VBS is Not Immune to Racism

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Editor’s note: Since the time of this writing, Group Publishing has made changes to their curriculum, albeit inadequate.

Institutional racism and the pervasiveness of white supremacy are so ingrained in our institutions—including Christian ones—that, if we are not diligent, we foster and reinforce bias from the time our children start Sunday school.

Even when Christians attempt to highlight Biblical themes to expose injustice, we too often reinforce that injustice through individual and institutional biases, blind spots, and lack of intercultural competency.

A case in point is a 2019 Vacation Bible School (VBS) curriculum by Group Publishing. Roar! Life is Wild, God is Good, a five-day VBS curriculum for children, starts with an interactive retelling of the Exodus story and the plight of Hebrews who were held in slavery in Egypt. The theme, while capable of providing a powerful engagement, falls far short of the publisher’s stated intent to show how God is present with us and active in our lives in times of trouble.

Roar! not only misses the opportunity to draw child-appropriate parallels about enslaved people throughout history but also diminishes the harsh realities of slavery and the agency of the people held captive by their oppressors. The horror of slavery is equated with having a friend who has less homework. Children are commanded to “make mud bricks” and called lazy slaves by “Egyptian guards.” Children are taught that “breaking the rules” is unfair while never learning about the unjust rules that allow slavery to exist in the first place.

Sanitizing slavery has harmful repercussions, as it serves to rewrite history in ways that deny the historical and ongoing harm of enslavement, and codes the reality of supremacy and racism to sound like “fun and games.”

Roar! could have offered child-appropriate lessons about how slavery operates, the assertions that God is on the side of the oppressed people in the past and present, and the chance for children to begin to use their own agency to name the real injustices they see. Instead, the curriculum leans into long-held stereotypes about African people and culture, while glossing over one of the defining moments in Biblical history.

Besides sanitizing the realities of slavery, the Roar! curriculum refers to the continent of Africa as “country” and encourages children to mimic and create new names for themselves mimicking the Khoisan dialect, which includes a click consonant sound. (In fact, not all African nations and dialect include this sound; rather, they are limited to regions in southern African and date back thousands of years.)

The Roar! curriculum has already received widespread criticism for the lack of cultural intelligence, its ignorance of racial/cultural realities beyond its creators’ experiences, and its scholarship. Christian writer Shannon Dingle, for example, tweeted a photo of the Group Publishing team, which pictures about 80 people, most of whom appear to be white. Dingle further tweeted, “When you put out a curriculum but your team looks like this, it’s not shocking that racial and ethnic sensitivity might be lacking.”

In the face of such criticism, Group issued a statement defending the integrity of their curriculum. However, the statement fails to address at all the assertion that Roar! is, frankly, racist.


How to Choose Inclusive Church School Curriculum

In our effort to foster justice and integrity in the church, including its Christian education, GCORR reminds parents, teachers, pastors, and church-school superintendents to consider the following:

Avoid curricula that:

1. Engender stereotypes about certain people and cultures. Again, most African languages do NOT include the lexical click, and to insert it randomly as a game is the same as misusing or making up nonsensical words to mimic other languages.

2. Render people of color as invisible or irrelevant and illustrate all people as white. Most of the Roar! illustrations of Hebrews and Egyptians resemble modern-day white people. We know this to be historically inaccurate.

3. Cast people of color and darker-skinned people as objects of pity or charity. Poverty and post-colonial exploitation of African nations are realities. However, people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America also hold more natural resources and potential wealth than many consumer nations. Many of them are engaged in their own vibrant faith communities and other empowerment without the need for pity or charity from white “saviors.”

4. Fails to draw parallels to contemporary examples of God’s call for us to counter injustice. Again, U.S. children learn about the transatlantic slave trade in their history classes and are exposed to stories about social injustice at a young age. The church should be a place where children and youth are empowered to apply their faith to foster personal and social holiness.

5. Uses Scripture narrowly to assert that God intends good only for “chosen” people. The teaching of Jesus Christ assures us that God’s grace, mercy, and justice are for all humankind. Further, God’s goodness is not limited to individual favors, but also includes God’s invitation for the human family to work together in spirit and truth, to end suffering, do justice, love kindness, and walk together toward a new kingdom.

When selecting a curriculum choose ones that:

1. Challenge stereotypes and tokenism. Choose a resource that portrays people from diverse racial and cultural experiences as leaders, heroes, and problem-solvers. Look for illustrations that render Biblical figures in various skin tones and hair textures.

2. Carry themes of God transforming systems and lifting up the oppressed. Look for resources for children and youth that celebrate people inspired by God to challenge oppressive systems, especially people of color. Look for stories that link Biblical stories with contemporary concerns.

3. Come from diverse writers and illustrators. Historians, theologians, journalists, illustrators, teachers, and Bible scholars are human beings whose work is nuanced by their own biases, social location, racial/cultural identity, age, and sexual orientation. Make the best effort possible to select curriculum whose writers and researchers represent a wide variety of experience, identity, status, and thought. Even what is included (and what is left out) of a story or curriculum represents bias.

4. Respects the value of poor people, people of color, and other marginalized people. Scan resources for racially loaded words, such as “inner-city,” “immigrant,” “primitive,” “classical,” and “traditional.” If those words are included, be prepared to edit or change them. Also, make sure that your curricula acknowledge diverse family systems, homes, clothing, worship styles, and behavior.

5. Expand your group’s worldview. Use videos and illustrated materials that portray people—including Christians—in all colors, classes, and circumstances.

6. Create an advisory team for choosing curricula. Whether in your congregation, parish, or district, pull together a diverse group of people who can help each other see individual and systemic biases. If at all possible, offer compensation to group members, especially those who offer cultural knowledge and wisdom that your church doesn’t have on its own.

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GCORR is building the capacity of The United Methodist Church to be contextually relevant and to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people as we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.