Helium-filled balloons dotted the sanctuary of University Baptist Church last year when that Carbondale, Ill., congregation observed "Children's Sabbath"-and more celebration is expected across the country this coming weekend, October 18-20, when the annual religio-political event returns. The day is the brainchild of the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based activist group. Its purpose is to create pressure on the federal government to spend more money on social programs. CDF's agenda, however, comes wearing church clothes and singing familiar Sunday school songs like "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." University Baptist pastor Jeff Scott says his church observed Children's Sabbath last year in order to focus attention on Illinois' poor children. "The response was great," he said. "We think it's important to keep in mind the children, to be a voice for children, because they have no PACs or lobbyists. It's important for the faith community to know which of our politicians are for kids, and which are just kidding." CDF founder Marian Wright Edelman explained the role of churches in her introductory letter sent out with materials for the Children's Sabbath: "Pastors can serve as prophets and shepherds to lead members to be aware of the issues, to be fully committed and involved in the community....We should use the election-year process to build greater commitment to meeting children's needs and to rectifying the misguided values that increase children's suffering. We must elect to public office those who will vote and act responsibly for children-who will do more than give lip service to their needs." And what are those needs, specifically? Judging from CDF's positions on recent legislation and public statements, the major need is a continuation of welfare entitlements and the federal school lunch program; the major target is the 1995-96 Republican Congress. The CDF provides churches, synagogues, and mosques with everything they need for a Children's Sabbath service-from bulletin art to approved hymns to sample sermons to activities for children's Sunday school. To help drive home the message for 5- to 9-year-olds, the materials recommend having them play a game called "Great and Small." They'll learn that small people are just as valuable as great people, as they alternately squat and stand up, shouting their own names. For middle-schoolers, the CDF suggests having them write letters to public officials, write a letter to the editor, or even hold a bake sale to raise funds to help end poverty, child abuse, or racism. In materials sent out to Catholic churches, a sample homily is included. It asks for mercy on a nation that "allows one of every four children to grow up in inhuman poverty, hungry for the mountains of food we waste each day;" for a nation in which "insurance gets household dogs dialysis, pacemakers and kidney transplants, gets cats hip replacements, cataract surgery and cancer treatment, while almost 10 million children are without health insurance." And for a nation "bent on balancing its budget by cutting children's food stamps, school lunches, Medicaid health coverage, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Supplemental Security Income, federal child-care subsidies, Head Start and remedial education."
Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Eagle Forum, says congregations concerned about children can do better than recite CDF litanies. "There are problems, but they're not going to be solved by the Children's Defense Fund," she says. "Everything the CDF comes up with as solutions are government programs-the Children's Sabbath is just silly propaganda for expanding those programs." Adds David Kuo, director of American Compassion, a grassroots group that sets out to help small-but-effective charities, "The idea that the CDF speaks for all those who care for children is like saying that GM speaks for all those who drive cars. And advocacy is not synonymous with caring. A lot of people think it's more important to actually do something." A better alterative can be seen in initiatives such as Kids Hope USA, he says. Kids Hope, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., links church members with real, live children who need adult companionship and guidance. Members are encouraged to develop strong, long-term relationships with the children and work with them on skills such as reading and problem solving. When asked to suggest a Children's Sabbath of her own, Mrs. Schlafly doesn't hesitate. "Have a literacy clinic," she says. "Teach children to read. Bill Clinton himself says 40 percent of the nation's 8-year-olds can't. Churches should start off with this most basic skill, because with it, children can read the Bible, and that's where they'll find hope. Not in some government program."