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Where Have All the Children Gone?

Dear ByziParents,

“There is a church where babies do not cry during Divine Liturgy. Children do not leave the nave for bathroom breaks, and curious little people never ask questions during Father’s homily. The children in this church are not unusually well behaved. They are absent. And the congregation misses them.”

ByziMom Judith Jolma addresses a pernicious problem in many of our congregations today in this, the opening paragraph of her article, Where Have the Children Gone? It is a problem that is often difficult to talk about because it arose from such a traumatic period in our church’s history where trusts were broken, and foundations were shaken. As if these issues weren’t trying enough, the worldwide contagion broke out soon afterward, and those who stayed in our battered congregations had to decide whether to abandon ship or ride the waves. Today, we who remain onboard find ourselves riding through the wake of this storm with a much smaller crew. We ask, how can we lure the others back, or must we sail ahead alone? Let us not forget that two thousand years ago, the apostles faced the very same dilemma. We should be encouraged to remember that these twelve men managed to build up thousands of churches in Jesus’ name all over the world! We can surely look to them for inspiration in our time.

We plan to include a new feature, the Parents’ Page. In it, we will address you, the parents of our precious ByziKids, with articles such as this one. Our children are the future of the Church, yet sadly, we realize that young families with children are a rare and endangered element of our congregations of late. Our goal is to support you with everything we’ve got because we know that there will be no Church for us and our children without you and your children, and we all must stick together.

Holy Trinity’s Missing Children

Judith Jolma, ByziKids Magazine Contributor

There is a church where babies do not cry during Divine Liturgy. Children do not leave the nave for bathroom breaks, and curious little people never ask questions during Father’s homily. The children in this church are not unusually well behaved. They are absent. And the congregation misses them.

Once alive with the commotion of families and many children, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Tulsa, Okla. treasured its community.

“Generally, we had a lot of kids at Liturgy and sometimes they made noise or cried, but that is a pleasant sound,” Said Fr. George Gartelos. “I like to hear kids in church.”

Six years ago, the congregation met in a much smaller building. Having so many families, they had outgrown the space and needed to renovate. Given a choice to either expand the narthex and nave or build a spacious community hall, the parish council gladly voted for a larger community hall. They imagined bustling coffee hours alive with conversation. They didn’t even mind the thought of spilled birthday cake and children running indoors. They welcomed multi-generational, though sometimes messy, fellowship.

The renovation cost $2 million and gifted the congregation with a large fellowship hall, kitchen, and professional gymnasium. They also added a cozy and welcoming toy room carefully stocked with beautiful and new toys — all hand-picked for the littlest children to love and enjoy. There were dolls and farm animals, toys to ride on, and toys to build with, dinosaurs, and puzzles. Everything was safe. Everything was beautiful. Everything was perfect. It was their gift to the children whom they loved and they named it the “Sophia Room.”

At first, it was all they hoped for. The gym thundered with the sound of bouncing balls and laughing kids getting out their energy after Liturgy. “People started staying longer,” Fr. George recalls. Kids and adults were shooting baskets. Others sipped coffee and enjoyed conversation in the hall, tots contentedly played with dolls and plastic bulldozers in the Sophia Room. They had game nights, an Agape picnic, a youth group, and Sunday school.

Suddenly in the spring of 2020, everything changed. News of a deadly pandemic frighted families worldwide. Governments closed schools, shut down churches, and imposed a strict quarantine. Fear of getting sick or dying overwhelmed millions. Wanting to keep everyone safe, the families at Holy Trinity decided it was best to stay home. Many families care for elderly grandparents or have vulnerable members. They believe it is the wise and responsible thing to stay away from others. But as the virus waned and restrictions eased, families are slow to return. “I think it is the same everywhere,” Said Fr. George, who sees some families starting to return.

A whole year after the first news of Covid, fewer than a dozen adults sip coffee in the fellowship hall that once rang with the din of 110 families. The lights in the gym are dark. Outside the Sophia Room, neatly pressed myrrh-bearer dresses hang on a rack. Will little girls wear them again? Toys remain unbroken and unloved.

Fr. George misses the children and says that the body of Christ needs their presence, their natural questioning, their sweetness, and faith. “No child should be expected to sit quietly for an hour in order to come. Bring the children.”

There is an idea that children need to be in church in order to grow up well-formed. But the experience at Holy Trinity and other parishes shows us that adults need children in church to teach the adults how to properly pray. Children teach adults to sing loudly without embarrassment. They show us how to ask questions about icons without being ashamed of the unknown. They bring laughter, tears, simplicity, and the opportunity to serve. They are a true example of humility. They cause adults to consider their own example and force them to explain the faith when children ask questions.

The body of Christ is incomplete without the noise and commotion of children. Who will teach us to simply love Jesus without pretense if the children disappear? How will the Sunday school teachers learn their faith if the children are not there? Who will represent all the women on Great and Holy Pascha if the little myrrh-bearers stay home? Children are vital to the life of the church and a congregation can not live without them any better than a person can live without a heart or liver.

“Your presence is important. We miss you,” Fr. George says to the children. “Jesus loves you and so do I.”

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