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Social and Religious Context

The Crisis Among Children

Child sacrifice has been taboo among the world’s great religions for at least three thousand years, yet today children are being sacrificed to the gods of consumerism, violence and neglect. Economic injustice, racial and ethnic and religious hatred, and the abuse of political power are resulting in genocide of the world’s most vulnerable citizens – children who live in poverty. Malnutrition kills an estimated 5 million children under the age of five every year which means that on average, a child dies from malnutrition every six seconds. Malnutrition now impacts 15% of the world population – more than one billion people. Every year, as many as three million children die from hunger-related causes. 1

An unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home by conflict and persecution at the end of 2018. Among them are nearly 30 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.2 At least, 870,000 children under the age of five have lost their lives as a result of armed conflict, a number far greater than the close to 175,000 fighters estimated to have died in the five-year period. Many of these deaths are attributed to indirect effects of war such as hunger, poor access to healthcare, sanitation and proper infrastructure, and denial of aid.3

It is reported that 152 million children worldwide are victims of child labor; 88 million are boys and 64 million are girls. Forty-eight percent of all victims of child labor are aged 5-11 years. Almost half of child labor victims (73 million) work in hazardous child labor; more than one-quarter of all hazardous child labor is done by children less than 12 years old (19 million).4 About 1 million Asian children labor in cramped quarters, making carpets for sale in the West.5

The growing disparity in the distribution of basic resources threatens to drastically increase the number of poor people and intensify their suffering. The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income.6 Those most at risk in this growing inequity are the children. They are the most vulnerable to simple disease, injury, illiteracy, neglect, malnutrition and abuse. The opportunity to close the gap for children now exists, but the door is not likely to remain open for very long because the expense increases with each year of inadequate action. Accompanying the economic disparity and violence is the everpresent threat of disease and epidemics.

Although progress has been made in the prevention of childhood diseases, new threats are emerging. HIV/AIDS, for example is creating orphans around the world. Worldwide, as many women as men are contracting HIV. “Globally, young women aged 15–24 years account for just over 65 per cent of all HIV infections.” 7 An increasing number of children in the United States suffer from the demons of violence, poverty, neglect, and inadequate health care.

The gap between the rich and the poor in the United States is wider than at any time since World War II. The United States is twice as affluent as it was in 1964 when child poverty was actually declining. Yet even with this affluence, the resources for health, education and the nurture of children is not increasing proportionately. Crime, violence, neglect and despair are bred and nurtured in the soil of America’s growing economic disparity. 8 The official poverty rate is 12.3 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 estimates. That year, an estimated 39.7 million Americans lived in poverty according to the official measure. According to supplemental poverty measure, the poverty rate was 13.9 percent. 9

According to the Census Bureau, 18.5 million people reported deep poverty, which means a household income below 50 percent of their 2017 poverty threshold. These individuals represented an estimated 5.7 percent of all Americans and 46.7 percent of those in poverty. According to Census Bureau Data, a larger percentage of children younger than 18 live in deep poverty than adults in any other age group. In 2016, nearly 8.2 percent of all children lived in deep poverty. While violence affects all socioeconomic groups, poor youth live with increased exposure to violence which also leads to detrimental outcomes. 10  Homicide is now the fourth leading cause of death in children ages 10-14. In children ages 15-24, homicide is the third leading cause of death and suicide is the second leading cause. 11

The statistics alone do not tell what is happening to the world’s children. Children are victims of many poverties. Spiritual poverty is more difficult to measure, but its devastating effects on the affluent and impoverished are evident. To be deprived of love, hope and transcendent meaning is to be robbed of the abundant life that Christ intends for all. All children have a basic need and right to know that they are loved infinitely by God and that God seeks for them a life of joy, hope and meaning. Children need to experience their identity and worth as both recipients and means of God’s grace. What is happening to the world’s children represents a sinful devaluing of God’s gracious gift of life and a thwarting of God’s justice for all humanity.

Methodism, Children and the Poor
Methodism was born among the impoverished of eighteenth century England. So significant was John Wesley’s ministry with the poor that he affirmed, “And surely never in any age or nation since the Apostles, have those words been so eminently fulfilled, ‘the poor have the gospel preached unto them,’ as it is at this day.”12 Studies document that the poor were the central focus of the early Methodist movement.13 Everything Wesley did in leading the Methodist revival was influenced by the impact on the poor – where and to whom he preached, the design of preaching houses, the availability of published material, the education of children, the leadership of the classes and societies.

Wesley considered regular visitation to the poor as a necessary spiritual discipline. He would no more neglect regular visitation of the poor than he would miss partaking of the Eucharist. The poor literally accompanied him to his grave. As directed in his last will and testament, he was carried to his grave by six poor people who were paid one pound each. The black drapings used in the chapel for his memorial service were remade into dresses distributed to poor women.14 

Children and their total needs were of particular concern to early Methodists. Wesley was especially concerned that impoverished children not only learn “to read, write and cast accounts, but more especially (by God’s assistance) to ‘know God and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent.’”15 The curriculum of the Methodist schools included religious instruction, worship and even fasting, as well as strong academics. Methodist preachers were expected to spend time with the children. Whenever a society included ten children, the preachers were ready to establish a band and meet with them twice a week. Some preachers hesitated claiming, “but I have no gift for this.” Wesley’s firm response was, “gift or no gift, you are to do it, else you are not called to be a Methodist preacher.”16

Wesley’s commitment to children and the impoverished went beyond friendship and proclamation. He sought to provide holistically for their needs. He provided education, opened free health clinics, established a sewing cooperative for women in poverty, provided a lending agency, opposed slavery, visited the imprisoned, and ministered to condemned malefactors.

Methodism in the eighteenth century was a movement of the poor, by the poor and for the poor; and Wesley considered affluence the most serious threat to the continued vitality and faithfulness of Methodist movements. 17

The Challenge and Opportunity for Methodist Churches
The crisis among the world’s children and impoverished people represent a kairos opportunity for Methodist churches. Many agencies are paralyzed by fear and despair in the face of the overwhelming needs. Yet signs of hope abound for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.” For the first time in history, it is actually possible to create a world in which all children share in at least the basic opportunities in life.

The technical resources are available to protect children from the most common diseases, to provide them with the necessities of food, shelter, clothing and healthcare. For the most part, we know what to do and how to do it. What is lacking is the vision and moral will. Vision and moral will are the responsibilities of the Church.

Children are amazingly resilient. Recent studies suggest that the primary sources of the resiliency of children include a supportive community of hope and love. Loving relationships, hope for the future, and a sustaining value system are necessary for children to flourish and fulfill their God given potential. All children need to know that they are made in the image of God and loved supremely by God, who is present with them and who intends abundant life for them. Jesus Christ welcomes them as an integral part of a community of grace and service. Children of all economic conditions need to experience the gospel.

The crisis among children and impoverished people is, in reality, a spiritual crisis that affects all persons. The growing fear and sense of powerlessness and boredom between the middle class and affluent have roots in the poverty of vision, community and hope. The “poverty of affluence” and economic poverty are related. Without a challenging vision that includes justice and compassion for the vulnerable, we become self-absorbed.

This is a revised statement of The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church entitled: “Children and Poverty: An Episcopal Initiative.” This revision of the statement, Faith in Action recommendations, Resources for the Pan-Methodist Campaign for Children in Poverty is done with permission.

 1 Doctors Without Borders,
 2 United Nations,
 3 Hillary Leung, “Almost Five Times as Many Children Died in Conflict Zones Than Fighters, Report Says,” Time, February 15, 2019
4 Global Estimates of Child Labour: Results and Trends 2012-2016 / International Labour Office. Geneva: ILO, 2017
5 Child Rights Information Network,
 6 Global Issues: Poverty Stats and Facts,
7 Global Issues: Poverty Stats and Facts,
8 Child Info, “Statistics by Area HIV/AIDS: Global and Regional Trends”
9 Center for Poverty Research UC Davis,
10 Sheri Marino, “The Effects of Poverty on Children,” Focus for Health, April 1, 2019.
11 Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group – United States, 2015,
12 The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., ed. Thomas Jackson, 3rd edition, 14 vols. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; many later reprints), 8:308.
13 See Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), and M. Douglas Meeks (ed.), The Portion of the Poor: Good News to the Poor in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Kingswood Brooks, 1995)
14 Henry D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 533.
15 Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 105-6.
16 Ibid, 232
17 See Wesley’s Essay “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” dated August 4, 1787, and his sermon “On God’s Vineyard,” written in 1787 after Wesley visited the societies across England.

Special appreciation to Caitlin Foley Phillip and Jamila Garrett Bell for their assistance in creating the previous and current editions of the booklet.