By Shannon Baker, BCM/D National Correspondent
BIRMINGHAM, Al.—In December 2009, Hope Witsell, a 13-year-old Florida girl, committed suicide after explicit cell phone photos of her were revealed to her classmates (Michael Inbar, MSNBC Today).
Then in January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince took her own life to escape allegedly vicious bullying on Facebook, text messages, and at her South Hadley High School (Kevin Cullen, The Boston Globe).
This past May, Christian Taylor, a freshman at Grafton High School in Yorktown, Va., also hanged himself after repeated harassment by other students, presumably because he was different than the other kids (Carolyn Black, CBS News).
“The kids are scared of things that are different,” shared Cindy Yost, volunteer/material resource coordinator for Baptist Family & Children’s Services.
She has seen first-hand what bullying is doing locally. She works with Congolese refugee children, who after escaping the violence and devastation in their homeland, face violence at the hands of their classmates.
“I feel so bad for the Congolese children because they’ve already experienced so much trauma in their lives,” she said, sharing that she has visited the local elementary school to help the American children understand the difficult lives the Congolese children have already faced.
Many of the Congolese children were beaten up because others perceived that the Africans were talking about them when they spoke in their native language.
“How do you think they feel?” Yost asked the different groups assembled at Moravia Park Elementary School in East Baltimore. “You have a choice about how you are going to represent your country.”
Yost said that many students asked questions about the Congolese children, which seemed to lessen the fears and increase the compassion between the two groups.
According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center (NYVPRC) (www.safeyouth.gov) in Rockville, Md., 30 percent of teens in the United States (or over 5.7 million) are estimated to be involved in bullying as either a bully, a target of bullying, or both.
A recent survey of students in grades 6-10, 13 percent reported bullying others, 11 percent reported being targets of bullies, and another six percent said they bullied others and were bullied themselves.
What is bullying?
The NYVPRC says bullying includes a wide variety of behaviors, but “all involve a person or a group repeatedly trying to harm someone who is weaker or more vulnerable.”
It can involve direct attacks (such as hitting, threatening or intimidating, maliciously teasing and taunting, name-calling, making sexual remarks and stealing or damaging belongings) or subtler, indirect attacks (such as spreading rumors or encouraging others to reject or exclude someone).
“Bullying can lead teenagers to feel tense, anxious, and afraid,” the organization writes, noting that the threats can affect their concentration in school and can lead them to avoid school in some cases. If bullying continues for some time, it can begin to affect teens’ self-esteem and feelings of self-worth and can increase their social isolation, leading them to become withdrawn and depressed, anxious and insecure.
In extreme cases, bullying can be devastating for teens, with long-term consequences.
“Some teens feel compelled to take drastic measures, such as carrying weapons for protection or seeking violent revenge. Others, in desperation, even consider suicide,” says NYVPRC, adding that researchers have found that years later, long after the bullying has stopped, adults who were bullied as teens have higher levels of depression and poorer self-esteem than other adults.
This past June, Wanda Lee, executive director-treasurer of the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), and other leaders unveiled the 2010–2012 emphasis for the organization’s Project HELPSM, which will explore a condition of the human spirit that has been around for ages—“the misuse of our relationships with other people.”
“Search the Internet, and you will find many definitions of the term human exploitation,” Lee challenged, “Basically, it is the unethical, selfish use of human beings as a means to an end for the satisfaction of personal desires and/or profitable advantage.”
Reminiscent of the growing number of incidents reported in the news, Lee noted that “this kind of selfishness” often begins early in life through childhood bullying on the playground, harassing others over the phone and through email, and today, via text message.
She thinks that the church should care about the issues, and like Yost, get involved in making a difference.
“Why should the church care about these issues? If it’s not affecting our families, or we can’t see it in our communities, why should we get involved? After all, this is really messy, isn’t it?” she asked, adding “Ministry is always messy because it forces us to face the most difficult issues at the root of sin.”
And because the root is sin, Lee believes that Christians should respond biblically.
Sheryl Churchill, a consultant on WMU’s missions leader resource team, shared that through Project HELPSM, WMU will focus on education, awareness, preparation, prayer, and some degree of action—a laying of groundwork for churches and church members to respond.
In particular, resources will be developed to seek to raise the level of awareness and provide practical approaches anyone can implement to open the door for meeting needs and sharing the gospel, in the following basic areas: bullying, cyberbullying, queen bee bullying; human trafficking—labor and sex; media’s exploitation of families and children; exploitation of natural resources for personal gain; and pornography.
“This issue was chosen because it is one that children and students can understand. It may have happened to them or they have seen it happen. Most of the time it occurs with grade school children and up through middle school,” Churchill explained.
Lee noted that Scripture teaches that God has created each person in His image, and therefore, every person is a person of worth.
“When God sent His only Son, Jesus, He sent Him for all of us . . . calling His followers to treat everyone with love and respect,” Lee said.
How are we to intercede for our brothers and sisters?
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8–9, NIV), Lee said.
“When we acknowledge we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper, we will begin to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, and extend a message of hope found only through Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that as members of WMU, we will open our eyes and our hearts to the vast issues surrounding human exploitation and become that voice that begins to effect change in our world one life at a time.”
To learn more, visit online at www.wmu.com and purchase the 2010-2011 WMU Year Book and Missions Leader magazine to get a complete picture of Project HELP as well as the forthcoming resource, “Release and Restore: Addressing Human Exploitation through the Church.”