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Cherish Our Children is building a track record of prayer and action for vulnerable young people

Congregations commit to take action to protect children from sexual exploitation

Sexual exploitation is a topic that is difficult for many people to discuss and no easier for a pastor to bring up in a sermon. That’s part of the reason for the existence of the Cherish Our Children organization, which grew from a Minneapolis Area Synod bishop’s task force in 2003 to a nonprofit social ministry affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Amy Hartman, a diaconal minister and national director of the ministry, has been involved from the beginning and now directs activities that cross the entire nation. The ministry seeks to serve children from birth to young people age 25. Hartman said scientific research indicates the human brain’s function is not fully developed until age 23 or 24 and many crucial decisions affecting an entire lifetime are made from childhood through that age.

Cherish Our Children began in the Minneapolis Area Synod (ELCA) as a program addressing issues of the sexual exploitation of youth. Local leaders continue to plan congregational activities.

While prayer and education are critical steps, people find it easier to pray and discuss than to actually take action.

“We’re opening a window for people to discuss the topic of sexual exploitation,” Hartman observed. The various synods have their own task forces to train and support congregations. The heart of the ministry is considered to be congregations where members pray and act on behalf of children. Currently 79 congregations in 12 ELCA synods are involved in this ministry. The goal, according to Hartman, is to “empower and equip people to take action to prevent sexual exploitation.”

Congregational components include prayer, education, relationship-building, and action.

The steps of congregational participation

The first step is implementing intentional, daily prayer by an adult for each child from birth to age 25. Currently 3,798 people pray daily for 4,964 children.

The educational phase includes providing opportunities for parents and young people to learn more about how to prevent sexual exploitation, including sermons and Internet safety training. A year-end report indicates 864 youth and adults attended educational events about preventing exploitation; 594 youth and adults received Internet safety training.

The next phase is developing relationships with other community groups, such as schools and law enforcement agencies, that are working to prevent sexual exploitation.

Action is the fourth and possibly the most difficult step. Through their prayer, education, and relationship-building, each congregation is challenged to formulate a course of action and pursue it.

Hartman observed that while prayer and education are critical steps, people find it easier to pray and discuss than to actually take action.

Local congregations help protect children from exploitation

Because the ministry developed out of the Minneapolis Area Synod, the pilot ELCA congregations were all local: Valley of Peace in Golden Valley and St. Barnabas and Mt. Olivet in Plymouth.

After Bishop Craig Johnson gave an October 2005 presentation on Cherish Our Children, five more synods wanted to adopt this ministry, the beginning of the nationwide expansion. Hartman, who was consecrated as national director in 2007, has an office at Augustana Lutheran Church (ELCA), just south of downtown Minneapolis. She’s often engaged in telephone conference calls with pastors in what are called “preaching circles” where the topic is how to preach about sexual exploitation; 40 sermons about preventing sexual exploitation were given last year.

Congregations have developed their own areas of expertise. For example, St. Barnabas is home to a relationship-building effort while Advent Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Maple Grove focuses on working with broader community programs. Fifty-seven relationships have been established with community groups, and 19 congregations have developed action plans to serve their communities.

For the future, Hartman says the goal is to prevent sexual exploitation through training and support. “We want to go beyond nice ideas to get plans carried out,” Hartman emphasized.

Nancy Rogness, co-chair of the Minneapolis Area Synod Cherish Our Children Task Force, says, “One of the big shifts within [our] task force is with our new emphasis on being a resource for congregations. We find that folks are already doing a lot for their children and young adults. We want to take what they are already doing and lift that up, and then assist in any other areas that might benefit from additional effort. With conversation, we can figure out if they would like to work on praying for all of their youth, or a particular age group, and assist with prayers for the various age groups.

“We can help with Internet safety training for any age group, including adult forums. Other resources include Wise as Serpents, Homeless Youth: Finding Home, Safeguarding God’s Children, Background Checks for Volunteers, the National Runaway Switchboard, and many Internet resources. We can provide organizations [materials] to work with if a congregation wishes to cherish God’s children in the community. We can provide congregational mentors to help with implementing any or all of the facets of Cherish Our Children. Essentially we are a tool, available to make caring for our youth and preventing sexual exploitation more intentional in our congregations.

“Our churches should be a safe place for our kids, and a safe place to deal with tough topics,” adds Rogness. “During a recognition service a few years ago in my home congregation at Valley of Peace, Pastor [John] Hallin asked that everyone praying for a child through this ministry stand up. We have over 120 people praying for 157 kids. The looks on the faces of those children and youth as we all stood up around them spoke volumes. They seemed to say, ‘Wow, look at all of these people. They are praying for us every day!’ Isn’t that the type of gift that we should be providing for all of our kids?” Rogness co-chairs the synod task force with Kari Christianson.

Hartman can be reached at 612/280-1259. For more information, check the Web site: www.cherishchildren.org.

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