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Stories for all

John 20.19-31

Do you remember your favourite story books when you were a child? I remember a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales - when I looked up Grimm’s Fairy Tales on the internet, I was surprised that I recognised a number of the stories in it: Tom Thumb; Snow White & Rose Red; Rumplestiltskin; Rapunzel; The Golden Goose; Hansel & Gretl. I remember some of the pictures in a children’s bible stories book. I can also remember the look and feel of the sofa in the sitting room. It might have been the place where I was read to.

As I remember it now, I was privileged as a child, not because we had a lot of money, because we didn’t. I was privileged because my childhood was secure. There were lots of loving people I was connected with, mainly extended family and church friends of my parents. What happens when a child doesn’t have such opportunities, or has negative experiences of them?

The apostle Thomas was also incredibly privileged. He was called to be a disciple of Jesus: just imagine knowing Jesus face to face, listening to his teaching, and seeing the signs he performed. How awesome that must have been. Then after the terrible events of Good Friday, Jesus came in his risen body just for Thomas. Jesus goes out of his way for just this one person -- Jesus meets with him where he is, so he might know the joy of eternal life like the other disciples.

This resurrection story says every person is worth everything to God. And the story also says it is now over to you and me. The love of Christ is for everyone now who has not seen him in the flesh. His love has changed us.

How will we turn the love of Christ we have known into loving change for others? I believe how we respond to this gospel defines who we are as a church. Because Jesus’ resurrection, as well as being our eternal hope, calls for a response from us.

Last year in January we began to work on our parish mission action plan. We had a planning day. At the end of the day Archdeacon Bill Beagley challenged us. He said we should try to think of a group in the community that we might be able to come alongside and support. You might think that is an odd way to do mission. We usually think of mission as making new believers. However, Jesus’ resurrection is not just a spiritual thing; it is also a practical thing. The new life he brings triumphs over every kind of evil and darkness. When Jesus healed, he restored people to wholeness in their community. There is a mission for us because we carry his risen life within us.

Sometimes I have sat in front of that stained glass window over there in the corner and thought about what it’s saying. As I thought about Bill’s challenge to us, I asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Is there a vulnerable group in our community whom we could reasonably help?

Just about the same time last year we were hearing distressing news. It was about some young people in this community. Some Sudanese young people were getting into trouble, serious trouble. I thought, could we make a positive contribution to their welfare?

Immediately I put that idea away as too hard for us. Youth work calls for special gifts, one of which is being closer in age with young people. I’m very much past the age of doing youth work. And we cannot afford as a parish to employ a youth worker.

Then I remembered when I was a school chaplain. I served in two primary schools at different times. That gave me the opportunity to work as a classroom assistant. Regularly a teacher would ask me to sit and read with a child one to one. At the time I thought I could see the difference between children who were read to at home, and those who were not.

I got on the internet and did some research about the importance of reading in a child’s development. I found what I expected to find. Unhappiness with school can be traced back to the beginning of a child’s education, and even earlier. Give a child a love of books and language as early as possible, and it will positively affect their whole future. They will keep up in school, they will enjoy school, and they will survive their teenage years. They will not drop out because they are bored and get into trouble. I thought, if we couldn’t help those already dropping out, maybe we could do some work of prevention, so it doesn’t happen for other children.

As I thought of all that, I remembered visiting some of our families a few years ago. In one family I was told I was now an honorary grandparent. I cannot describe to you how much that meant to me. Then only last year I happened to visit another family where a little person asked me to read a picture storybook. It was ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’ In that family the prime carer has difficulty with English. In some families I suspect the prime carer is not literate in Dinka or Arabic either.

There is nothing wrong in struggling to learn a language as an adult. Some people find it easier than others. I did three years of French at university but never learned French conversation. The best my French teacher could say about me was that I had good pronunciation.

Putting all this together: our Anglo congregations here at Christ Church are gifted with many grandparents, as well as great aunts and great uncles. What I propose is a reading program. An Anglo grandparent would be paired with a Sudanese family where the parents struggle with English. The grandparent would go into their home at least weekly and read to the pre-school children.

The resource is the Melton Library’s ‘1000 Books Before School’ program. That is a challenge to read 1000 books from birth to the first day of primary.

All that is needed is for a family to join the library. The library supplies not only books for loan but also a pack of incentives and rewards as books are read. Also the library has a regular story time in which families can participate. But this would not be a substitute for the main one-on-one program in the home organised through the church.

There are three things I believe we could expect to achieve in such a program:

  1. A child discovers the joy of books, language, and achieving, in a safe and loving environment.

  2. Bonds of friendship are formed across the cultural boundary between communities, Anglo and Sudanese.

  3. The child gains an adult friend who can be trusted. It can become a long-term mentoring relationship.

Honorary grandparents would only be reading to the children, so no teaching expertise would be required. The library program assumes that it is the responsibility of the schools to actually teach children how to read. But honorary grandparents would need to be interviewed, have a working knowledge of Duty of Care, and have Working with Children cards and Police checks.

These might be the steps to implement the program:

  1. Locate commitment to participate amongst our Anglo congregations.

  2. Present the program to the Sudanese congregation.

  3. Identify families to participate.

  4. Do training in child safety as well as how to read to pre-schoolers.

The library has publicity materials for its program. We might also design some of our own. We might purchase Christian story books to use in the program. And something like a church club might be formed for participating children and readers. But the essence of the program is one on one reading of stories to the children in the home.

I am the nominated coordinator; the Parish Council is to finalise acceptance of the program at its next meeting. If you are interested, you might let me know today.