Burning Children

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She didn’t come to school today, so we went to her house. Keandra (not her name) doesn’t really have a house – she drifts between her grandma’s brick home – where’s she’s washed and fed, and where people drink hard on the weekend – and the shack next door where her mother stays – this is the place her eyes fall shut at night, and the place people come and go, in and out, filling up their body on tik.

I don’t know a single sober person that lives on that street, my friend from round the corner said. I don’t like it. It feels impossible to me that such a cramped, busy road wouldn’t hold a few functioning families, but it seems she’s right. The police are permanently parked at the front, people weave in and out of shacks and houses. Everyone is thin and gaunt, something is controlling their days. Children are unattended, there is a giant pile of something, like furniture, like foam, in the street. People are laughing, and it’s not a happy laugh. It is a street born of oppression, oppression from people who look like me, and this street continues to oppress itself relentlessly.

She runs across to the car, this precious two-year-old. Her grandma comes outside. She wants the child to sleep at her house, she says, but the child longs for her mother. And the mother lets her sleep next to her, breathing in and out air thick with drugs, in a confusing place where people scream, shout, laugh and sleep far too long. After a while mommy comes out, wearing a pink dressing gown, frizzy hair and a little attitude. We talk a bit, about drugs and children and what social services can do. The last time I spoke to another Skatties mommy about social services she had sat in the car and wept silently. I will burn down my house if they take my children away, she’d said. But Keandra’s mommy stares back. We talk about lost sheep and I picture them sweet, and mischievous and in need of a cuddle. This is what a lost sheep looks like – dull dark eyes, pink dressing gown, sleeping until noon and unreachable.

We’re driving away and in the rearview mirror I see Keandra picking up a stone to throw at her mother. It’s the first time she’s probably seen her today and she’s angry. Her anger erupts in my garden too, swearing and hitting. And of course, her sweetness shines. She loves making coffee from mud, and she is the first each morning to reach up for her cuddles. Her giggle is perfect. She is two, and she is angry, and we’re driving away watching her mother laugh with her boyfriend, and I can’t help but feel I am leaving a child in the middle of a fire, and she is going to burn.

People talk about false responsibility, over responsibility. People say remember you are not God, you are not the rescuer, remember if you don’t go for that child then God has another plan. I picture a man holding a child by the ankles over a bridge. Would I listen to those voices? She’s not your responsibility. You’re not the rescuer – maybe this is a white saviour thing? Just make sure you’re not too weighed down by this. God can rescue that child without you. Or would I run as fast as I could, body shaking, grab by her limbs and hold her close, and whisper in her ear this is never, ever going to happen to you again. The children are hanging over the bridge. By the hundreds. By the thousands. If it’s not our responsibility, then God knows I don’t know whose it will be.


I sat with Willow early this morning. Lily had been gently shuffled out of bed and into the car for school, by 6.30am. The house fell quiet. Leo pottered from room to room, and I longed to put the TV on so I could enjoy my morning tea in peace. But she wanted to draw, and I thought, as so many mothers do, let me just extend myself a little more. And I then asked her, why don’t you draw what’s in your heart?

She took the pens – pink, red, purple. She drew a big pink heart, with a thick red line around it. That’s the blood, she said, all matter-of-fact. And that’s the shooting stars, she said, pointing to the purple lines fizzing out from her heart. And she took the yellow and scribbled around it I love you God, and then God loves me. It was beautiful. I fell in love with that shabby piece of paper. That scrawled piece of evidence felt like it told me every minute of scraping Weetabix off the table, every minute of playing princesses, every minute of wiping tears is being stirred together into a pot of golden yellow and pink, and it’s her heart. Her heart is covered in blood and is shooting stars outward and it sings I love you God, God loves me. The morning sun fell through the blinds, and I saw the worth of my work. I now I think of Keandra, and all the other little souls that build with blocks in my garden and I see the worth of our work. His blood, shooting stars and God loves me in golden pen. This is what we are building, and every minute counts.


God looked over the earth for somebody to carry His child. The child could have been delivered miraculously, of course, but He preferred the bloody, flawed womb of a woman. Despite an almost rock-solid theology on free will, if I was absolutely honest I still don’t really know why He doesn’t whisk all these suffering babies out of the fires they’re birthed in. But I know He chose a bloody, flawed womb. Then and now. So if He’s choosing my hands and my home – messy and raw and unfinished, weak and trembling and willing – then I will be ready in my bedroom like Mary, ready to say Let it be to me as you’ve said.

And maybe He’s choosing her womb too – Keandra’s mother. Maybe He’s choosing all the mommies of all these babies who come into our classrooms reeling from the pain under their skin. Maybe He believes in them. I believe you can be a good mother, I said to the woman in the pink dressing gown outside her shack today. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but one day you can choose to be become one. I’m not sure how much I really meant that as the heat beat down on my head this afternoon, but if He does choose the bloody and flawed, if that’s where His holiness is birthed, then scruffy hair and shacks and tik are just a dark womb, waiting for life. I’ll be there when it comes, with my tea and my face in the sun, ready to wave a Skatties child out of my garden and back into the arms of her mother who is well. I’ll be there.

Though we’re driving off, fighting this feeling that we’re leaving children to burn, I’m watching the clock. I absolutely believe it is a matter of time. Things will change, if people keep running towards the bridge with their everything – their last pieces of energy, their spare rooms, their savings, their beaten-up prayers and their vulnerable hearts. And while these treasures are walking through the blaze, there is a fourth man in there with them. That, I know for sure.


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1 Comment
  • Anonymous
    February 26, 2018

    It happens in England too, much closer to home unfortunately

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Burning Children