An Integral Approach to Mission

30th April 2018 - by Stephen Awre

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At Easter, a group from Britain visited St. Bernadette’s Children’s Centres in Lima, Peru. Here, Fr. Tony Coney (pictured below), who began the project, believes we are called to nurture and value the goodness in every child.

“In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” Mt. 25:40

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There is an unbreakable link between Christianity and human nature which can be seen in action whenever the good in every child is allowed to emerge and be valued in an environment of respect, freedom and tolerance.

As people develop and mature, so also will they give witness to ever deepening human values, which are also Christian values. So it is for us as we try to promote justice, equality and the human rights of children, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that the inspiration behind all that we do is Christian.

Christianity is by implication hope filled, other centred with the optimism that all will be well. If you expect to see the good inherent in another, good will eventually shine through irrespective of the brokenness that assails all of us. But this goodness has to be nurtured and valued so that the person may live in the way they see themselves mirrored in another’s eyes.

In the Children’s Centres we provide an environment that celebrates all that is good in childhood through making sure that the children feel valued and cared for. Through listening to them, individually and in group meetings, we try to discern their needs and respond accordingly, therefore adapting our outreach to better facilitate their growth.

We also believe that if the children are treated as valuable human beings they in turn will learn to appreciate their own value. We accept them in whatever condition they arrive without asking them to change, and when we receive very troubled children, who require special help, they usually respond to positive treatment.

In choosing our staff we do not discriminate on the basis of religious belief. Our project’s purpose does not include inculcating religious belief of any kind in the children who come to us. We believe that is the responsibility of their parents, who are free to share whatever may be their beliefs with their children. We basically attempt to give witness to our faith in Jesus Christ, whom we profess as Lord, through what we do with the children.

The principal idea behind the Children’s Centres is to provide a safe environment for children to play and enjoy their childhood which will give them the space and the opportunities to discover and develop their talents. The basis of our approach is “freedom with responsibility”, the child being free to do what s/he wants, while valuing and respecting the freedom of others. To this end the children are free to participate in any activity, so that through trial and error, they may realise where their strengths and interests lie.

In many situations involving children, whether in school or in the home, the adults generally decide what is best for them and what they should be doing, with little reference to the desires of the children themselves. So, we organize meetings of the children in different age groups, where they can set their own norms and rules for acceptable behaviour, etc., and also to express how they feel the project should be progressing. We, as the adults and staff, are there to guide, encourage and help, but ultimately we want the children to decide and take decisions through listening and dialoguing with us and each other.

The official education system is quite militaristic, especially around the time of Independence Day when the children parade in the streets, singing the national anthem and saluting the national flag. We decided to celebrate this day with a different mindset, highlighting the cultures and customs of Peru through dance, drama and song, and only with those who wanted to participate, therefore giving these celebrations a very different focus.

We don’t want the children to feel that we are attempting to impose specific values, as we prefer them to experience a freedom that may not be available to them in other spaces of their lives. We want them to know and remember that we respect their individuality. We do what we can to help them grow into who they want to be.

We don’t want them to remember their time with us as one more experience of being shaped or formed by their elders. Rather we hope that they will have happy memories of freely playing, mutual respect and genuine fun with their friends as they go about being children and beginning to put their own shape on their lives.

I do not think that our approach is the only way of working with children but I do maintain that it is a valid way. The children may or may not grow up as Catholics but they will surely remember their time with us with gratitude. They will remember that we treated them with respect, offered them freedom in ways that they may not have experienced elsewhere but, at the same time, that we demanded a certain discipline based on mutual respect and responsibility. Whether or not, at a later date, they choose to delve into the nature of our Christian faith will be their free choice.

I believe that, given the circumstances of this traditionally Catholic society, this is a valid approach to Christian mission. In Peru, Catholicism is no longer imposed on people but some may still feel family or social pressure to conform. I quote some paragraphs from the Vatican II Constitution on the Church in the Modern World that I feel supports our integral approach to the educational and formative challenges we are at least partially addressing:

“…. A person is more precious for what s/he is than for what s/he has. … the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it harmonizes with the genuine good of the human race, and that it allow men and women as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfil it.”

In brief, we can say that, according to these key paragraphs from the Council, by making our world more human, that is, more just and respectful of the dignity of every person, we are doing God’s work. Also, by acting in love among ourselves and in favour of others we please God and give witness to our Christian faith.

“… Not everyone who cries, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the Father’s will by taking a strong grip on the work at hand. Now, the Father wills that in all men and women we recognize Christ our brother and love Him effectively, in word and in deed.”

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