By Sabrina W. Sullenberger
When I became a mother 12 years ago, I worried about keeping my child safe.
I had read about the dangers of SIDS, of food allergies, of predators on the playground, of uncovered electrical sockets, and of the dangers of hot vehicles and improperly installed car seats and vaccination reactions … and pretty much everything else that was possibly going to be a danger to her.
I was vigilant. I was proactive. I was prepared.
Fast forward 12 years (and three daughters), and I had a hard awakening this spring, that no matter what I do or don’t do, I am not guaranteed the safety of my children on this earth.
I am a professor of social work at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. In April of this year, one of my students, DeEbony Groves, was a victim of the shooting that occurred at Waffle House in Nashville.
She and the other victims (Akilah DaSilva, Joe Perez, and Taurean Sanderlin) were going about their lives—working, celebrating a birthday, having a late-night meal—and in an instant, they were killed.
I have processed this tragedy through many different lenses: Christian, basic member of humanity, social worker, and mother.
Through the first three lenses I have been focused on an “other-ness”: What does it mean to forgive others? What is it going to take to keep this from happening to other people? What other issues (such as racism, access to mental health treatment, gun control) are interconnected here?
My mother lens, though, has been largely focused on self (or, more accurately, my “self” as a mother and my love for my daughters).
How would I make it if this had been one of my children? How can I send my daughters anywhere without fear? How can I protect them? How can I guarantee their safety in the world?
This realization led to some dark thoughts and sadness—and some more thinking and scheming reminiscent of my safety planning 12 years ago. Could we homeschool forever? Could we live off the grid? Should I sign the girls up for self-defense classes?
And then I had a realization that I had to let go. I had a change in my thinking, which came through prayer, about my role in the safety of my children.
They are not mine in the eternal sense—they are God’s. I am a steward. I am entrusted to care for them and love them and do my best to keep them safe, but I ultimately am not in control of the world or the actions of others.
While I can’t conceive of a world where my kids won’t outlive me, I daily face the fact that there are no guarantees. This is a sobering reality, but it’s one that many parents have faced this year and in previous years.
Whether we are talking about deaths due to gun violence or cancer or car accidents or other tragedies, we have no guarantees about our children … other than in the ultimate goodness of God.
The best I can do for my children is to act in ways that point them to God, to show them how to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world.
I have changed my prayers of “show me how to keep them safe (by which, much of the time, I meant ‘happy’)” to prayers of “show me how to guide them into being the people you have created them to be.” It is the best prayer I can offer as a parent on behalf of my children.
The death of my student has also reminded me of this: I am called to act and advocate in ways that will lead to the protection, nurture, and well-being of all children.
There is a hymn we often sing at Belmont graduation ceremonies: “We Are Called to be God’s People.” The third verse of this hymn always speaks to me:
We are called to be God’s prophets,
Speaking for the truth and right,
Standing firm for godly justice,
Bringing evil into light.
Let us seek the courage needed,
Our high calling to fulfill,
That we all may know the blessing
Of the doing of God’s will.
Biblical prophets were truth-tellers, speaking truth to power. All believers, whether we are parents or not, have a job to speak truth to our leaders about how we treat children (and others who live on the margins). We all have to “seek the courage needed” to fulfill our high calling.
For those of us who are parents, part of our high calling is stewarding our children through this earthly life. I have a new outlook on stewardship, and it isn’t liberating necessarily, but it is assuring.
My children are looked out for by our Heavenly Father, and I trust in His ultimate goodness even though the pain of daily life may seem overwhelming. I must have courage to remember this, too.
SABRINA W. SULLENBERGER is chair and associate professor of the Department of Social Work at Belmont University. She and her husband, Ryan, and their three daughters live in Nashville.