Once or twice a week someone asks me to write about a special person or topic. I appreciate the requests and more than once I’ve obliged when my instincts whispered that the message would be relevant and useful to readers.
Last year I met a woman at a speaking engagement who made such a request. She told me through tears that her son was being bullied and teased at church. This loving parent fears that few of us acknowledge the problem isn’t isolated to schools and neighborhood monkey bars. It happens at church.
The request was simple: Would I help her raise awareness?
A week or two later this new friend sent me a long email detailing her family’s experiences. Her son has endured everything from mild teasing to brutal name-calling. For this shy young man, it’s been a steady, painful stream of emotional gunfire, the weapon of words.
She challenged me to think of my own childhood experiences. I recall that as a youngster I suffered from what can only be classified as a series of very unfortunate haircuts. One was so awful I immediately tried to fix it myself at home. It was a bad call; my mother hauled me back to the same barber to repair my bad fix to his bad haircut.
The barber’s frown reminded me of our longtime, grizzled veterinarian. “I’m afraid there isn’t much I can do.” What were we doing, putting our dog down?
I didn’t foresee the storm that would hit me the next day and last for weeks. And though I haven’t heard the jingle in over 20 years, the lyrics and melody still ring clearly in my mind’s dusty jukebox. It was a staccato rap.
“Who cut that stub off the top of your head? Was it Larry or Fred?”
I was the only 12 year old in a class full of older boys, and after one of them penned the tune, the others laughed and sang it with gusto.
Where were we? Geometry? English? World History?
No. We were in church. I remember sitting and pretending to laugh along, but I couldn’t deny the sting. Of course it hurt, but at the time I didn’t believe it qualified as bullying. It was just a little good-natured ribbing.
We all remember the kids who mocked silly sounding names, laughed at the off-brand tennis shoes and committed pranks that served to entertain the masses at the humiliating price of the one.
But does this mocking really amount to bullying? To me, bullies were always the kids who stole your lunch money with a strong left fist or pressured you into doing their homework.
Recently I asked some young men and women what bullying meant to them and if they’d ever experienced it at church. To my surprise, all had either been victims or admitted to being present when it occurred.
When asked to define bullying, most put it in emotional terms. “Bullies target the weak to make themselves strong. They impose their will on yours. They try to hurt you with words, bring you down, make you feel worthless. They bully your emotions with their own."
They described the endless teasing of the quiet kids or those who give awkward, sometimes incorrect answers in Sunday school. They make fun of clothes, body odor and the chronically late-to-class.
Again, to my surprise, they saw no daylight or distinction between physical and emotional intimidation.
All this, I thought, in church? Isn't the Lord's house the one place we guarantee a safe refuge for all?
What my informal focus group did not describe were organized efforts to combat bullying and teasing in church. Is it ironic that schools have anti-bullying campaigns, no-teasing week and student-led conflict mediation teams, but in the more important laboratory of eternal education — church — we assume nothing needs fixing?
To be fair, bullying probably isn't a problem in every congregation. Nor should anyone believe it’s as bad in our churches as in our schools. Our places of worship are mostly filled with well-meaning leaders and parents who do their best to teach by the spirit and to remind children that it is the Lord who defines who we are, not our classmates.
But are we doing enough?
I am thankful for my new friend’s challenge to think of bullying in ways I never had. I’m reminded that we cannot expect today’s youth to leave all bad habits and social temptations at the chapel doors. They’re imperfect, just like parents, teachers and columnists.
I’ve also learned that the line between teasing and bullying is so thin, it’s imperfectly transparent. If you’re living in a world of teasing, bullying is the houseguest you cannot ignore.
I hope I never forget this sweet mother and her enormous love for her son. Her gentle nudge reminded me that our Creator loves us all, no matter what our hair looks like.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jasonfwright.com.