarum valle, in this valley of tears, from which suffering no one is ever exempt.

 You are a servant of God forever. Tu es servus Dei in aeternum. Again, make up your mind: Is it fiat voluntas tua or fiat voluntas mea? Your will be done? Or mine?


“Do you love me?”

In the end, that’s the happy childhood I and many others modeled for students, one in which their health and happiness is central. Oh, I wrote, of course, and I made speeches. I served on governors’ committees, too.

But our children still ask the same question of all community members: Do you really love me?