[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
by Rusty Pritchard
Recently I got to participate in two events designed to bring children closer to creation. One took place in the inner city, the other (mostly) in the country. Both were signs of life and expressions of the Imago Dei, the image of God, granted to humans. They involved pit bulldogs and wild birds, but not at the same time.
Ending Dogfighting in Atlanta
In the city, I stood at a press event with a dear brother, Ralph Hawthorne of the Humane Society of the United States, and his colleagues from animal stewardship organizations, to draw attention to an Atlanta program that aims to end dogfighting by helping urban youth train and care for their pit bulls preparing them for showing instead of fighting. Professional dog trainer Amber Burckhalter and a team of volunteers work with kids to learn wise animal stewardship, compassion, and responsibility. Weekly classes help young people develop a relationship with their pets and learn about the dangers and cruelty associated with dogfighting. There’s a video about the program online and a CNN news story about reformed dogfighter Mark Lockhart who grew up fighting dogs and who now helps Amber show kids how to treat dogs as friends, not fighters.
Urban ministry folks know that animals are often mistreated in cultures that tolerate cruelty and crime. Ralph Hawthorne, himself an urban minister who has in the past taken on gang violence and drug culture, now also pushes back spiritual darkness by fighting animal cruelty. He works to recruit young people and build neighborhood support and relationships, creating grassroots community while educating about the danger dogfighting poses to that community. He has traveled with former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, connecting the famous football player with young people who need to hear his story of repentance from a life of abusing animals. The stewardship mandate of Genesis surely extends to the pets under our care.
Youth Birding Competition
Immediately after leaving the End Dogfighting Atlanta press conference I packed the car, my three kids, and three of their friends and headed out for 24 hours of birding (bird-watching and also finding birds by ear). Our team of five friends (plus Beatrice, our two-year-old) has competed for four years running, dashing from one natural area to another from 5 pm Friday to 5 pm Saturday on a day in late April, trying to rack up a long list of Georgia bird species.
The Georgia Youth Birding Competition, sponsored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources program in Non-Game Wildlife, is an amazing assemblage of kids of all ages, their mentors, and their parents, criss-crossing the state during the spring migration season when North American birds that overwintered in Latin America are headed back to their nesting grounds up north. The kids spend weeks training and planning their routes and strategies (the winners tend to start on the Georgia coast spotting shorebirds and gulls, then head inland at night to pick up owls and nightjars, get a few winks, and then work their way up the state). Our team mostly stayed near Atlanta and Macon and saw an impressive 80 species, including a few to add to their “life lists” of birds (full list here). The winning team in our elementary school-age group saw over one hundred!
Kids and God’s Creation
Our boys know more Georgia birds, by sight and by song, than they do Pokemon characters or celebrities. (We’re hoping that that fact, combined with violin lessons, will mean we don’t have to worry about them dating until they’re in their twenties.) Their brains are designed to respond to biodiversity by learning it. Romans 1:20 means more when you pay attention to creation. It is, as the writer of the reformed Belgic confession tells us, the first means by which we know God since the universe “is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.”
God gave humans an amazing ability to relate to animals. We do so through dominion (not domination) and Sabbath appreciation as expressed in Genesis 1, and relationship (Adam seeing, naming the animals) and responsibility (tending and keeping the garden) in Genesis 2.
You see this in kids, as the image of God bubbles upward and outward. They wonder and delight in creatures, and they have the innate ability to classify and remember them, as Adam did. When kids’ brains are filled with biodiversity instead of corporate-logo-diversity, they have the chance to think God’s thoughts after him. When kids learn to love and train their pit bulldogs, they learn something about wise dominion and stewardship of the creation. These are all signs of the life of God within them.
N.T. Wright has said that the human condition, holding the image of God, is like being an angled mirror, reflecting—from creation—glory back to the Creator, and reflecting—from God—his wise sovereignty, love, and care for creation. These programs show both those dimensions of the human experience, teaching kids in a modern, violent, and hyper-commercial world something about what it means to be truly human.
Rusty Pritchard is president and co-founder of Flourish.