ABHMS supports churches committed to providing anti-racist education

Photo by CDC on Unsplash.

Valley Forge, PA (12/13/2023) — Research shows that not nearly enough parents talk about race and racism with their children, and when they do, they often employ a language of “race evasiveness” (also known as “color-blindness”) which obscures the existence of systemic racism. Many others say that they want to educate their children about racism, but they don’t know how.

The education system may not be willing to help them with this task. Since 2021, at least 28 states have passed laws restricting how K-12 teachers can teach the history of racism in the United States. Proposals for similar laws have been made in many more states. Much of the time, the rationale for these restrictions is portrayed as stemming from the need to deter “divisive concepts” ordiscomfort, anguish or guilt.” One-third of state legislative proposals that have been introduced stipulate that infractions will result in funding being withheld.

There is a gap between the need for impactful education about racism and the availability of such education and discussion spaces for children, youth and young adults in the US. Churches that are committed to anti-racism have work to do, and American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) has recognized this by providing grants to churches and faith organizations in 2022 to fund their anti-racism educational initiatives.

One of these grants was awarded to the Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois where Associate Minister Jillian Westerfield partnered with Tell Me the Truth About Racism, a project of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, to create a curriculum about the history of racism in America specific to the church’s context. Beginning on the first Sunday of Lent 2023, K-5 students at the Lake Street Church’s Sunday School learnt and discussed God’s love for all people – and where things went wrong.

Using sand, chains and little figurines, all central to the curriculum, Westerfield facilitated the children’s learning about racism – here introduced as the “Big Lie:” “In the beginning, before there was anything, there was love. God had so much love that God made a big world, with lots of people, and God loved each one of them, and called them by their names. But the people didn’t all love each other the way God loved them; the way God dreamed they would. Instead, many were afraid of their differences, and believed a lie that some were better than others.”

(Image courtesy of “Tell me the Truth about Racism” at www.tellmethetruthaboutracism.org/.)

The age-appropriate narrative that weaves throughout all seven sessions starts with the first encounter of Columbus with the Taíino people, the Christian/pagan binary that was used in justifying the genocide of the Taíino by the Europeans, and the decree by pope Alexander VI that authorized European colonization and enslavement of the peoples of Africa and the Americas. It addressed the central role of European and European-descended Christians in perpetuating slavery; the early abolitionist movements; the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Civil Rights movement, illustrated by the story of Ruby Bridges. The last part of the last lesson encourages the students to think critically about the Lie: “Now that you know what the Lie looks like, maybe when you notice it, you’ll remember not to believe what it’s trying to tell you about other people and about yourself too.”

Westerfield found the props particularly useful in the work she was doing. They helped illustrate the more abstract concepts. “The one of the recurring images of the stories is that the Lie is hidden, so we had a sandbox that we use to tell the stories, and we had little physical representations of people and sometimes buildings and trees that we would use to aid in the storytelling,” she said. “Racism, the Big Lie (it was unfortunate that Trump hijacked that phrase) was represented by a chain, and sometimes we would be able to see it. It would be on top of the sand, and you could see exactly how it was hurting the people, but sometimes the chain was buried under the sand, but it was still there, and it could still affect the people.”

As residents of Illinois, the children were less aware of anti-Black racism and discrimination in their state and the North more widely. The visual metaphor of sometimes-visible and sometimes-hidden chain was useful in countering the narrative – of which the children were aware – that portrays slavery and racism as exclusively problems of the South. It also came in handy in explaining systemic racism in policing.

“I think it’s important to respect the intellect and the curiosity and the abilities of young children,” says Westerfield. “And not tell them that they’re not ready for a conversation when they’re curious about something.”

The creators of Tell Me the Truth about Racism, Jennifer Holt Enriquez, director of Children’s Ministries at First Congregational Church in Western Springs, Illinois, and the Rev. Will Bouvel, Associate Rector at St. Chrysostom Episcopal Church, Chicago, found that faith provided a uniquely effective perspective through which to challenge racism.

“We have discovered that there is just incredible strength for us to come around this conversation through our faith, because our faith allows us to access the details of a value system that we’re all trying theoretically to employ,” they said.

“And so, the reason we came up with for why our faith is telling us that racism is bad is because racism tells us a lie about our identities. It says that some people are better than others, and we know clearly that from who we know Jesus to be, that any system that says that any one person is better than anyone else for any single reason, intrinsically better than anyone else, for any reason, is not the way we understand ourselves and God.”

They created the program in Fall 2020, when they found that children at their churches needed a better understanding of the protests across the country that followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “We both thought it was important to talk to the kids about this thing that was happening outside their window and to help them contextualize and know what was happening. And help them understand that the church is a place where we can understand our world in 2020 that we can go to our church for things that are relevant.”

First Baptist Church in Cooperstown, New York, created an anti-racism educational program to assist the local youth who felt disappointed by the inaction of their school district following the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York. What transpired later, the youth also said that the way history was taught did not help them understand current issues. Cindy Falk, a lay ministry leader at FBC Cooperstown who talked with the youth said: “I remember them saying, because I teach history, that when they talked about civil rights [at school], they would work their way up to Martin Luther, King, Jr. and then it was as if everything that happened after was all right.  So no Malcolm X, no Black Panthers, no more radical movements, and not a lot of focus on what causes the disparity in the United States today. And so Mike [Rev. Mike Coles, senior minister at FBC Cooperstown] and I talked about what we could do.”

“I believe that God put Cindy and myself in this role as church leaders to no longer sit on the side lines,” added Coles. “I can no longer sit still especially when you see in Florida how Black history, voices and stories are being taken off the shelves at libraries and schools to hide the truth of what racism really looks like.”

With the Pierce grant award from ABHMS, they were able to create a program that brough together expert speakers, the local youth and, later, people of all ages who were able to ask questions about race, racism, anti-racism in the context of both current events and American history. Based at a local library, the program has been running for a full year now, with monthly sessions that involve talks and discussions.

Although the sessions were not devised to be religious in character, the faith aspect of people’s experiences came through very strongly. “The post-presentation discussions took a decidedly religious turn,” said Falk. “A number of people spoke about their experience with racism, but also the role that their faith has played and that church communities have played in helping them overcome that.” Falk concluded, “It’s been an evolving sort of thing. I think it’s been really beneficial for our community.” And after a year of learning and talking, there’s a general feeling that the next step is taking action. Program participants are currently debating what shape this action will take.

Being intentional about not stopping at just generally talking about racism is important for another Palmer grant recipient institution. Queen Anne Baptist Church in Seattle, Wa., states on its website that “it’s not enough to say that we’re anti-racist. We must work to dismantle the sin of racism in our society, culture, and especially our church.” They engaged in that work by putting together a program for racial healing that brought together young adults form different Christian denominations present in their neighborhood. The Palmer grant award from ABHMS made it possible to deliver the program that included bringing people of different backgrounds together, hearing their stories of faith and identity, creating partnerships between the participants, and consulting diversity, equity and inclusion speakers.

Rev. Dr. Victoria Carr-Ware, the senior minister at Queen Anne, felt there was a need to equip young people with the skills to lead in the conversations about race and racial reconciliation, and that it was a unique way for churches to demonstrate their relevance in the modern world. “Our country is most racially divided on Sunday at 11 a.m.,” she said. “How do we come together and provide a place where young adults can have these conversations. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be connected to a specific church. I was like, let’s send them out, you know, into their neighborhoods, into their communities, and to their churches to do this work.”

The work to be done is serious, given how deeply racism is embedded in the structure of American society. Carr-Ware and Caitlin Thomas, the pastoral assistant at Queen Anne, wanted the program to be centered on storytelling – so that young leaders from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds had a space to tell and process their stories. “How do we tell an individual story, a collective story and kind of approach issues of race in that way? We did want it to be kind of like a holistic approach to it,” said Thomas. Wanting to be as accessible as possible, they organized monthly meetings around Seattle, and concluded the program with a retreat where they returned to the general themes of storytelling, and how it intersects with racial identities, the white supremacy culture, and nonviolent communication. The guest facilitators at the retreat were anti-racism experts and activists from the Seattle area, and they encouraged reflection on the role of one’s Christian faith in anti-racism work.

Carr-Ware and Thomas acknowledged some risks involved in the program. They were mindful of the need to have these conversations, in Thomas’s words, “in a way that’s not just adding to the trauma of navigating these systems and putting the burden on people of color to educate.” They were also determined to avoid delivering a program with no impact.

“We can’t just casually be like, ‘let’s all be together.’ We’ve got some work to do,” said Carr-Ware. “There’s so much divisiveness and hurt, and I think there’s some reconciling work to do, which requires some truth telling and some hard conversations. We need to teach people how to how to be together and have these tough conversations and tell their truths and do it in a way that’s with an eye for reconciliation.”

The Palmer grant, they emphasized, enabled them to practice equity in the material sense. Being able to fairly pay the facilitators – the majority of them women of color – for their work was important as part of their anti-racist ethic.

And as these and many other churches work on developing context-appropriate anti-racist theologies for their constituencies, we are a step closer to loving each other in the way God hoped we would.