Last weekend, places of worship across the country took part in the annual multifaith National Observance of Children’s Sabbath celebration, focusing prayers, worship, education programs, and action on learning more about the urgent problems facing our nation’s children. By exploring sacred texts and teachings that call us to love and protect children, Children’s Sabbath encourages faith communities to respond with outreach and advocacy and, most importantly, inspire new, year-round action to improve children’s lives. Rev. James Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City and an emeriti member of the Children’s Defense Fund’s board, was an early supporter of Children’s Sabbath who has long urged us all to reinstate a community-wide “Cradle Roll” for all of our children.
Not everyone knows that old tradition, but Dr. Forbes described how it worked in his childhood congregation: “When I was growing up, in my church they had a Cradle Roll, and any child born to anyone in that religious community immediately got their name placed on the Cradle Roll. And there were people in the congregation whose responsibility it was to follow these children until they reached what they called the ‘age of accountability’ — the point at which they were able to affirm themselves whom they had become.” Adults sent children cards when they were sick and put a star by their name each time they moved on to a new grade. In other congregations the Cradle Roll might have been the roster for Sunday school attendance, or the list used to congratulate and support new parents. No matter what traditions individual congregations had, the Cradle Roll was a way for faith communities to commit to encouraging and nurturing their children as a shared responsibility of adult members. As Dr. Forbes put it, the main point was that “it was the community’s way of acknowledging that these children have been entrusted to our care. Their commitment was to follow you from the point of your beginning until God could say, ‘Now, that’s what I had in mind when I sent this child into the world.'”
How many places of worship are still doing this for all of their children today? How many of us as congregation or community members have found ways to commit to the community’s children and to promise them that we’ll be concerned when they are sick, cheer when they succeed in school, and help them become what they were divinely created to be?
Rev. Forbes also reminded us that in his own faith tradition God can’t stand hearing the cry of oppression, and when God’s people cried out in the Bible, God sometimes sent a deliverer who came as a baby. In order for that child to become what God had in mind, the baby first needed to be protected by adults while still in the cradle. Moses was sheltered in a cradle made of reeds. Christians celebrate a Deliverer who was cradled in a manger. Children are being born all around us in circumstances that cry out for protection today. Will we provide them cradles of safety? Will we put them on our Cradle Roll? The Children’s Sabbath weekend is another opportunity for people of every faith tradition to respond to the divine mandate to nurture, protect and advocate for all of our communities’ and nation’s children.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.