In the auditorium of Hartford's North United Methodist Church, a teacher is holding up a tomato.
"Is that real?" a child asks.
In another classroom, kindergartners reach into a box, pull out a plastic piece of food, and place the item in the proper category at the front of the classroom - grain (good) or sugar (bad). Christian Activities Council's five-week-long Adventures in the City camp is underway at three sites in the capital city.
The venture started with 15 children nearly 30 years ago. This month, they're hosting 600 singing and jumping children, and scattered among them is the Rev. Edwin O. Ayala, council associate director, who moves like a happy sprite.
Also helping out is a group from West Hartford's Flagg Road United Church of Christ, led by the Rev. Mark Diters. Thank God for the Christian Activities Council. And while you're at it, God, can we have some more just like it? We're going to need them.
Our recent debt crisis has been forestalled, but at what cost? With a deadline looming last week, Congress approved a bill - signed by President Obama -- that will save money, but it's about as attractive as a hammer on a thumb. Short-term, we may not see much in the way of cuts in social services, but mid-term is another story.
Add to that our political reluctance to have the rich pay more, or to tap corporations for their share. One wag on Twitter said the New Deal had been replaced with the Deal With It.
It's hard to cull through the language of the law without a sense of foreboding. While the economic recovery looks nothing like one, more cuts to our already-tattered social services net means more people falling through to the bottom. If that doesn't move your compassion meter, consider this: We will pay, either now or later, and later, the (higher) cost comes in the form of increased emergency room visits and the like.
It's cheaper to handle this now, but that means someone's going to need to step up - nonprofit organizations, faith groups and neighbors, all of whom are struggling already with a 9.2 percent national unemployment rate, and a state rate that's only a tenth of a percent better.
Here's a silver lining: For one year, anyway, corporate giving increased. Cash gifts rose 13 percent last year from 2009, says the Chronicle of Philanthropy. If you count product donations, corporate giving rose even more - 20 percent. However, corporate giving is expected to stay flat.
Back in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina raked through the Mississippi Delta, I predicted the disaster would usher in a new social gospel movement, where people of faith would restring our tattered social net. For Christians, the scriptural reference would be James 2:17: Faith without works is dead, paraphrased by St. Bob of Dylan as "You gotta serve somebody."
Turns out, I was too optimistic. Though some faith groups stepped up, many remained comfortable in their pews. Today's social gospel banner is carried by people like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and by people like Diters, and Dan Whitney, a Flagg Road member who's heading off to Davidson College soon. Broadly speaking, the band includes nuns who run soup kitchens, Muslims who build houses, Jews who fill tractor-trailers with food donations, anyone who has read his or her sacred text and found the message to serve.
Because that command isn't restricted to Christians. Judaism and Islam have a deep tradition of charity - mitvah and zakat. Imagine the impact if we all pitched in - pagans, heathens, avowed atheists, too.
The hoped-for sustained outpouring wasn't forthcoming after Katrina, but that may come a time when we will need to be like the Rev. Ayala, and run - not walk - to where we're needed. We need to be ready.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at