There seems to be a pattern. Whenever a video of a Black person being killed emerges, shock and outrage fill our social media feeds. White people begin to ask (again), “what can we do?” Booklists begin to circulate (again) on social media. Book clubs begin (again). Fortunately, there is a wealth of excellent resources for learning about the history of systemic racism in the United States. There are also amazing lists of books to read with children and tips to help White parents to have important conversations about race. I am grateful for the hard work and effort of those who write and curate these resources and the churches who engage with these hard conversations. But…
Unfortunately, in both society and in Children and Family Ministry our efforts often don’t move beyond the book club. White colleagues, let’s not wait until the next horrifying news event to take action. Let us learn, grow, and continually shape our ministries to become anti-racist each and every day. Anti-racism is a more than being “not racist.”
“Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. – Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist.
Below are potential places to move your ministry forward in becoming more anti-racist. I have written it with the person new to ministry in mind. When I started as a children’s minister I had a good amount of knowledge about systemic racism from my undergraduate and graduate study of social policy and education. However, I was very ignorant of the ways that the Church has misused scripture to support centuries of racist laws and policies.
The recently updated scaffolded* list of anti-racist resources curated by Stamborski, Zimmermann, and Gregory provided me with a template with which to organize my thinking about how to move beyond awareness toward action. While there are many resources for parents, senior pastors, and teachers, I feel there is a gap in material written specifically for leaders of children’s ministry. This is an attempt to begin filling that gap.
Now the disclaimers: First, I openly admit that I am still learning and have a long way to go. If you have a correction or suggestion, I welcome it. Like all of us, I am going to make mistakes. When I do, I will correct the error, learn to do better, and apologize. Secondly, in my ministry I have served multiple churches that have at least two things in common: they are almost completely white and located in affluent zip codes. My experience and my writing reflect that perspective. Writing this piece has made me aware of how much more I can and should be doing to create an anti-racist ministry. Finally, I have chosen to do my own work, engaging with the resources and information available to me without asking Black friends or colleagues to offer suggestions or resources. There are multiple viewpoints on that approach; my decision was based, in part, on Austin Channing Brown’s discussion of proximity (38:10) in this podcast.
See this Summary of Stages of Racial Identity Development for more information on the stages below.
Beyond Colorblindness: Contact
In this stage, a ministry leader might teach that all people are created equal while avoiding direct discussion about race. Acknowledging that very young children show a preference for race based on their life experience and that BIPOC are extremely underrepresented in children’s books, you might start by creating a more diverse collection of books and Bibles. Pay particular attention to how Jesus is portrayed and remove images of white Jesus which are both historically inaccurate and potentially harmful to faith development. Seek out and display books written and illustrated by diverse artists that depict people of color (Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s books are an excellent place to start) .
As you pay attention to the diversity of people represented in books and curriculum you may begin to notice problems. One glaring example was the 2019 release of Roar VBS which gained national attention for activities in which children were asked to pretend to be slaves and speak in “African click language.” As you review curriculum and supplies, notice the diversity of the leadership. My friend Nicole Farley reminds me that we should demand more of our publishers.
Beginning the Work: Disintegration
In this stage, leaders will be aware of racism but may not know how to engage in anti-racist work with children. Start by looking for your denomination’s anti-racism materials and how to have conversations with children about race. Beginning can be as simple as saying before you begin to read from a children’s Bible, “one of the things I like most about this Bible is that the people are not all white. Look, Jesus has brown skin like he would have had in real life.” In this two-sentence introduction children become aware of diversity and receive the message that it is ok to talk about race. It is a start.
Invite parents into this work as well. By all means, do host a book club or discussion group for parents. Just don’t stop here! Teach your Sunday school teachers how to pay attention to race in curriculum and Bibles. Cokesbury has three lessons about empathy, race, and culture for free here. When you notice racism remove the materials and speak up by writing to the publisher.
Moving Past Defensiveness: Reintegration
This is the stage where many of us get stuck. Chances are, if you are reading this, you are trying not to be racist. However, as we become increasingly aware of systemic or institutional racism, the realization that our social systems disproportionately benefit white people, normalize whiteness, and harm Black people can cause feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and shame. Brene Brown, who has spent her career researching shame is an excellent resource. Start with this podcast with Ibram X. Kendi.
On a personal note, coming to terms with the ways that I was entangled with systems of racism, oppression, and greed was a turning point in my faith journey. At baptism in the United Methodist tradition, we promise “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in all its forms.” As I began to explore my call to ministry as a deacon rooted in my baptism, I realized that on my own I could never fully disentangle myself from unjust systems. For example, the produce I purchase at the chain grocery is likely picked by migrant workers who do not make a living wage. Each grocery purchase creates profits for wealthy stockholders. Short of growing 100% of my food, there is no way to fully disentangle myself from this system. Humans alone can not create God’s kin-dom. Our faith and hope are in Christ our Lord and savior, through whom we are called to co-create earth as it is in heaven.
Uncovering Racism in Biblical Imagery: Pseudo Independence
It is one thing to stock a library with diverse images of Jesus. It is yet another to worship and proclaim Lord, Jesus who does not look like the Warner Sallman image etched into our memories.
“After we discard the white, elite, Western Jesus, a human construct used for social-political domination, we open ourselves up to the divine revelation of the poor, oppressed, Jewish, and ultimately crucified Messiah. And in a life of discipleship, we will find the way that can dismantle and dis-align with the racial hierarchy and order upon which our lives are built.” David G. I. Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, chapter 3.
Read and follow Black and womanist theologians who understand Jesus who operated from the margins of society. (The scaffolded list includes Christian authors near the end) When you teach children about Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, be clear about the kind of king people knew and expected, and the kind of king Jesus showed himself to be. Parables are an essential part of Christian education for children because they reveal God’s upside-down king-om power structure.
Also, be attentive to scriptural images of light and dark. Incorporate images of divine darkness into your lessons and chapels. I recommend this recording of “Wrapped in Righteousness” by Father Jemonde Taylor which I attended earlier this year.
Education and Liberation: Immersion
Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the Church was complicit in rationalizing chattel slavery in the United States. In my Methodist tradition, John Wesley was an opponent of slavery, believing that Black Africans were human, made in the image of God, yet the Methodist Episcopal Church split over slavery in 1844. At the same time Sunday school arose, a theological shift denying the imago dei of enslaved people of God occurred at multiple levels. Comparing Wesley’s Instructions for Children and the slave catechesis demonstrates evidence of this shift. The slave catechesis focuses on servanthood, law, and obedience. The very first question in Instructions for Children, “Does God love you? Yes, He loves every living thing which he has made,” is nowhere to be found in the slave catechesis. If you are interested in learning more, please read this paper I wrote on the topic in seminary. This seemingly distant history is relevant because it points out how important teaching content and practice are. Unfortunately, this is just one of the numerous examples of the many times large portions of the Church have been complicit in racism.
Education for liberation is that which helps people think critically about social forces that shape their lives so that they might be able to react to and transform these systems (see Teach Freedom: Education for Liberation in the African-American Tradition edited by Charles Payne and Carol Sills Strickland). In church settings, this type of education includes helping people understand what it means to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,” Micah 6:8. It means delving deeply into Jesus’ ministry with the poor, oppressed, and outcast. It means examining the structure of society in which God, in Jesus, chose to take on flesh – key to our calling to do the same. One of the most helpful tools I have used for examining the society in which Jesus lived with children is the social hierarchy chart on page ten of The World Jesus Knew by Marc Olson.
An education that enables critical thinking about those social forces is important for white children, too, if we want to nurture Christians committed to anti-racism. You can delve into that topic more deeply in chapter five of A Pedagogy for Liberation with Ira Shor and Paulo Friere. I’ve written about the importance of cultivating curiosity, choice, and community into pedagogy and practice at Spiritual Parent.
Pursue Justice: Autonomy
I’ll end this piece the way I began, with a recognition that anti-racism work is more than a book club and longer than a news cycle. It might look like a protest or social media posts. Or, it might look like identifying the levers of power that you hold (mentioned in this sermon and Q & A with Dr. Nicholas Pearce) and committing daily to use them for God’s purposes.
Continue to become an advocate for children, those in your church community, especially those who experience racism, poverty, oppression, and abuse. The Children’s Defense Fund’s Proctor Institute is online this year. I highly recommend it to those who desire to advocate for children. As you can, invite, equip, and encourage adults, parents, and youth in your church community to join you in this work.
Lord, Jesus, convict us of the necessity of anti-racist children’s ministry, grant us wisdom, humility and courage to do it well, and strengthen us for the duration. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
*Educational (or Instructional) Scaffolding is a teaching method that enables a student to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal through a gradual shedding of outside assistance. –Instructional Scaffolding a Definitive Guide.