Thornwell and the child.

“Seek out the child that needs you. Take his hand, give him comfort, make him safe. Do not turn away. He is the past where you, too, were vulnerable. He is the future where you cannot go.”

I spent the day at Thornwell recently. I’ve been trying to find the words – to know how to write about it – ever since.

Thornwell is located in Clinton, South Carolina, and was established as an orphanage shortly after the resolution of the Civil War – in the shadows of the war’s devastation of families and communities and society especially in the South.

Thornwell, the orphanage, was initially the vision of one man, a Presbyterian minister by the name of William Plumber Jacobs (also founder of Presbyterian College). I’ve been reading excerpts from his diaries – begun when he was just 15 years of age. The journal is thick with history and perspective, insight into the time and place and the man himself, as well as a collection of small bits of touching facts about the orphanage. I was intrigued to learn that the first recorded contribution to the building fund was given by a young child, a boy, an orphan.

The day I was there it was late winter, with empty trees and colorless grass. The children were absent as well – attending various Clinton public schools (although a charter school is envisioned for the campus in the near future). So it was exceedingly quiet and hushed with a sense of waiting.

A small all-black cat kept company with us as I was given a tour of the grounds and buildings – which added to its subtle subliminal Hogwarts appeal. There was, indeed, much that drew me to its ambience of history and peace and old architecture, its stone buildings with etched cornerstones and brass plaques, arched windows and aged wooden doors.

Inside most of these buildings, however, was a depth of contemporary warmth. With one notable exception: a preserved library and natural history museum. Up its steep flight of stairs was over a century of past. The books alone could have kept any child engaged indefinitely. There were dusty bones and manuscripts and ladders reaching to the topmost ledges of walls of books and knowledge and the thoughts of generations. The walls along the stairwell were lined with gifts and mementos from missionaries out in the far reaches of the world. They were odd-shaped hats and shoes mostly, along with jewelry and ornaments of indefinable stones and other materials.

The black cat was waiting for us when we came back down again.

In one of the residential cottages, among the many ordinary things of life and family, there were of course photographs. Ordinary in all respects – except for the extraordinary eyes of the children in most of the portraits. These were the eyes of children who had been hungry too often – the kind of hunger that resorts to garbage cans in back alleys. Children who had known fear too young – frightened that their mothers won’t wake up, or their sisters won’t come home, or their teachers will see the bruises. These are the eyes of children who hadn’t been allowed to be children for a very long time.

There is also a farm on the edge of the Thornwell campus. So the children will know and feel the goodness of the natural universe and the inherent trust and kindness of animals. There is a church on the grounds, too, with stained-glass windows and clean white paint, where God can be thanked for Thornwell itself and most of all for the children. And there are programs and people of Thornwell who reach out into and move about the community, as it keeps pace with the needs of the culture and the times. Even the name is now simply “Thornwell” with its overall purpose being the building of families.

Just as I was leaving the campus, having taken my proper leave of the cat, I stopped to read the inscription on one prominent historical marker. It was dedicated to the founder and his vision. At the base were engraved two words alone: The Child.

I spent the day at Thornwell recently. And found the words to describe it were there all along.