There is a preschool in Richmond that has a long waiting list. It’ s the place for any parent to send their children in town. And there is a preschool in Richmond that accepts all the cast-offs, the broken ones and the beaten-up ones; the children other schools can no longer help or even handle; the children who are hard to love, much less teach. And what’ s neat about this preschool is that it integrates boththe gifted and the little hurting ones. This is a story about Barry, who was referred to this preschool from Children’s Hospital when he was just two years old. Barry was nothing but a mustard seed, almost discarded on barren rock to wither and die. This little boy literally cried 24 hours a day. He refused to eat. His young mother did not have the maturity or patience to care for him. It was a recipe for disaster. The Department of Social Services feared that she would harm her boy if she did not get help very soon. So Children’s Hospital called this preschool, and told its director, If anybody can do anything for this little boy, it will be you.
So Barry came to this school-and he did cry all day long. And the director? The director decided to keep Barry by her side throughout the day. All day. Every day. Wherever she went, he went. And every minute of every day, she literally talked to him non-stop. She told him where he was. She told him what she was doing. She told him where he was going, and what would happen next. She told him what would become of him. While they were in her office, she would sit him in front of her computer to play Peter Rabbit’s preschool game while she worked. With her sheer passion and her sheer will, she kept this boy constantly tuned to the fact that she was tuned to him-tuned to the fact that the universe was not indifferent to his existence, and that he was loved.
What I have not mentioned is that Barry had cerebral palsy, he used a walker and he did not speak.
Well, this patient and tenacious woman did not give up. She and Barry were attached at the hip for five months. Then one day, while Barry was sitting at the computer, she heard a single spoken word: Ma. There was no way that sound could come from Barry. Yet there was no one else in her office but Barry and her. As she sat there, bewildered, it came again: “Ma.” There was no denying it this time. She jumped out of her chair and went running down the hall, shouting, A miracle has happened. Barry is talking! Barry is talking!
And from that day forward, Barry progressed at a remarkable rate. Barry is now eight years old. He returns to the preschool each summer for camp. He walks without a walker (which he set aside when he was four), he talks, he is toilet trained, and he has a great personality. He is just one of the many mustard seeds that have flourished in this special place when everyone else was ready to throw them into the wind.
I’ m sure many of you know what preschool I’ m talking about, and who this miracle-worker, social worker, chaplain and confidante is. Why, it’ s Geraldine Johnson, of course! And for the newcomers and visitors with us this morning, I’ m talking about our very own Children’ s Center, which Geraldine started 19 years ago, and which has been teaching, nurturing and raising children ever since.
Here’s what Barry taught me about the gospel for the third Sunday of Easter: On the lonely road to Emmaus, two disciples are walking along, licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves, when a stranger approaches. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, they talk to this stranger-until, suddenly and at last, their story is transformed from one of hopelessness into one of redemption. It isn’ t until the disciples offer , rather than receive, that they recognize the stranger in their midst as the embodiment of God. Jesus blesses their openhandedness. Quote: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Godliness begins with open hands. And in Barry’ s story, it was Geraldine’ s openhandedness that liberated this small child from the bondage of his own birth defect, from the bondage of societal limitations of special-needs children, and of course, from the bondage his own family’s limitations.
I think there is a good lesson within the gospel for us this morning. The scripture reads, Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road? These men are asking themselves how in the world they could have failed to recognize the risen Jesus in their company. In their story, they welcome the stranger and God makes himself known to them. But have you ever wondered how many angels you have entertained-and how many you have dismissed-without knowing it? Remember Jesus’ words, Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matt: 25:40).
Let me tell you another story from our Children’ s Center. Last summer a woman came to Geraldine in desperation. Her granddaughter had been murdered, leaving four children without a mother and without a home. This elderly woman had no choice but to take in these children, which included a three-year-old, a seven-year-old, and four-year-old twins. She had heard of the Children’ s Center, but had no money to pay for the summer program and was desperate for some sort of care for them during the day. And to make matters worse, this woman’ s husband, the children’s grandfather figure and the only stable male presence in their lives, died during this time. This poor woman’ s life was bleak. William, the youngest was fearful and angry, and the twins had developmental issues. But Geraldine would not turn this woman away. She gave all four children scholarships. What they needed was significantly more than daycare; they needed a safe, stable environment where they would receive a nutritional meal and armloads of TLC.
Geraldine and this parish have been dedicated to this outreach ministry since 1986. And it is a ministry: though the Center is accredited and attracts the best and brightest children in the city, the fees are negligible. In the course of a year, the school takes care of more than 100 children. Geraldine, the teachers, and of course, the parishioners who have devoted their time and energy to the success of the Center, do consider their work a calling from God. Geraldine tells me that the broken vessels who walk through its doors desperately need the counsel and care she and the Center offer. What I don’ t think people know is that Geraldine is a counselor and chaplain to the parents as well. They are often beaten down by life, which in turn often makes for beaten-down children. Geraldine understands that the care for these children begins at home with the parent. The thing is, if you walk through the school during the day hours, you’ll be hard-pressed to figure out who the broken children are and who the unbroken children are. Most importantly, the children don’ t seem to make that distinction, either. That is the kind of environment Geraldine fosters.
Our gospel shows us how brokenness makes possible the experience of the Risen Christ. Today we celebrate St. James’ s Children Center, and we celebrate Geraldine, her teachers and its board members who work tirelessly to preserve its ministry so it can remain the beacon of hope on which the City of Richmond depends. Let me close by saying that the ministry of the Children’ s Center reminds me of the words to this familiar hymn:
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul
Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’ s in vain
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again
There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.