Ernest Brooks: It Takes a Village


The Gospel lesson for this first Sunday of the liturgical season of Christmas draws our attention to two elders of Jesus' village: Simeon and Anna. They are the wise ones, the Griots, the prophets, the sages, the keepers of the gate, the mediums who serve as the connective tissue between the unrealized hopes and dreams of yesterday, the blessings and challenges of today and the promises for a brighter tomorrow. These are the persons who spoke over and into the Jesus' life by recognizing and affirming the life-altering and world changing anointing that gave definition to his very being, even in birth and infancy. They represent the village elders who blessed and affirmed both Mary and Joseph while also preparing them for the unique blessings and challenges that would come with the sacred responsibility of raising the Christ child - the long hoped-for Messiah as described by the prophet Isaiah who would come, not only to restore Israel, but to serve as the savior of the world.

You may be familiar with the oft-referenced African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child." The premise of this proverb is that children are shaped and formed not only by their parents, immediate family members and direct caregivers; rather, the responsibility for their physical, social, emotional and spiritual care, nurture and formation is the collective responsibility of their community: literally the people of the village. This proverb is not just a cursory statement of a cultural or social idea - no, it is a statement laden with ethical intentionality and moral responsibility: it is the obligation of communities to have a vested interest in the "raising" of children. The children of our communities - all of them, but with a particular emphasis on the most vulnerable among us - must be embraced and engaged as OUR children. In our contemporary local and global context, one can't help but ask: Who are the village elders of our day? Who are the Simeons and Annas? Where can they be found? Are they in our modern-day temples fasting, praying and waiting to meet, greet, bless, embrace, speak life into, prophecy over and pray for the children of promise, like Jesus, who are being born into an environment that is in desperate need of redemption, renewal, restoration, recalibration, reconnection and revival? What is their role in the development of our children, youth and young adults? What messages of wisdom and hope do they have to offer? What words of prophetic warning have they been sent to proclaim? Will we, as parents, bring our children to the temples of our day to be blessed by and to receive wisdom from these elders? Will the elders step up to the plate to serve as mentors and mediums, Griots and gatekeepers for those who are being born and coming of age in our modern-day villages?

In his incisive and pragmatic text, Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities, social ethicist, educator and public theologian Dr. Robert Michael Franklin Jr. describes the elders of the village as "charismatic leaders [or gifted persons]" to whom members of the community look "for inspiration, analysis, guidance and information." He further identifies the functional roles of these village elders as praying for the spiritual renewal of the community and for the safety and security of the prodigal sons and daughters of the village who have left home and are now trying to find their way in a complex, challenging and ever-changing world. These village elders provide wise leadership for community institutions, ensuring their sustainability, vitality and continued missional impact. The village elders also assume the sacred responsibility of commissioning young people of promise to discern and embrace their spiritual and vocational callings to lead lives of significance and service for their families, their communities and the wider world.[1]

This notion of calling, commissioning and vocational discernment is not something that is limited to just preaching or ordained ministry. We praise God for the women and men who respond to that deep yearning to commit themselves to the ministries of preaching, teaching and congregational leadership. But it is equally important that we affirm, support, encourage, develop, nurture and celebrate those who feel a deep sense of spiritual and vocational call to justice work and the ministries of education, values-based business leadership, community development and renewal, the work of health and wellness, the work of scholarly knowledge production and dissemination, journalistic truth-telling, spirit-renewing artistic expression, dignified labor, and stewarding the social contract through civil service as well as those unpaid, yet no less important vocations such as parenting, mentoring and volunteerism.

Like many of you, I was blessed to have village elders in my life who nurtured me, spoke blessings over me and encouraged me to submit myself to God and to the callings that they were able to discern within me long before I was able to grasp the meaning of concepts such as calling, vocation, ministry and social responsibility. Those of us who have been privileged to have such rich formative experiences in the context of committed and caring communities must not take these experiences for granted. Nor must we assume that these experiences are normative for everyone. It is our calling - our sacred obligation - to be for the children and youth of our villages what Simeon and Anna were for Jesus.

Marian Wright Edelman, the noted attorney, civil rights champion, child advocate and founder of the Children's Defense Fund, paints a vivid picture of her childhood "village experience" in her book Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors. Edelman writes reflectively:

My parents did not have to raise me and my sister and brothers alone. The whole community helped them and me just as they helped other people raise their children. Every place I went, there were eyes watching me and people reporting on me when I strayed into places or company or engaged in behavior they knew or thought my parents would not approve...[2]

She continues prescriptively:

...I do not seek to reinvent the past or think we can stop the bulldozer of "progress" ushered in by technology and by the globalization of our economy. I do think, though, that we must stop and assess what we have gained and what we have lost over the past half century, and how we might adjust our institutions to meet the changing child and family needs in a positive rather than punitive or impersonal way... All children need adults who believe in them and expect them to achieve, who love them, and whom they love so much that they live up to their expectations of success. [3]

I submit that at their best, these relationships are reciprocal: communities have a responsibility to facilitate the healthy development of children and youth under our collective care; however, the children of the community are also a blessing to us. Psalm 127 reminds us that "Children are a gift from the Lord." Imagine the divine gifts - those imbued by our creator with exceptional talents, special anointing and unique callings - that live and breathe among us. Like the infant Jesus in this text, there are future leaders - dare I say saviors for our contemporary challenges - being born and coming of age in our villages - in our congregations, schools, and community institutions. However, they are not only to be found in these sacred and sanitized spaces: we will also find them on our streets, in transitional housing, in less than stable and secure family circumstances, and being funneled in and out of institutions of the less prestigious and celebrated variety that we have come to know as the prison industrial complex. There we will find young people whose lives are also valuable, with powerful God-given gifts, talents and callings who are yearning for opportunities to be shaped and impacted by the genuine love of our villages and the affirmation and support of our village elders.

Let me be clear: this reciprocity does not always come neatly packaged under a tree in colorful wrapping paper with a large bow on top and a heart-warming card on the inside. These gifts that I am describing, and the gift that is celebrated by Simeon and Anna in the second chapter of Luke, are not the product of a utopian, pie-in-the-sky spirituality that seeks to avoid the tangible sacrifices of blood, sweat and tears at all costs in a quest for some low risk, low investment, high reward spiritual pyramid scheme. In the midst of all of the celebration, praise and affirmation of this Christmas season, the Gospel writer smuggles us a dose of un-sugar coated, challenging spiritual and existential realism. After blessing Mary and Joseph, Simeon says to Mary in a moment of prophetic directness: "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed," and, as if that does not drive the point home clearly enough, he continues "...and a sword will pierce your own soul, too."

The blessing of the coming of the Messiah - and of those whom God continues to call in our midst - is indeed a double-edged sword. Messianic-figures like Jesus are, by definition, mavericks. They come to turn the world upside down. They turn over the tables in the marketplace and run the moneychangers out of the temple. They travel through fields picking grain on the Sabbath. They challenge our religious sensibilities. They upset our sense of order and decency. They test the vitality of our cherished institutions, customs and traditions. They block traffic at busy intersections. They unfurl banners and disrupt our official programs and formal ceremonies. They kneel when they are told to stand. They hold up a mirror that forces us to wrestle with our implicit and explicit hypocrisy, apathy, passivity, complicity, and resignation to the status quo. They are what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called transformed nonconformists. They are rebels WITH a cause.

This is what happens when custom and calling converge. This is the beautiful yet complex symphony that is composed when the maturity of age and the restlessness of youth intersect. This is the gift that we are given when wisdom and innocence meet.

And oh, what a beautiful, challenging, redemptive, generative, praiseworthy and hope-filled gift this is! Amen.


[1] Franklin, Robert M. "Chapter 4 - Strategies Renewing the Village" in Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 217-237.

[2] Edelman, Marilyn Wright. Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors (Boston: beacon Press, 1999), 13.

[3] Ibid, 17-19.