"Our children are not partisan political fodder," implored Marian Wright Edelman, speaking to GS 26 on Monday afternoon.
"You must insist, you must demand, that this year we will provide health insurance for all our children. …You, as people of faith, must make a strong, unwavering commitment to this cause."
The founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman was preaching to the choir at the Hartford Civic Center and was interrupted 24 times with applause.
"We are living in a perilous period in history," she offered in her rapid-fire delivery that included off-the-cuff recitation of mind-boggling statistics and demands for action. "We are living in a time of unbearable dissonance between professed and practiced family values, between calls for community and rampant individual greed … when the three richest Americans make more in a year than 50 million people living in 50 states.
"We must reset America's moral compass," she said.
The 68-year-old daughter of an African-American Baptist minister in South Carolina — who now counts former presidents and current presidential candidates as friends — reached back to her "preacher kid" roots to compel thousands of Synod goers to join the cause of America's children of poverty.
"Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children. Let me tell you that America fails that test every day of the year," she said.
Edelman described the crisis of the "cradle-to-prison pipeline" that sucks in one-in-every-three black boys born in America.
"We've got to name the 'cradle-to-prison pipeline' and we've got to change that pipeline," she said. "Education has a lot to do with it. When only 13 percent of black children and 15 percent of Latino children are reading at grade level, that's condemning that child to economic death. If we can't make the political and social commitment to teach our children to read, where is the will of people of faith?"
But the message she came to deliver was the need to provide total, seamless, portable, uninterrupted health care for every child in the country, and she described the legislation being shaped in Congress this year as perhaps the last, best chance for universal coverage ever.
"You must insist! You must. Small babies die every day of preventable diseases, quite legally. Children die from guns, quite legally. The rich get richer at the expense of the poor, quite legally. . . Help us, as people of faith, never to confuse what is quite legal with that which is just and right.
"… The only thing we will guarantee to every child is a jail cell when they get into trouble. That's just plain wrong. These are not acts of God; they are choices and people of faith must stand up."
She implored attention and demanded action for those without the power to act for themselves.
"Speak up and stand up for all your children. Provide them with an anchor of faith, rudders of hope and sails of education and paddles of family to navigate the sea of life and land safely on the shores of adulthood."
Edelman's address concluded with a video about three young African-American boys who died when the health system failed them. Two of them died when simple dental care was denied.
Edelman had left the stage to a standing ovation when singer-songwriter Ken Medema began singing about "Marian," creating an on-the-spot ode to the tireless advocate for children. Edelman stopped at the foot of the ramp on her way out of the arena to listen. When the song ended, she ran back up to the stage and embraced him, her face wet with tears and her chest heaving with emotion. GS26 added to the significant moment with nearly five minutes of sustained applause.