Heart Matters: Sandy’s Penguin

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Recently I sorted through an accumulation of ministry
stuff-props, musical tapes, songbooks, and other things. I’ve
discovered that when it’s time to clean house at church, it’s
better to do so when no one’s around to object. Reasons for tossing
some things and keeping others often defy logic, and “We should
keep that!” can be said about almost anything. I usually try to
find good homes for stuff whenever possible, because everything has
some intrinsic value. But our space is at a premium, and sometimes
hard decisions have to be made.

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After I’d trashed the old records, Millennial Celebration
songbooks, and eight-track tapes; after the newer items were piled
to be donated; after the “Spider-kids” costumes were confirmed to
be a nesting place for an unsavory element; and after it was
decided that the collection of one-inch pencil stubs were no longer
needed, I came across Sandy’s penguin.

Sandy had brought her stuffed penguin to church a few years ago
for our “super cool” VBS. It came to us with a badly damaged wing,
so we used it as a prop out of the way where its damaged wing
wasn’t so noticeable. Years stuffed in the closet hadn’t healed the
wing; it still hung askew from the penguin’s body. As I tossed the
old penguin into the dumpster I wept-not for the penguin, but for
Sandy.

Little Sandy also came to us with a badly damaged wing. Make
that a badly damaged heart. Not a week went by without a volunteer
coming to me about a problem with Sandy. She was unruly, she was
mean, and she was occasionally dangerously out of control. Yet at
other times Sandy showed herself to be sweet, loving, and very
intelligent.

For a while we didn’t know if Sandy’s issues were chemical,
emotional, dietary, or simply poor choices. I talked with Sandy’s
guardian and discovered that Sandy lived with relatives because her
abusive father was gone (finally) and Sandy’s mother was either
high or looking for someone to make her feel good. She had no time
for Sandy, and relatives finally took her in. They loved her, and
they tried their best with her. But Sandy’s scars were deep; her
wing was almost completely torn off.

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Sandy’s problems could-at least partially-be explained by her
environment. But finding a solution wasn’t so easy. When she became
a danger to other kids, we had to ask tough questions. We had to
decide whether to keep trying to repair Sandy’s wing or to let
someone else worry about her.

I didn’t tell Sandy she couldn’t come back, but I feel bad that
I even thought about it. If a child can’t feel welcome at church,
something’s terribly wrong! Yes-there were some serious safety
issues for other children, but I think part of our job is to find a
solution other than discarding a child as if she were a damaged
toy.

Before we ever had to come to a decision about whether to allow
Sandy to come back, the decision was taken from us. Her abusive
father came back into the picture with promises for Mom, and one
day they just packed Sandy in the back seat of their car and drove
away. We never saw her again. Her penguin remained at the church
where it was eventually stored in the closet. I guess peace was
restored to our children’s ministry. But how we wished for just one
more month of trouble from Sandy. How we longed for one more
opportunity to say, “Sandy, I love you, but I can’t allow you to do
that.”

Inevitably we have to throw things out or give them away. But we
must do everything in our power to hold onto children-even if
they’re tattered, bruised, and broken.

Tim Miller is a children’s pastor in Hamburg, New
York.

Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change. Originally published in
September-October, 2005 in Children’s Ministry Magazine.

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