To former CEO’s Ed Odom and Sam Baker, Marlin Livingston, current President/CEO of the Cunningham Children’s Home, Rhonda Whitaker, President of the Board of Directors, Marge Stout, President of the United Methodist Women, Rose Booker-Jones, Iroquois District Superintendent, other distinguished guests legislative, civic and academic, Faculty, Staff, Alumni, friends, family, guests, and most importantly the children of Cunningham Children’s Home (CCH), good afternoon. I’m here to celebrate and honor your 120th Anniversary. Thanks be to God.
Today, the message is rooted in Mt. 19: 13-15. To be specific, the gospel expresses a narrative version of the song “Jesus loves the little children.” Listen. As usual, our Lord has the rapt attention of a large audience of adults. Questions, answers and commentary about marriage, divorce and adultery fill the air. During his presentation, parents start bringing their children to Jesus. His disciples react quickly to squelch the disruption. Faster than the speed of light, our Lord shuts them down. “Let the children come,” he says, “do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” After our Lord serves them, the children go on their way. The adults never forgot the priority given children that day. Likewise, Cunningham Children’s Home will not let us forget the children. They love children and strive to care for them. Hence, our focus “Let the Children Come.”
THE POWER OF VISION
“Let the Children Come” involves the power of vision. Although our Lord was fully engaged in a conversation with adults on marriage, divorce and adultery - concerns that remain front and center today; he taught the crowd about connecting with children. A prime opportunity had arrived. Not fearing adult reprisals, our Lord rejected the hallowed notion “Children should be seen and not heard.” “Let the little children come to me. Do not stop them…to such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs.” To any adult really listening that day, our Lord laid out a vision of how they ought, and we ought, to see children. Children ought to be our priority. Jesus’ picture of the preferred future was crystal clear: the kingdom of heaven belongs to children as well. The prophet Isaiah declared “a little child shall lead them.” Not to be outdone, our Lord said “whoso shall receive a child in my name receiveth me.” (Mark 9:37) Maybe Jesus’ caution about children seemed trite and unnecessary; it wasn’t. An article on the Internet screamed this headline, “Child Abuse/Neglect in America is the worst among industrialized nations.”
With eyes wide open Mary and Judge Cunningham spotted this kind of need in the Champaign-Urbana area in the eighteen fifties, sixties and seventies. The plight of children convicted them. Like the prophet Joel, they began to “to dream dreams and see visions.” And it made them act. A July 27, 2014 article in the News Gazette by Tom Kacich offered some proof. Reading a December 6, 1894 entry from Judge Cunningham’s journal, Kacich found this narrative.
We plan “to give our very dear and beautiful home to the Women’s Home Missionary Society (WHMS) of the Methodist Episcopal Church. This home we have sacrificed, improved, and beautified for 25 years, but it is more than we need for our comfort, and the great needs of our homeless and friendless children appeal strongly sympathetic ones, for such an institution as this…”
The gift included 15 acres and a caution. “We also feel that these home wants are being overlooked by the church in its goal for extending the faith.” Possible interpretation; the church was getting so wrapped up in making disciples of Jesus Christ that it was neglecting its children.
Again, the needs of homeless and friendless children were so great in the Champaign-Urbana area that the Judge and his wife could not ignore or be untouched by them. They couldn’t wait for death to come and hand their property off via a will. Over twenty years before they died, the vision of helping “homeless and friendless children” compelled the Cunningham’s to give their home away.
Our Lord felt the same compulsion when his disciples tried to prevent the children from coming to him. Advocate for children, our Lord refused to ignore or remain untouched by the needs of children being brought to him. While the adults watched, Jesus talked to them. He laid hands on them. He prayed for them. Some children, Jesus hugged. Then, he sent them on their way. Was there any parent in the audience not moved or touched by children coming forward? If our Lord just happened to greet, pray for or bless their child or grandchildren, I know folk were moved. Dare we ignore the children of Illinois? Do we even see them? They are outside this very door, extant in your community.
Beyond the needs of “homeless and friendless children,” one wonders if there were any personal reasons firing the compassion of the Cunningham’s. I think so. An obit page says the Judge died in 1917. His wife Mary died in 1921. And “they had no children.” But they gained many children in giving up their home. In the church triumphant, they gained countless more. What it must be like standing in that great clouds of witnesses observing the various iterations of their gift. To date, their vison of yesteryear has shown its power. It has lasted 120 years.
THE STRATEGY OF GIFTING
When our Lord rebuked his disciples for turning away the children, he implemented the strategy of gifting. Gifting is more than money; it’s time spent spiced with love and caring. A late friend of mine told me his elder daughter was a high school cheerleader. Naturally, she wanted Dad to see her perform. But ministry kept him too busy. “When is your next game?” he asked her one night. “I want to come and see you perform.” “Daddy, we had our last game last week.” He never got over that missed opportunity. If a child or a family’s well- being is threatened, who will stand in the gap? Who has the therapeutic gifts to put the family together again?
The children who came to Jesus weren’t his biologically, but he gave them time and attention like a parent. What for? My imagination offered some answers. Jesus perceived that Sally needed a hug; that James seemed mentally distressed; that Sue and her Dad had bitter fights; that Jeffrey and his Mom never saw eye to eye; that Bill was blind from birth; that Brittany knew she was sick unto death. Bobbie and Josie never heard their parents say “I love you” or “we are going to help you move beyond your faults.” But they heard “I love you” from Jesus; that everything was gonna be alright. Some children were used to negative feedback at home; Christ said they were okay. Other children were homeless and bereft of friends. After their Christ encounter, some children left singing “What a friend we have in Jesus”. See how imagination painted a picture of “Jesus and his love.” In essence, our Lord was there for children. He took advantage of the opportunity to connect, gifting them with three or four helpings of love and happiness. It was a good thing. Some of the children would never, ever pass that way again. If they did, none of the gospel writers reported it.
It’s no accident that Marge Stout and Rhonda Whitaker are on the program. Along with many of you, they belong to the United Methodist Women. United Methodist Women is the successor body to the Women’s Home Missionary Society (WHMS) of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Why is that organization important? Notice the Cunningham’s choose not to gift an M.E. church in Champaign-Urbana with their house and acreage. Neither do they bequeath it to the District nor the Annual Conference. Rather, they give their property, circa 1894 to a new organization in the Methodist Episcopal Church called the Women’s Home Missionary Society, nee 1880. Started by women, led by women, funded by women, the Cunningham’s believe that the maternal instincts in such women could best address the needs of “homeless and friendless children” in this area. So they present their house and acreage to the denomination hoping that it would be used for a Deaconess and Children’s Home initially. More importantly, by linking their dream with the Women’s Home Missionary Society the Cunningham’s inherited “a future with hope.”
In her annual address to the Women’s Home Missionary Society, Lucy Hayes President of WHMS and spouse of a former President Rutherford B. Hayes confirmed their strategy of gifting as her speech concluded. “We (women) believe that the character of a people depends mainly on its homes (parents and children). Our special aim therefore is to improve home environments, home education, home industries, and home influences.” Recognizing that success does not always occur at home, schools, homes like Cunningham and other childcare ministries were created by WHMS to meet the needs of children. Best of all, by placing the care of their vision with the Women’s Home Missionary Society now United Methodist Women, Cunningham Children’s Home has reaped the benefit of commitment from United Methodist women in the form of prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness well over 100 years. Today, we saw it modeled once again. Gifts for Cunningham Children’s Home were presented by ten District Presidents of the United Methodist Women
If that were not enough, Marlin and his childcare buddies have been working on the Bishop and the conference to approve an Endowment Campaign to strengthen the spiritual witness of this institution and the four other Childcare Agencies related to the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference. Call it the strategy of gifting. Inviting, pleading, telling the story and visiting CCH keeps the plight of “homeless and friendless children” before us.
In my wildest imagination, I kept wondering if the strategy for the Cunningham gift evolved from another source. Could Judge Joseph and Mary Cunningham be led by another catalyst other than philanthropy or what they saw, albeit noble? Was there something biblically relevant about the gift given? Their parents named them Joseph and Mary. Had the Cunningham’s seen themselves as a 19th century iteration of the first century parents of the Christ child? Did the first century experience of Mary and Joseph with their first born namely Jesus the Christ, “conceived by Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” have any effect on their love, care and openness to all God’s children? Had the Magi’s gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child modeled and shaped the motive behind the gift we now call Cunningham Children’s Home? We don’t know. We do know of their response to “Let the Children Come” was Amen. Let the Children come.
THE JOY OF HEALING
When Jesus healed a young man blind from birth, the Pharisees were not happy. They thought his blindness resulted from his sin or the sin of his parents. Our Lord set the Pharisees straight. Unconvinced, the Pharisees checked with his parents. Scared of reprisals, his parents took the fifth. “Ask our son,” they answered. “He is of age.” “Wasn’t Jesus a sinner,” they asked. “Shouldn’t you praise God not Jesus for your healing?” The young man gave the Pharisees a classic answer heard around the world till this very day. “I do not know whether Jesus is a sinner. One thing, I do know…I was blind but now I see.” The young man was describing the joy of healing. In my view, the young man described the mission of Cunningham Children’s Home’s ministry. The joy of healing at CCH has meant new life, new hope, new possibility especially experiencing simple delights such as seeing his parents, friends, their house and the unseen world for the first time.
Our scripture involves the joy of healing as well. In this story and other biblical narratives of Jesus’ encounters with children, our Lord is the pre-eminent model of joy and happiness. No one is afraid Christ would use his positon or power to cause emotional, mental, spiritual or behavioral damage to children. In his arms, children are safe. With his hands, children are blessed. Through his words, children belong in the kingdom of heaven. By Jesus’ healing, weeping that endured for the night is followed by joy in the morning. When intervention is faith based and done right (via skilled personnel); out of it comes the joy of healing.
When Rev. Gay King Crede wrote me about the 120th Anniversary, her email contained a paragraph that epitomized the joy of healing. Plus, her words emphasized that which I dared not overlook. Crede prophesied. “We are expecting a group of former Cunningham Alumni who were here during the hardest part of their lives. They will remember this place as their “home” where people saw the best in them and their lives were changed. We will also have supporters, UMW, current and former staff, as well as members of the local community with us.” My message has affirmed them. CCH is a place where the joy of healing occurs.
As a part of the cloud of witnesses observing 120th Anniversary, the late Mary and Joseph Cunningham - staunch Methodists for over 50 years - must be extremely proud of Cunningham Children’s Home. The joy of healing is the typical end result of interventions performed by Cunningham Children’s Home, short and long term. How do I know? Your PR sheet told me so.
Hope begins here with “caring support and therapeutic intervention.”
Hope begins here by virtue of prayer, worship or spiritual life.
Hope at CCH teaches by means of Special Education in three schools.
Hope at CCH fosters family in a place to call home.
Hope at CCH creates a safe community for growth and acceptance.
Hope at CCH transforms the lives of youth and families by helping them find healing and hope.
Hope at CCH begins with you, supporters; it takes all of us to “create a future with hope.”
Happy Anniversary Cunningham Children’s Home; “Let the Children Come!!!”