The World Day of Prayer and Action for Children, Remarks by Dr. Hans Ucko
The World Day of Prayer and Action for Children
GNRC Fourth Forum Report
Interfaith dialogue is often thought of as mostly an affair of religious leaders. I would today like to address the religious leader here present not as religious leader but as the human being s/he is together with everyone else. Being a religious leader is certainly a heavy responsibility but it can also become a shield and protection, sometimes making it difficult for yourself as well as others to remember the person behind the religious leader; the role as religious leader easily takes up all the space. When talking about the Day of Prayer and Action for Children and its three concepts:
Prayer, Children and Action, I think it is important that we approach Prayer and Children more from the perspective of who we are as human beings than from the perspective of what we do as religious leaders. When we come to Action, we need religious leaders to promote actions for the dignity of children.
The concept of prayer is in the very title of the interreligious program of DPAC, the Day of Prayer and Action for Children, a thrust that for the security, safety and wellbeing of children seeks collaboration and cooperation between people of different faiths as well as with UN organizations and NGOS, who may not necessarily describe themselves as religious. And it is a fact that the little word prayer does somewhat complicate the interaction with what is called secular organizations. They will ask: is this a proselytizing initiative? or we could not associate with a program that gives that much visibility and space to religion. There is therefore always a bit of definition to take care of when introducing DPAC.
There are many good, important and necessary interreligious initiatives and organizations; most of them will have been set up to address equally important and necessary needs in society and the world: peace, poverty, environment. There isn’t anyone who could be against working for peace or that there being less poverty in the world or that we cooperate towards a truly sustainable environment. Everyone agrees, religious or not religious. DPAC is to my knowledge one of the few interfaith organizations using a truly domestic religious concept to describe itself: prayer, albeit always and rightly so in conjunction with action.
Allow me a few words about the dimension of prayer. We may relate to prayer in many different ways: prayer may be words and phrases that keep moving around and within ourselves, addressed to the divine, hopefully resonating beyond our words, unable to be captured, affirming our being, reminding us of who we are, if we ever could ultimately define it. Prayer is not limited to religious leaders or practitioners or people who easily can define their faith; prayer is more widespread than religion: a sigh that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, that there will be health, strength, focus, concentration, an out-breath of relief.
Prayer echoes something in us that cannot be wholly defined. There is a feeling or reaction or emotion that is more than what we are when more rationally looking upon ourselves. Children may have a similar effect on us. Children too bring forth in us feelings that we cannot wholly define. Children are the seal of the future for humankind but they are also touching something in us in and through their very being. It is not only what they will become that matters; every child carries with it something that calls forth in us a recognition of that which is the most deeply human as well as the most vulnerable. The Day of Prayer and Action for Children is therefore opening up dimensions that cannot be fully defined. We are being called upon to go beyond ourselves.
Children are mentioned and present in all religious traditions. At the celebration of Passover in the Jewish tradition, there should be a child who through his or her questions prompts the telling of the story about the liberation and exodus from slavery. Jesus made the child an example and said: Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. Hadiths tell us that the Prophet (PBUH) was fond of children. It is said that Muhammad played games with children, joked with them and befriended them. The Upanishads say that the cosmic process of God creating continues in the birth of every child. Buddha’s method of Dhamma-teaching involves children to take part directly as well as indirectly.
We often say that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the declaration that is most ratified among the different countries of the world. We should not be surprised. Children are real and anything that promotes children will more than anything else call upon us. Children have a way with us that bring forth the best in us, that open us for vulnerability, the desire to protect, that makes us think less of our own dignity but more of the dignity of the child.
We may know it, feel it but we don’t know what it is that makes children have such an impact. They have a different power over us and they make us see things in a different light. The Norwegian poet André Bjerke lays bare the paradox: Even five- step missiles and nuclear physics are like children’s puzzle in comparison to when the single glance of a newborn child becomes the proof that God exists. Sometimes when we see the newborn baby looking at us, we don’t know how to respond; words fail us, we cannot articulate our feelings and out of our mouths come words that don’t make sense: coochie, coochie coo?!
When we now present the Day of Prayer and Action for Children, we do so because we think that a day of celebration with prayer and action for the well-being of children has the potential of alerting us to that which is close to our hearts and minds, that is concrete and not a theory: prayer and children.
Prayer is at the core of our religious traditions; it is an experience that is shared across religious boundaries and even beyond. When we talk about prayer, we are prepared to leave the fortifications we may have erected against the other and become vulnerable. We may not pray in the same way, our patterns of worship may be different but when you say prayer, you reckon with other dimensions, you let loose your hope, you give space for visions, you allow yourself to be carried away in the good direction: the presence and the future of our children.
When we make the health, wellbeing and dignity of children the goal of a collaboration and cooperation between people of religious traditions and people in civil society involved in organizations and programs committed to the Convention of the Rights of the child, we can benefit from an experience and professional commitment that would allow us to stay on course, to be precise and focused and to be in there for the long-haul.
The Day of Prayer and Action for Children has a potential to bring together heart and mind, as it affirms the spirituality of prayer, the hope and vulnerability that children awake in us and a concerted action along the lines of many in civil society committed to making a world fit for children.
The message from the First Forum of the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) 12 years ago was introduced through a line by the Bengali poet, the renewer of literature and music and Nobel Prize laureate, Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 18617 August 1941): “Every child born comes with a message that God has not yet despaired of humankind.” If this is a vision that carries us along in our actions, the Day of Prayer and Action for Children has a potential of a meaningful and spiritual dialogue between people of different religions all committed to every child born.