Rainbow park sits near the tip of Saint John’s Southend Peninsula and looks, to someone strolling by, like any inner-city playground. Steel and plastic play structures— their once vibrant colours bleached from two decades worth of wind, rain and sun— rise from levelled plots of sand and gravel. On summer days the smell of chlorine hangs in the air as does the sound of children’s laughter— both the product of the park’s central feature: it’s splash pad. The splash pad is a flat, circular stretch of pavement dominated by a series of decorated pipes through which water is sprayed, sprinkled and dumped. On hot July days, my son will race through it in his bathing suit— the water temperature barely above freezing— then come back to me where I’m picnicking on the grass— collapsing onto the beach towel and wrapping it around his skinny, shivering body. He’ll do it again and again— run, rinse, dry, repeat.
The fact that this park exists in a neighbourhood like this one is certainly a good thing. The circumstances that gave rise to its existence, however, are most emphatically not. For in 1996, just a few blocks from the site where the splash pad presently stands, a two-year old girl named Jacqueline Brewer lived out the final, agonizing days of her short life. If media reports I’ve read are accurate, little Jacquie was confined to her tiny crib for unimaginably long stretches at a time, untouched and ignored— an eternity of loneliness and pain in the nebulous consciousness of so small a child.
To suggest that Jacqueline’s plight was unknown to others, however, would be inaccurate. In truth, a number of people saw the danger that this little girl and her siblings were in; among them, Jacqueline’s aunt who, on a visit from Ontario a few months before the girl’s death, observed the squalid conditions of the tiny, Canterbury St. apartment that constituted her niece’s world. Concerned for the children’s wellbeing, she immediately called social services. Then, not leaving it at that, she made a follow-up visit in person the next day, imploring the agency to take action. Indeed, according to a CBC article http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/lost-children-jackie-profile-1.4018730 a total of 16 such complains had been made to social services regarding the family— complaints that ranged over a time-span of 3 years. Yet, despite all of this— just 8 days before the Christmas of 1996— little Jacqueline died. The official cause of her death was dehydration, a doctor’s report suggesting that she had gone for six whole days without water.
Spurred-on by the tragedy, a group of community volunteers managed to raise enough money for the creation of a park— a park dedicated to the memory of, not only Jacqueline Brewer, but a little boy from the Miramichi (John Ryan Turner) who also died from parental neglect and abuse. Today, the newest feature of the park was added: an arbour and a memorial stone to permanently honour the two children— items that are themselves part of an already existing garden based in the north-western corner of the park. The official instalment of the arbour and memorial stone were of course be a public event— a public event where I was asked to pray.
As you may have gathered from my last blog, prayer is an act with which I am intimately acquainted— a discipline which I have sharpened and honed from years of daily practice. Yet I have to admit, as I readied myself to pray at this public dedication, I felt helpless and thoroughly ill-prepared. Why? Because, at the very heart of this public dedication lies the greatest of horrors— the death of two small children whose short years on earth were replete with suffering and devoid of human affection. As the one giving the prayer, my duty was to speak to the Living God himself on behalf of the community affected by these children’s death— a community of people who (to complicate things still further) include a good number of people who don’t believe in God at all! What could I possibly say that wouldn’t come across as trite, preachy or monstrously naive?
For a while, I contemplated saying nothing— of either declining the invitation to pray or, perhaps, leading my neighbours in a minute of silence. After thinking it over, however, I came to a realization: My tradition does indeed equip me with a way of praying, even in the face of human misery, that utterly scorns all cheap comforts and empty sentimentality. This way of prayer is found in the biblical psalms. Many of these psalms are, of course, joyous hymns of praise but an equal number are anything but: Raw, guttural laments dredged up from the depths of a soul bowed low under the weight of oppressive sorrow and grief; bitter cries of abandonment rising from the hearts of a people who have suffered ruinous loss. Then there are the questions: “How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?” (Ps. 13:2); “O Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you turn your face from me?” (Ps. 88:14); “How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?” (Ps. 94:3) “How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:4). And, of course, the words of our Lord himself, uttered at the peak of his anguish: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1)
What counts in prayer is honesty. And questions— questions that arise from raw, broken hearts— are far more honest than cold, theological platitudes. “How can a child, surrounded by a world of material abundance, die of dehydration, emaciated and untouched? How could her squalid conditions— seen by so many— go ignored for so long by the only people with the power to intervene? Where were you, O Lord— you who welcomed children into your arms— when these two children were at the height of their anguish?” My duty is not to provide answers. Rather, I must let the questions hang in the sky unanswered like the twisted, gasping, body of the betrayed Messiah, dying on the cross. Then, having given the hard questions their due— having acknowledged the cruel absurdity of these two deaths— I must then cling to the remaining hope as tenaciously as a drowning sailor, his ship smashed by waves, might cling to its scraps in the rolling seas.
For me, as a Christian, that hope is centered in Christ. Admittedly, there are times when it seems like this hope is an extremely fragile thing: Rumours of an empty tomb; strange, conflicting tales about grieving women and angels; whispers of secret, post-mortem reunions in upper rooms. It is hope that hangs from a gossamer thread but it is hope nonetheless. My job, as the one leading this prayer, was to— on behalf of this neighbourhood— take that hope in hand and grip it strong: The hope that death— even the cruel and meaningless death of the innocent— does NOT have the final word; the hope that, even from a tragedy as grave and as dark as this one, new life might come; the hope that, if we work together, children like Jacqueline Brewer and John Ryan Turner will never have to die as they did again.
By Terence Chandra