Youth Justice


Was your name on the Cradle Roll?  Many of us who grew up in the church will know right away just what that means. At the Cradle to Prison Pipeline Summit convened in September by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), we received a powerful reminder of the need to reinstate a community-wide version of the Cradle Roll for all of our children. Reverend Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City and a CDF Board Member, began his opening meditation at the summit, conducted at Howard University in Washington, D.C., by explaining what a Cradle Roll is. “When I was growing up, in my church they had a Cradle Roll, and any child born to anyone in that religious community immediately got their name placed on the Cradle Roll. And there were people in the congregation whose responsibility it was to follow these children until they reached what they called the ‘age of accountability’—the point at which they were able to affirm themselves for whom they had become,” he said.

Reverend Forbes recounted how the Cradle Roll worked in his church. Adults sent children cards when they were sick and added a star by each child’s name every time he or she moved on to a new grade. In other congregations the Cradle Roll might have been the roster for Sunday school attendance, or the list used to congratulate and support all new parents.  No matter what traditions individual churches have, the Cradle Roll has always been a way for their members to commit to encouraging and nurturing their children as a shared responsibility of adult members. As Dr. Forbes put it, the main point of the Cradle Roll was that “it was the community’s way of acknowledging that these children have been entrusted to our care. Their commitment was to follow you from the point of your beginning until God could say, ‘Now, that’s what I had in mind when I sent this child into the world.'”

The Cradle Roll tradition was especially strong in Black churches. But how many are still doing this for all of their children today? How many times have I heard church members say that this or that child could not participate in a church activity because their family were not members? This shouldn’t be just the church’s responsibility. How many of us as community members have found ways to commit to the community’s children, whether we know them or not, and to promise them that we’ll be concerned when they are sick, cheer when they succeed in school, and help them become what God had in mind when He sent them into the world?

When we see the disproportionately large numbers of Black children who are poor, uninsured, undereducated and incarcerated, one thing we know for sure: That’s definitely not what God had in mind. It’s time to do better. That’s why Reverend Forbes told all of us at the Cradle to Prison Pipeline Summit that we need to restore church and community Cradle Rolls.  After all, he pointed out, the fact that we have a pipeline crisis is proof that the prison-industrial complex has already found ways of robbing our cradle.  If we see that the system is robbing our cradle and claiming our children, we need to do something about it.  The summit identified approaches to address the pipeline crisis, beginning with communities, congregations and individuals taking responsibility for today’s children while they are still in the cradle.

Jim Forbes reminded us that God can’t stand hearing the cry of oppression, and whenever God’s people cried out in the Bible, God sent a deliverer.  That deliverer sometimes came as a baby, and in order for that child to become what God had in mind, the baby first needed to be protected by adults while he was still in the cradle.  Moses was sheltered in a cradle made of reeds.  Christians celebrate the birth of a Deliverer who was cradled in a manger.

Children today are being born all around us in circumstances that cry out for protection.  Will we make a cradle of safety for them? Will we put them on our Cradle Roll?
For more information about the Children’s Defense Fund’s America’s Cradle to Prison PipelineSM report, go to