Invisible children: in South Africa, and here at home

Bishop Mark Beckwith of Newark attended the recent consultation in Durban, South Africa on issues of justice and sexuality. It inspired a reflection recently published on his blog that included this passage:

I was in a group that recently visited one of the townships. Even though South Africa has had an open democracy since 1994, the townships still exist, because the punishing economy has not enabled many people to leave. The townships are not easy to find. Our driver, a South African who had lived in the Cape Town area for eight years, had never been to one before. There were 1.2 million people crammed into shanties or block houses that were no bigger than a one-car garage. There were kids everywhere. They didn’t seem to be starving, but it was clear they were poor. They played in the alleys and streets, avoiding the garbage and fetid pools of water. Many were parentless, having been rendered orphans by the raging epidemic of HIV/AIDS.

For many Americans my age, we associated poor starving kids in Africa with vegetables, which we were admonished to eat by our parents so as not to deny food to children on the other side of the world who didn’t have any. I never quite figured out how the logic worked, but the challenge was enough to get us to finish eating carrots or beets – and also insured that we wouldn’t in fact need to see kids who were in desperate need.

Today we don’t have to go to Africa to find poor children. Fully one quarter of American kids live in poverty. And they are not easily seen – even in Newark, whose downtown landscape is dominated by the Prudential Center and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. I don’t know if kids are starving, but they certainly are hungry. The number of kids receiving free lunch in New Jersey rose 24% in the last five years. More children are eligible for free breakfast – and the money is there to provide breakfast, but many towns and school systems haven’t set up the feeding programs yet. Maybe they just don’t want to know that the need is there. Maybe they don’t want to see these hungry kids.

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