During the month of March I was in Ecuador in South America, and ever since I have found it impossible to get two little boys there out of my mind. So let me tell you about them. One is called Jurgen, and I will come to him later. The other’s name I do not know: I will tell you what I know about him first.
The Unknown Child
He lived in Guatemala in a region of Mayan peasants. Sadly this area was identified by the government as a seedbed of leftist insurgency. Sometime between December 1981 and 1983 his village was taken by the army. It was not an isolated incident. In fact during this period 100,000 peasants, including hundreds of children under the age of twelve, were executed. Before they died some had their genitalia amputated, and arms and legs cut off. There were mass rapes. Some were stabbed and decapitated; others burned alive; still others, machine gunned. Many were gutted while still alive, and pregnant women had their foetuses cut out. A common way for children to die was by being smashed against rocks.
This particular boy was held in the arms of a soldier in the presence of his parents. The soldier then threw him into a river to drown calling out as he did so, “Adios, nino”. (The translation of this is, “Goodbye, little boy”.)
That’s all I know about the child. And perhaps you can see why I can’t get him out of my mind. The source of my information is the book, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism, by Greg Grandin, published by Henry Holt, New York, 2006. (You will find this particular incident described on page 90.)
Jurgen is aged ten and lives with his family in Quito, Ecuador. Though he prefers basketball, he is named after the German international footballer, Jurgen Klinsmann. His auntie is called Alexandra. I got to know Jurgen because when I was lecturing, Auntie Alexandra was my translator. The course, which she translated for me into Spanish, was part of a Master’s Degree in what is called Holistic Child Development. The particular module I taught was called “theological foundations of child development”. I had delivered it often in different parts of the world and wondered whether it would be possible to make it intelligible to a child: now I had my chance to see!
I had no warning that Jurgen would be with us until he arrived in the classroom. So I offered him my laptop as a first attempt to make him feel welcome and at ease. He spent the best part of a morning playing games that I didn’t know were stored on my computer, and altering my toolbars so that I still find I am a bit at sea with the new layouts.
As the morning wore on I rearranged the students into groups of five or so seated around tables. These groups were called “casas” – houses. It wasn’t long before Jurgen was invited to join (or, is you prefer, was adopted by) one of the groups. He continued to play on the laptop, but also joined in discussions that emanated from questions that I asked. It was not long before he began drawing a detailed picture of the members of his casa (and me).
One of the questions I asked the students was, “Is an apple pip complete?” Once you stop to think about it, the answer isn’t as obvious as you might first think. Jurgen’s group felt that he had answered it best, and from then on, he played an active role throughout the course. (He wisely opted not to do the homework that I set, however.)
We got to the end of the course and the students took lots of photos of their class. Jurgen featured in the middle of all of them.
Imagining a Pilgrimage
Then the president of the seminary surprised me by asking me to give a two hour lecture to other students from the campus. I decided to do what I called “A Walk with Jesus” in which I imagined a group joining Jesus on his very last journey from Mount Hermon (north of Galilee, near Caesarea Phillipi) to Mount Moriah (a good way south, and the place on which Jerusalem is thought to have been built). During this imaginary pilgrimage I intended to pause eight times to consider what Jesus taught about children and how he treated them. (If you want to follow the journey you will find it in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 17 to 21.)
It so happened that a storm swept the college just before I was due to start. Something like a monsoon continued for most of the afternoon. Perhaps because of this only a handful of students joined me. In fact there were exactly twelve. And there was one other person. Yes, you have guessed: it was Jurgen. His auntie was translating again, and he opted to stay with us.
He sat in the middle of the group right through, and when we came to the point where, having reached Capernaum, Jesus placed a child in the middle of his group of twelve disciples, Jurgen beamed. The reason was that he knew he represented that child and was delighted that the students realised it too. It was, for me, a quite remarkable coincidence that we had modelled the group travelling with Jesus so precisely.
I’ve just received an email from his auntie to say that Jurgen would like me to contact him now that I am back home at Mill Grove. Of course it will be a pleasure to keep in touch with his family, including three of his cousins whom he brought into my office to meet me during my stay at the college.
But I still can’t keep the child whose name I do not know out of my thoughts. And perhaps I never will. Jesus, on this very journey south towards the Cross, uttered some of his sternest warnings, “See that you do not despise the least of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven always behold the face of my Father in heaven.” He talked of millstones being hung round the necks of offenders before they were cast into the depths of the sea.
There is a growing international process called Child Theology. (You will find out more about it from its website). One of the distinctive methodologies is to place a child in the middle of our discussions to see what clues result, and what light the presence of the child shines on the institutions, doctrines and practices of church.
We wrestle, among other things, with the issue of whether it can be any child, or should be a specific child. My own view is that the child Jesus placed functions in a similar way to the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”. The key point is precisely that we do not know who the soldier is: therefore the tomb can stand for each and every soldier.
My guess is that from now on, wherever I am doing Child Theology, I will likely as not have two Latin American children in my mind, one without a name: the other Jurgen. And they may well throw quite different light on the matters we discuss.
I wonder what children you find you cannot forget, and why.