For years the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx in New York, home to St. Ann's Episcopal Church, was the poorest section of the poorest Congressional district in the United States. I recently had another wonderful visit at the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools summer program hosted at St. Ann's, whose incomparable rector is the Reverend Martha Overall -- known to everyone as Mother Martha. While there outside on the church grounds for Harambee, our opening ceremony of reading aloud and singing, I remembered her telling me during a visit a few years ago about planting a kiwi tree in the front of the church yard and asked her whether it was still alive. She said it wasn't really a tree, but a kiwi vine, and it had spread across a trellis and was thriving and blooming on its way to producing a harvest of fruit. This was her story of how the kiwis came to be there.
A local gardener and nutritionist had been volunteering her time with St. Ann's children's programs, teaching the students about growing beautiful plants and good food in lessons that were always infused with spirituality. The gardening experience was a treat in St. Ann's cement-filled neighborhood. One day the gardener said to the children, "You know, I'm always telling you what we are going to grow. This time, what would you like to grow?" To her surprise, the children had a unanimous answer: "Kiwis!"
Now, kiwis aren't a common sight growing in the Bronx. She suggested the children begin by using the church's computer lab to research whether kiwis would actually survive in New York City's climate. The children did their research and came back excitedly reporting that as long as they picked the right hardy variety, the answer was yes. So after a little more study and planning, the children got what they needed -- a male and a female kiwi plant. Mother Martha says, "It took six years, but last year, the kiwi plants got together, the squirrels stopped interfering, and lo and behold -- an abundance of kiwis!" She told me if I came back in September those vines will be full of the sweetest kiwis you ever tasted.
The adults at St. Ann's listened to the children, supported their dream, and patiently waited with them for their kiwi plants to bear fruit. They did this even when it was taking a very long time and others might have told the children they were probably going to fail and should just give up. It should be little surprise that just as the resilient kiwis they faithfully nurtured are now blooming, the children St. Ann's serves have blossomed and thrived despite the odds too.
Mott Haven, St. Ann's children's programs, and Mother Martha herself have all been featured in award-winning and best-selling writer Jonathan Kozol's series of extraordinary books on the lives of children in poverty -- along with some of the many, many children St. Ann's has served. The children often come to St. Ann's with many strikes against them, beginning with poverty. Family and community violence, failing schools, homelessness and unsafe housing, substance abuse, and AIDS all affected children's lives. Many parents did not speak English. A lot of people might have thought expecting these children to succeed was as hopeless as the kiwi idea. But certainly not Mother Martha and the other adults at St. Ann's.
St. Ann's serves 100 children in their after-school program for students in local public schools and 100 during the summer at their Freedom School -- though Mother Martha says there is always a waiting list and it is very difficult to turn eager children away. When St. Ann's first started hosting its Freedom School 15 years ago, she guessed it would be a challenge for the summer literacy program to live up to its promise of teaching its "scholars" to love to read. But sure enough, the Freedom Schools books -- all carefully chosen to reflect students' own images and experiences -- proved irresistible. Soon children were reading for pleasure and signing up for contracts to take books home. She says, "Freedom School makes the children blossom ... When so many children have lost the love of school, I think it would be wonderful if every child had the opportunity to be part of a Freedom School."
St. Ann's after-school programs have long provided a safe space, a chance for homework help, and caring adults, and as the church puts it, "Sometimes, it is just the sheer relief from urban pressures that St. Ann's trees and grass afford, along with a really good jungle-gym, that is the best thing of all." Many of the children who've grown up spending time at St. Ann's are still at the heart of its community, including some from the group who first voted to plant the kiwis. One of the college-age servant-leaders teaching Freedom School this summer attended St. Ann's Freedom School herself. Other "alumni" are serving as summer youth employees at the church or earning volunteer service hours helping out in the programs that helped them so much. Still others have left Mott Haven -- but the impact St. Ann's had on their lives is long lasting.
I am so grateful for Mother Martha and all the adults at St. Ann's and their faithful response to the call in every major faith tradition to welcome children and care for children and the poor. How many children are we losing because adults are not willing to do the long haul work required to believe in and nurture their resilience and potential? When will we too believe that all God's children can thrive and succeed -- just like the kiwis -- when we adults care and act and are patient in nurturing their sound development?