Reconciliation and Race Relations
By Kevin Johnson
Providing pastoral leadership with children often requires finding ways to answer tough questions. It seems that 2020 has had many days where difficult questions have been asked. Parents and caregivers are asking how to talk to children about the racial divide in this country and the protests against the systemic evil of racism. We have a responsibility to children to listen and truly hear their questions and offer a Christian response that demonstrates repentance and provides hope.
Conversations revolving around the state of our union and race and racism need to happen, no matter the age of the child. Discipleship and faith formation must include serving others and justice that creates an understanding of the diversity God’s love.
Repetition is the key to learning. As children of God, we must have conversations about race so that there is a comfortable dialogue around these difficult topics. We should not wait to have these conversations until there are major incidents of oppression reported in the news.
It is never too early to start having these conversations. Children watch adults, and they are tuned in to the world news around them. Preschool children notice that people have different skin colors; they can have honest conversations about how uniquely wonderful all God’s children are. Elementary children are old enough to have meaningful conversations about what they are seeing on the news or in their community. Speak to them with fairness, allowing space for them to process what they are thinking. Children of this age understand the meaning of fair and unfair, so they can understand conversations about racial inequality. Leave space for them to feel all the feelings and emotions that come with these conversations. They may become angry, scared, or sad. Reassure them that they are safe and that the adult role models in their lives are trying to make a positive impact in their community and world around them by working to eliminate racial injustices now and in the future.
While we begin to process how to have the difficult conversations about race with the children in our lives, let us never forget that they are watching our every move and hearing every word that comes from our mouths. Many children want to be just like their parents. “The best advice I can give parents is to be models for the attitudes, behavior, and values that they wish to see in their children,” said Nia Heard-Garris, M.D., an attending physician at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
Children’s ministers should be advocates for ALL God’s children. We must practice active listening to all races, hold one another accountable in the name of Jesus, demonstrate love of neighbor, and be the hands and feet of a Christ who created each of us in God’s own image. Our conversations with children must be a holistic approach to how we live daily life moving forward. We must listen to children and help them struggle with the emotions that go with the unfairness that oppression brings. We need to saturate children’s lives with racial understanding. This doesn’t mean that a conversation on racial inequality is a chapter in child’s book of life; it should be ingrained on each page of that book.
Adults must model Christ-like behaviors daily to children. What do you want to see children become? After all, children see everything.
Below are resources that offer help for dealing with difficult questions and prompting holy conversations your faith community or household.
This wonderful family devotional book provides a depth to the entire canon of scripture, and difficult passages are not avoided. These difficult passages include conversations around race. This daily devotional creates an excellent on ramp for family discussion to allow focus of our hearts and minds around this difficult subject matter.
CommUNITY Allies has created a VBS curriculum on racial unity that can be shared with other United Methodist churches. This organization has been providing this resource in Washington state for more than four years; this year, CommUNITY Allies is offering it in an online platform to meet the needs of other worldly issues we are currently facing.
Erin N. Winkler is associate professor of Africology and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has also served on the advisory boards of Childhood and Adolescent Studies. She provides an excellent overview of “what to talk about” when discussing the difficult topics of race and racism with children, and she provides seven points giving “how-to” advice. She also has a resource list following the article.
This article provides a good overview of the different stages of child development and how to communicate effectively with children at each stage. Published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the article provides a good understanding of how to best articulate and navigate the conversation to best be heard by your child.
This chart is an easy-to-download graphic depiction of the different stages of child development. It is published by the Children’s Community School in Philadelphia under the website tab of social justice. Remember, an essential need in faith formation is an understanding of justice issues.
This article gives support in creating a healthy and holy environment to have those difficult conversations.
This is an article and video conversation with Van Jones of CNN. The article provides information about how to approach the conversation with children at different levels of development as well as links to the CNN/Sesame Street Workshop Town Hall meeting.
This YouTube video features this book being read. A creative alternative to reading the book is watching a video of the book being read. Written by Jelani Memory, Co-Founder and CEO at A Kids Book About and Co-Founder at Circle and Narrative, and to quote the book, “yes, it is a book for kids.”
This CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall for children and families aired on CNN. The show talks to children about racism, the recent protests, embracing diversity, and being more empathetic and understanding. It can be seen in the on-demand platform. It will also stream across CNN.com's homepage and mobile devices via CNN's apps, without requiring a cable log-in.
Edited by Dana Williams from Teaching Tolerance, this downloadable resource provides guidance and reflection for identifying your own personal biases and how those biases affect your parenting. This book is designed to help teach children to honor and appreciate the differences in themselves and in others by rejecting prejudice and intolerance. This book contains writings from educators, psychologists, and parenting experts and offers practical age-appropriate advice about the integration of respect of others into the daily lifestyle of the reader.
Admittedly, I am a huge Fred Rogers fan. With that said, this book from 2015 contains an entire chapter on race and diversity. In the Neighborhood television program’s infancy, one of the first momentous scenes involves Mr. Rogers and Officer François Clemmons sharing a “feet soaking” during the hot summer months in Fred’s backyard wading pool. This video clip can be found in this YouTube short documentary on Francois from Great Big Story. The summary states, “Remember Officer Clemmons, the policeman from “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood?” Actor Francois Clemmons was initially reluctant to take the role. Growing up in the late ‘60’s, Clemmons didn’t have a positive opinion of the cops at the time. But Fred Rogers convinced him, and Clemmons became one of the first black actors to have a recurring role in a children’s TV program. Over fifty years ago, this country was dealing with racial tensions and rioting, and Fred Rogers showed us a neighborhood that marked a racial diversity that is the depiction of the “thy kingdom come” and a peaceable loving God.
"Written by a former N.F.L. wide receiver and now an Oscar-winning short film, Hair Love tells the story of a black father learning to do his daughter’s hair for the first time and the special bond they share." - Meena Harris, author of Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea
“It’s one of the more shocking and little-known stories of the civil rights movement: In 1963, the City of Birmingham jailed hundreds of kids for joining the Children’s March. Among them was 9-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks, taken from her family to spend a week behind bars, eating ‘oily grits’ and sleeping on a bare mattress. Levinson and Newton keep her story bright and snappy, emphasizing the girl’s eagerness to make a difference and her proud place in her community.” - Maria Russo, former children’s book editor at The New York Times
“This is a brilliant look at the effects of police brutality from the perspective of two teen boys: one white and one black. We get inside both of their minds and watch them grapple with the weight of something that is way too familiar in our country.” - Matt de la Peña
Ruby Bridges (Available on Disney+)
This film presents the real-life tale of young Ruby Bridges, one of the first African American children to attend an integrated school in the Deep South. At only age six, Ruby is selected to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, causing an uproar in the racially divided region. Among the people who try to help Ruby adjust to the tense situation are teacher Barbara Henry and Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist.
For further reading, Dr. Coles’ books on children and their morality and spiritual lives are excellent resources.
Put together by NPR and the Sesame Street Workshop, this twenty-minute podcast is a great primer for how to talk to young children about race.
Deep Blue Life and Cokesbury have provided a way to teach your children about empathy, culture, race, and prejudice: Deep Blue Life: Faith and Culture—Anti-Racism is a free resource that includes three sessions about "Prejudice and Stereotypes," "Curiosity and Empathy," and "Colors and Cultures."
Published by Sparkhouse is a small-group study for adults to dialogue deeper around the topic of race and the church.
Rev. Kevin Johnson is the Director, Children’s Ministries for Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship at Discipleship Ministries. Kevin’s hero Fred Rogers suggests that we, “listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.” This quote defines Rev. Kev’s approach to ministry. Kevin, an ordained elder of the Kentucky Annual Conference, has over fifteen years of ministry experience in which he has thought of the children first. Prior to ministry, Kevin worked with children in the hospital setting and in group homes for emotionally and physically abused children.