From the parable of the Good Samaritan:
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
“Go and do likewise.” It’s just four words, a brief command, but not always easy to follow. Sometimes the victims of injustice are indeed battered and bleeding, their wounds fully visible. Other times, the wounds may be obscured by political rhetoric or psychological distance. And in the case of American racism, many of us find it difficult to acknowledge our roles as both perpetrators and wounded.
Unlike predominantly black congregations, predominantly white churches have the privilege of being able to avoid race-related issues much of the time – but this avoidance constitutes both a failure to follow Christ’s way of justice and dignity for all and a failure to equip young people to live courageously in a society saturated with racism. Just as children of color have to develop coping and countering strategies for survival in a racist society, white children can and should be taught to recognize and counter racist language, actions and structures as best they can. And indeed, whether or not adults intentionally teach children about race and racism, education is happening (for better or, more commonly, for worse).
When adults stay quiet about issues of race it doesn’t mean that children won’t notice racism around them; but it does mean that children will internalize the message that they should quietly accept things as they are and not raise questions. Rather than remaining silent and thus reinforcing passive acceptance of racist institutions and practices, we are called to engage in the work of anti-racism in our parishes. To that end, I offer this list of basic questions and strategies as a starting point for the parish that seeks to honor its children by equipping them to resist racism as an integral component of their lived faith.
• Do not avoid topics of race, ethnicity, and/or skin color. Don’t tell kids that it’s not okay to notice or talk about these things. Answer questions as honestly and clearly as possible.
• Pay attention to the artwork that decorates the church (in the sanctuary, classrooms, hallways, etc.). Are images of Jesus, angels, saints and other figures diverse in their coloring or homogeneous?
• In Bibles specifically, do the illustrations tend to show “good” people with lighter skin than “bad” people? Is Jesus always depicted as the lightest-skinned person in a group?
• Make sure that all the materials you use with children reflect the diversity of human skin colors (for example: bandages, baby dolls, craft figures, crayons).
• Avoid using language of darkness and light to talk about sin/evil and innocence/moral purity.
• To the extent that it is possible, are people of color part of the leadership and teaching team? Do kids see diverse examples of adult leadership and mature faith?
• Who are the heroes we hold up in our collective consciousness, both past and present? Celebrate heroes of diverse identities.
• Point out and discuss instances of everyday racism, and ask children and youth to reflect on their Christian responsibility to promote justice and dignity for all people.
• Engage opportunities to emphasize the global nature of our church, the Episcopal Church, as one part of the worldwide and diverse Anglican Communion.
• Pay attention to how groups of children organize, associate and divide themselves, and question them about it when possible. Challenge any assumptions of relative worth and/or normativity.
• Pay attention to which children and teens typically dominate discussions, and which ones receive the most attention from adults, both positive and negative. Explore any patterns you may notice.
• When exclusion happens in groups of kids or youth, assess who is doing the excluding, who is being excluded, and what are the stated reasons. Challenge assumptions about value and identity in light of the Gospel.
• Pay attention to how children express and negotiate different aspects of their identity, and urge them to hold their identity as children of God at the forefront.
• Monitor the degree to which children compete with each other and emphasize winning or beating the other. Point out dynamics of superiority and entitlement in these kinds of competitions, and work to dismantle them. Emphasize the equalizing reality of the reign of God.
The Rev. Margaret Leidheiser-Stoddard was ordained to the diaconate in June 2016 and serves her residency at St. John’s, Worthington.