We recently had John and Sheryl Emra in our home as overnight guests. For some time they have been missionaries to neglected children in the inner city of Los Angeles. Our visit was short but during the evening we talked animatedly about what their ministry involved.
Their supporting organization was given an abandoned church building. They made the building usable and opened it to the children in the area. Advertising was not necessary. Neglected or abandoned children in the inner city have time on their hands and wherever there are people who care and things to do they show up.
During our conversation, the Emras gave us their summary of the four behavioral commitments they have for these children and how their mission attempts to apply them.
The children need AFFECTION. Affection in this case is a warm sense of caring that communicates itself in wholesome ways. John explained, it may involve buying a child a needed pair of jeans or shooting baskets with an after-school group. It may mean just talking to the child on the child’s level and with their concern. Inner city children, like all children, will eventually sense that they are loved.
They need BOUNDARIES. For all of us, boundaries are where our territory ends and the territory of another begins. Invisible but real, these boundaries represent the emotional and physical buffers that make social interaction possible without jarring conflict. In well-parented homes, a child begins to learn early not to hit, how to keep hands off what belongs to others, how to respect their neighbor’s space, when to say please and thank you, etc.
But children left to run the streets are less likely to have these boundaries. John’s ministry operates on the principle that boundaries can be learned and when they are learned, children are more at peace with themselves and more able to relate in a group.
Children also need CONSISTENCY. Children in the inner city are likely to be deprived of this. Life can be grim there. Contact with significant adults may be limited. Children’s moral compasses are damaged by adult drug abuse, neglect, and brutal treatment. Many years ago two sociologists, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, discovered that inconsistency with children is a great contributor to delinquency. The child who is cruelly abused by a drunken parent one day and then lavishly rewarded by that parent the next — motivated by guilt — becomes very confused about what is really right in their world.
Finally, according to the Emras’ operational standards, children need DISCIPLINE. For the Emras, discipline is training. In their program, children are not just given a safe haven in which to run free. These missionaries are concerned by their discipline to produce specific patterns of character and behavior and to teach that all conduct, whether good or bad, has consequences.
It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that undergirds this self-giving ministry. Jesus set a child before his quarrelling disciples and said, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes him who sent me” (Luke 9:47) Who can measure the value Jesus placed on the children his life touched?