God's children hunger for help of humans, too

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 23, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The cops took the husband away as winter was coming on like death. The wife stood in the kitchen and looked at the children, and she told herself God would provide.

"God?" somebody asked.

"Yes," she said, laughing a little nervously. "I know he'll see us through."

Faith is beautiful, but food on the table gives a different kind of nourishment. The cops took the husband away on child-abuse charges. There were nine of them in the house, located just outside of Damascus. As the days grew colder, and the children grew hungrier, the wife began noticing a terrible thing.

"The children's bodies," she said. "They're not growing like they should. And I pray it's not their brains as well."

The youngest of the kids was 2. The oldest was 17. The mother gets $945 a month in public assistance and $509 in food stamps. You stretch this kind of money among 10 people, and children's bodies start to rebel.

In the state of Maryland, this is not an isolated story. In the United States of America, the richest nation in the world, it's merely a mirror of thousands of stories. At more than 2,500 sites around the planet tonight, people who care about such things will light candles for children in trouble.

Maybe they also should curse the darkness in some people's souls.

In Baltimore, the candlelight vigil will be held at 7 p.m. outside the Maryland Science Center at Harborplace. It's designed to draw attention to next weekend's United Nations Summit For Children, where adults with full bellies and healthy bodies will discuss why 40,000 children around the planet die each day from malnutrition and disease.

The figure seems distant and other-worldly. So many deaths can't have anything to do with America, can they? Well, consider a few statistics closer to home, put together by the Morris Goldseker Foundation's Child Watch Project:

* The United States' infant mortality rate of 10.1 per thousand live births ranks behind 21 other industrial nations. In Baltimore, the rate is 18.9 deaths per thousand births.

* About one in five U.S. children lives in poverty. That's about 12 million kids. In Baltimore, the figure's about one in four. Low-income children are more likely than wealthier kids to be born underweight, to die in infancy, not to be immunized, to have more serious health problems, to drop out of school and to repeat the cycle of poverty in the next generation.

* In Maryland, 102,000 kids have no health insurance. In Baltimore, there are more teen-age girls having babies than in any other city of equivalent size in the United States.

* Through the 1980s, reports of child abuse and neglect increased by 62 percent across the state. In 1988, there were 23,300 such cases in Maryland.

* About 7,000 babies in Maryland are born each year with drug problems.

"A lot of people don't want to see this," Darold Johnson was sayinglast week. He is a public policy specialist for the Maryland Food Committee. "You know, I spoke to a church group in Anne Arundel County and told them about hungry people.

"And this man said, 'Hey, I don't see it. My neighbor doesn't look hungry.' Doesn't look it? People don't understand that their neighbors feel shame. They don't want to tell anybody. They want to hold on to whatever pride they've got. Sometimes you have to look real close to see what's going on."

Johnson saw it the other day. A woman brought her baby into the St. Bernardine's Church Head Start center, on Edmondson Avenue in Baltimore. The baby looked perfectly normal to Johnson.

"But then," he said, "I looked at this baby and thought, it's the same size as my child. My child's 10 weeks old. This baby was 10 months old."

The nation's leaders are great at talking magnanimously and acting indifferently. The wealthy get tax breaks, and the defense industry keeps taking with both hands, and the kids walk into shelters like characters out of Dickens.

A decade ago, there were 50 soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the state. Today, there are nearly 600, and the Maryland Food Committee struggles each year to raise funds to stock them.

"We can put all the money we want into education," Johnson said, "but if kids come to school after being undernourished for four years, they just can't perform the way they should. They're starting off behind, and then we have to find even more money to help them catch up."

Outside Damascus, the woman with nine children heaved a sigh of relief as last week ended. The kids were struggling, but surviving. Friends from church were helping. And she'd survived a scare when her house was almost sold at auction.

"God is providing," she said.

Faith is wonderful. But, around the world this evening, as people light candles and think about next week's U.N. meeting, they'll also be asking a simple question:

With so many children in trouble, why can't the governments of the world give God a little more help?

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