Unto Us a Child is Lost: a Lenten Tale of Metanoia

Part 1: Introduction 

The first time I held Cherokeewolf William Parish he was less than 36 hours old and was in the newborn nursery at Vanderbilt Medical Center after having been born in the early hours of the morning onto the streets of downtown Nashville. He looked like a wrinkly old man and was screaming his head off because he was soaking wet. And I loved him immediately. The second time I held Cherokeewolf he was connected to feeding tubes and a ventilator. The last time I held Cherokeewolf he died in my arms. The death of this child has now become part of our community’s narrative. As a community, we were shocked and horrified by the circumstances of his birth, and we have been gutted by the circumstances of his death. Oh what a fine welcome to the world, baby. Welcome to our nightmare.

Appropriately, our community is “outraged,” but tell me, how cheap does outrage go for these days? At any given daily feeding for our brothers and sisters on the streets you can still walk in and find homeless pregnant woman and homeless mothers and fathers with their children. On any given night at Room In the Inn an overwhelmed father is shuffled from one church to another with two babes under three. On any given night at Room In the Inn a family goes from church to church with their twin children, wishing for a home and in desperate need of community. On any given night a mother drives from parking lot to parking lot trying to keep her handicapped child warm, trapped in a hell from which she can see no escape. On any given night a mother and grandmother of 10 struggles to keep her family of 11 together and alive living in two cars moving from parking lot to parking lot night after night.  Just one more night baby, just one more day of cold.

You see there is a war going on, and I do not speak of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or DR Congo; I speak of the war taking place on the streets of every large American city in the unemployment office and in the food stamp office, in the soup lines, in the over-crowded, underfunded downtown clinic for the homeless; a war in the hollers of Appalachia where children with broken teeth use 20 year old text books, have never used a computer, and live in shacks with gaping holes in the floor and windows covered with cardboard; a war in suburban America where a child can’t stay awake in her 6th grade classroom because she has slept with her brother and sister on the dirty floor of yet another motel after she and her family have overstayed their welcome at another friend or relative’s house. A silent but deadly war rages against the powerless and voiceless, against the least of these, for you see, only in the kingdom of God is there a preferential option for the poor, only in the beloved community are the poor a protected class. 

In American society the poor are the collateral damage of a system of death. And while most of you don’t acknowledge the war—in truth, because you do not know that there is a war—you are driven to feed emotionally off of the carnage of this unseen, unspoken war through pictures and words. 

So come now and be fed—read the sad tale of our city’s child and be warned, for you may find yourself clutching your paper, momentarily glued to your couch; a feeling of discontent and slight panic may overtake you and for an instant you will think that perhaps you should do something. But take comfort in knowing that you will likely be distracted and the immediacy of your alarm will fade, and in the end you will do nothing. 

But then again, perhaps we will turn around and be transformed, perhaps we will be reconciled.

Part II: Unto Us a Child is Broken

Fred and Kimberlee’s (“Lee’s”) nightmare started long before the phone call late on the evening of January 9th notifying them that their child was in critical condition at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. It is hard to say exactly when their nightmare did begin; perhaps it was when Fred found himself still unemployed after coming to Nashville with Lee who was pregnant. Perhaps we could locate the beginning of the nightmare when Lee was eight months pregnant and the funds collected by Amos House had run out and Fred and Lee found themselves back under a bridge in the rain, and then tucked away in a tent. Perhaps the nightmare began when Lee gave birth on the street in the early morning of the day that she and Fred were finally scheduled to move into a home of their own—a home in “the projects” (for after all that is what they had become to the system into which they had been shoe-horned, a project to be categorized, shelved and occasionally observed). Perhaps it does not matter when the nightmare began, only that it continued. 

On the day of Cherokeewolf’s birth, the managers of the low income community into which Fred and Lee were scheduled to move threatened to give their apartment to someone else if they did not make their scheduled move in appointment. It didn’t seem to matter that Lee was in the hospital having given birth only seven hours before. What’s wrong with you lazy woman, don’t you want housing? Don’t you know that in the good old days your ancestors, sharecroppers, would have dropped their babies in the field and kept on working? It was only after well-educated, well-spoken women intervened on Fred and Lee’s behalf that management agreed to reschedule the appointment for the next day.   

The couple’s respite was short lived, for they were soon informed that they would be moving into housing without their son. Although they had finally obtained housing, the new parents lacked all of the basic necessities one needs to set up a home, and moreover, it was determined that after their long and arduous emotional and physical journey, they needed parenting classes, they needed to prove that they were capable of caring for a child. 

Query: where was the state and its concern for Cherokeewolf’s safety during the first nine months of Cherokeewolf’s life? You know, those nine months when he was sleeping in his mothers belly underneath a bridge. 

But it is not Child Protective Services that is the villain in this sordid tale of woe. You will find no scapegoats here on which we may pin our community sins, to then send out into the desert. In fact, the veracity of this tale would be compromised if I did not tell you that those of us who walked with Lee and Fred through their journey were not surprised when Cherokeewolf was taken into custody, and we even understood why the decision was made. 

The best the powers and principalities can do for children born on the streets is the protective custody of CPS until it is determined that the child will be safe. The best that the powers and principalities can do is the foster care system, a system that can and does screen putative foster parents, but is too overwhelmed to guarantee the safety of any child. CPS is Caesar’s answer, community is God’s answer, but until we acknowledge that we are reconciled in God and furthermore act in faith upon our reconciliation to each other, it is Caesar’s answer that we will accept.  

Disappointed but undisuaded, Fred and Lee moved into their apartment and slowly, very slowly, acquired furniture and began parenting classes. At the same time, Cherokeewolf was, by all accounts, moved into what was believed to be the safe and loving home of an upstanding Christian couple. He was loved and cared for by his foster parents who wished to adopt him, and he was also visited by Lee and Fred whose love for their child made them all the more determined to continued to work to regain custody of their son. 

Late on the evening of January the 9th, Lee and Fred received an emergency phone call telling them that Cherokeewolf was in critical condition at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. Panicked and without transportation, the couple scrambled to reach their child. 

Day after day passed and the bewildered couple were given no explanation of what had happened to their child. After a week, all any of us knew was that the cause of his condition was unknown, but the consequence was that Cherokeewolf was effectively brain dead. 

“Brain dead,” what dissonance the term brings when juxtaposed against the perfect curve of a sleeping baby’s cheek. As Lee watched her beautiful silent child connected to so much invasive machinery, she turned and looked at the weeping foster mother, reached out her hand and the two mothers embraced. What sweet possibility for truth and reconciliation, but it was not to be, and contact between the two families ceased shortly thereafter.

It did not take long for the fine physicians at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to reach the conclusion that the child would remain unresponsive and that there was no hope for recovery. After much disbelief, tears, and the deep empty ache of a heart breaking, Lee and Fred agreed with the state and the physicians that it was in Cherokeewolf’s best interest to remove him from life support and to let him go.

What took place in the days and weeks that followed can only be described as hell—the hell of a mechanized system that dehumanizes the rich and poor alike; the hell of a system that cannot heal and has no understanding of reconciliation; the hell of a system that crushes the old and young, answerable only at the end of the day to the utilitarian game of numbers that it plays.

A court hearing was set and all of us who loved Cherokeewolf tried to figure out how to prepare ourselves for his death. We were told by CPS that it was likely that an order to disconnect would be issued on the day of the hearing. And so we cried and prayed in silence and solitude, broken by the thought of a life so short. However, the guardian ad litem was out of town and failed to show so the hearing was rescheduled, and we were sent home dumb and shell-shocked. 

The following week, Lee and Fred had a meeting scheduled with the management of their housing complex to recertify their section eight housing. Unfortunately, the recertification meeting conflicted with the rescheduled court hearing and thus the likely termination of life support for Cherokeewolf.

Lee frantically left messages for the MDHA management, but the next work day was a holiday, MLK Day, and so she was unable to reach the apartment manager until the day of the recertification meeting. When Lee finally spoke with the housing manager and explained her situation, she was told that the recertification meeting would not be rescheduled and that she had better attend the meeting because it would “be a shame to lose her housing and her child on the same day.” Fortunately the court hearing was rescheduled yet again and Lee did not have to choose between keeping her home or being present with her child at the time of his death. 

Oh the serpent windings of the powers and principalities. Caesar cannot reconcile and Caesar cannot heal, but Caesar can make you fight and scramble for the crumbs fallen from the table. After all, there are thousands of people waiting on the list to receive subsidized housing through section eight in the Nashville area. What does it matter if a mother wants to hold her child as he dies? Go then to your dying child, for there are many who want and need your housing. 

Between hearing dates we visited Cherokeewolf with his parents. We held his hands, caressed his head, and watched the nurses carefully moisturize his eyes and lips. Once I whispered to him, “wake up, wake up baby, wake up Cherokeewolf,” but the only response was the beeping and whirrs of the machines keeping him alive.  

The second court date came quickly and once again with great futility we attempted to prepare ourselves for the death of this child. The guardian ad litem ran more than a half hour late and the malfunctioning telephone in the courtroom resulted in additional delay while a solution was sought so that the physicians caring for Cherokeewolf could testify via telephone. 

One of the attorneys in the courtroom laughed and joked loudly about her telephone ring tone. I watched Fred wince as her inappropriate laughter and comments filled the small court room. Lee sat at the table with her appointed attorney, stony faced and silent waiting for the proceeding to begin. I wondered if the actors in the courtroom had forgotten what we were there for. I wondered if they cared. 

Finally, the doctors were reached and the attorneys’ questions began. Cherokeewolf’s physicians testified all in accord to “multiple brain injuries” and “multiple episodes of intracranial bleeding.” But for minor brain stem activity, Cherokeewolf was brain dead and there was no hope of recovery. In a twist of cruel irony, it was revealed that the only stimulus that Cherokeewolf reacted to was some forms of pain stimuli. That too would shortly disappear and he would cease to react to any stimuli regardless of how painful.

The guardian ad litem’s questioning dragged on as he asked the same questions over and over again, making the doctor repeat every detail of the injuries Cherokeewolf suffered. Fred’s pain was audible and he began to whimper, head in his hands. I glanced at Lindsey, my sister in Christ sitting beside me, and I saw the lines of pain etched into her face, eyes closed, silent. And then there was Lee, silent too, only her eyes betraying her pain, and a look of concern as she turned to Fred. 

Fred left the court room broken by the pain and Lindsey followed to care for him.  Finally the questioning was over and Lee went to join Fred while we waited for a decision.  

Despite the fact that Cherokeewolf’s doctors (all of whom were pediatric specialists including a specialist in pediatric neurology) were in complete agreement as to his diagnosis and prognosis, the guardian ad litem asked if any harm would be done in seeking a second opinion. In fact, an additional opinion would have been at least the fifth medical opinion given, but the magistrate agreed to grant time for yet another expert to examine Cherokeewolf and said that he would grant a stay of life support disconnection until February the 18th—a full month out. I was horrified and hissed at Lee’s attorney that he needed to object and then ducked out into the entryway of the courtroom to ask Lee if she wanted to agree to a stay for another month. Immediately she responded “No, no!”, fresh pain exploding across her face, eyes shining with tears. 

The only hell I can imagine greater than having a child die is the hell of continuing to draw out that death. The court reconsidered and granted a stay for a week and was set to reconvene on January 27th.

The Sunday after the hearing, January 24th, Tasha French and I went to visit Cherokeewolf and we had the beautiful gift of spending several hours alone with him. During our visit, at Lee and Fred’s request, I baptized that beautiful child.

From a purely theological perspective I do not agree with infant baptism. I subscribe to the Kierkegaardian school of thought that there are no second generation Christians; every person must choose of their own volition whether or not to walk that path and stand in the shadow of the cross. But I also believe that infant baptism does no harm and my number one concern at that time was Lee and Fred’s wellbeing, and if part of that wellbeing included the baptism of Cherokeewolf then I was honored to confer that blessing. Indeed, it was I who was blessed.

We returned to court the following Wednesday and court dragged on for three hellish hours. After it was clear that they were no longer needed, I left the court with Lee and Fred and headed for the hospital to spend a few remaining hours with Cherokeewolf. On the way to the hospital I received a phone call confirming that the order to disconnect had been signed but that the order was stayed for five days. Numb, we continued to the hospital.

Cherokee’s nurse that night was an especially kind woman who asked Lee if she wanted to hold her baby. No one had offered to let Lee hold Cherokee since his admission to the hospital, and we presumed that she could not. But the nurse, with great care and patience, gently worked the breathing lines and feeding tubes so that Lee could hold her child in a rocking chair next to his bed.  

As we sat watching Cherokeewolf, Lee and Fred expressed their frustration that not one single doctor had come to them to explain the exact nature of their baby’s injuries. No one had explained why their child was brain dead. I called for a doctor and in a short while one of Cherokeewolf’s doctors, a kind and patient person, arrived and proceeded to answer all of Fred and Lee’s questions concerning Cherokeewolf’s injuries. The physician engaged Fred and Lee in a careful discussion of multiple intracranial bleedings which occurred over different times, and an explanation of shear injury which occurs at the cellular level. Lee asked if the injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome, and while the doctor could not give an opinion as to the cause of the injuries, the doctor was able to confirm that such injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome.

On Tuesday, February 2nd, Cherokeewolf William Parish, surrounded by people who loved him, was disconnected from life support and peacefully and silently died within an hour. 

Part III: Metanoia

I have at this stage in my life ceased to believe in coincidences. For example, I do not believe it to be a coincidence that I began the tale of Cherokeewolf during Advent and that I end it now during Lent. The analogy stops here though. I will not tell you that Cherokeewolf died for our sins; he did not, but perhaps he died in part because of them. Simply put, the institutionalized, nationalized church has become a whore for some future apocalypse while it remains blind and deaf to the holocaust surrounding its fair walls and iron gates. The way of Jesus is not the simpleton theology of crime and punishment: “My big daddy God is coming back and will kick your god’s ass and you’ll all have to pay while we get to go to heaven!” The way of the Jewish carpenter is one of truth and reconciliation and freedom. But the path of truth, reconciliation and freedom is premised on faith, and faith, unlike belief, requires—or should I say results in—action. As the church, we cling to our beliefs, and thus to our passive nature. Belief costs you nothing; faith may well cost you your life.

I will not suggest to you ways to reform the system. I have little confidence and no faith in the system, which is why I do not speak here to the system or to its institutions, be they government, private, or religious. Institutions cannot embody reconciliation, and by my reading of the gospel, we have all been reconciled. And so it is to the living body of believers that I direct my writings. God’s grace extends to all and knows no limits. That grace is scandalous because it not only extends to Cherokeewolf, it also extends to whoever caused his injuries.

I have no program to suggest to you. I follow the path, albeit very imperfectly, of the Jewish carpenter Jesus, and Jesus never set up a program, didn’t found an institution, and certainly had no interest in reforming the system, so who am I to suggest such things?  Rather, Jesus’ “plan” was offensively simple: love. Love God with all of your soul and mind and heart and strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is you who must love for you cannot outsource love or grace. Love and be transformed, embrace the scandal of an inefficient and even irresponsible love. Seek truth and live reconciliation; that is what we must do from this point forward if we ever expect to experience the full reality and consequence of God’s unbounded grace and love. As Will Campbell so beautifully states: “‘Be reconciled to God’ is the only social action there is for the Christian: life as a thanksgiving to God. Such a life involves the giving of food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, and clothes to the naked—in other words, life as the Good News, life as thanksgiving for what God did for us. Not social action, for this rejects the gift of grace and contradicts the Good News by turning it into the Bad News of programs, strategies, imperatives, laws, and acts of obedience…”

The church is a living, breathing body, not the bone-filled tomb it has become, an institution designed for the sake of its own self preservation. Do you love yourself by giving yourself a bowl of soup and a sandwich once a week? No you do not, so why then do you think you have loved your brother as you should by reaching across a counter and handing him a bowl of soup once or twice a week only to arrest that same brother several hours later for violating your church’s trespass warrant when he is caught sleeping on the church lawn or the church steps? You say that it is offensive that he sleeps on your church steps. Well God says that it is offensive that you keep your church doors locked tight throughout most of the week. God says that it is offensive that you do not bring that homeless man in, bind his wounds, and allow him to sleep inside your fine building. You idolatrous fools—you worship your buildings and engage in heresy through your locked doors. 

The modern institutional church is in a state of apostasy. It is no wonder children are born onto streets and old women die against the side of buildings wrapped in plastic and torn blankets. Your self-righteousness is killing your brothers and sisters. You claim you do enough? Tell me, is there more money in your building account or in your benevolence fund? If you really want to make a difference then begin by doing something seemingly small that will make a significant impact. Namely, pull your trespass warrants. All of you downtown churches, live your reconciliation by calling Commander Huggins at the Central Precinct and telling him that you no longer want people arrested for sleeping or peeing on church property. Don’t like the smell of urine? Then invest in a port-o-john, or better yet, unlock your doors and invite your brothers and sisters in. If God is reconciled, not only to the beautiful Cherokeewolf’s of the world but also to the smelliest, drunkest, angriest, most depressed, sickest among us, then who are we to reject the smelliest, drunkest, angriest, most depressed, and sickest among us?

If you ever saw Lee during one of your church feedings (and you could not have missed her long, dark, tangled hair, striking blue eyes and large protruding belly) then do not cry for Cherokeewolf now if you did not attempt to draw her and Fred into your congregation and enfold them in the loving arms of community. Every single congregation has doctors, or nurses, or psychologists, or dentists, or carpenters, or landlords, or teachers, and many congregations have members who encompass all of those wonderful, capable professions; so why are you still just feeding people lunch and/or maybe opening your doors once every two weeks for Room In the Inn?

Transform and be reconciled. It’s all we are called to do.

Jeannie Alexander, Amos House

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