Give the Gift of Anti-Racism to Kids
By Will Bouvel with Jen Enriquez
(ring… ring…) I was wondering if anyone would pick up…
Not many folks answer their phone these days, but every now and then, one of the families I serve would respond.
“Hi, this is Mr. Will from church, is this an ok time to talk? Oh thank you! With all the racial tensions in the world today, I’m wondering if you’ve been talking to your kids about race?”
It was a different conversation from any I’ve had before with parents, in my role as Director of Children’s Ministries, so I was pretty nervous. Rarely had my work with kids been so real and immediate. But over and over again with each family, it brought out wonderfully genuine conversation. Many parents I connected with, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, wanted to talk to their kids about race, and wanted to draw from their faith, but were at sea with how to connect all these dots.
From the needs they expressed, my colleague, Jen Enriquez and I – both in the Diocese of Chicago and both White – started to put together a program to bring children as young as 4 years old into the painful and complex history of racism in America. With the help of people of color, we created new stories that not only talked about racism historically, but also framed it through Christian faith.
If we are all children of God, and all created in God’s image, then the behavior of Christian people in the past 500 years of history can be exposed as problematic at best. Instead of dancing around this issue, we hit it head on by clearly framing that many of these people were not able to believe in God’s dream that people might love each other as God loved them. Instead, most people believed a lie that some were better than others, and even more loved by God than others. This is the lie that caused racism. It was our hope that we could help kids recognize that as a lie because of faith, and hear the story of how it developed and changed in our country, so that they could notice the lie still at work around them – the lie about who their neighbor is and the lie about who they are – and interrupt it.
With that unifying thread of the lie racism tells us, in contrast to our identity in God, and with a Montessori-inspired storytelling style that valued visual enactment, a calm embodied tone, room for silence, and time to wonder, we shared these stories with 30 kids over Zoom during the Lent of 2021. Almost every single one of the kids came back, week after week, to hear the next part of the story and to wonder about it together. Sometimes it broke their hearts to hear that people could be so cruel to each other, and we invited God to be in that painful space with us. Sometimes, as storytellers, it broke our hearts to tell them. Yet we believe, and early-childhood research supports, that children absorb messages about race long before they “understand” them. Our culture sends these messages to children from birth; we seek to provide a counter-message that reflects the love of God – a message the world cannot give.
The reason we do it, the reason we risk breaking their hearts and our own, is because we have the chance to prevent them from internalizing the lie in themselves. Paraphrasing a quote attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, internalized racism is a river that adults have fallen into long ago, through no fault of their own, and from which they struggle to escape. It is not so for children, and if we look far enough upstream, we can prevent them from falling into the river in the first place. The parents we worked with were so grateful that their church could show up for them and their kids at a time of great need. We discovered that many families are looking for this relevant, real world formation for their kids, and we believe the church is especially equipped and responsible to lead.
A Becoming Beloved Community Grant in July of 2021 enabled us to share our story of “The Lie that Caused Racism” online and walk alongside any community who’d like to connect its families and children to the work of dismantling racism. It’s not the kind of curriculum that pops out of the box, and not every community is ready for it, so we provide a cohort community to share in the struggles and joys together. Since beginning our training this summer, we have already walked alongside 21 communities in 10 states and Canada, from 6 Christian denominations, and several churches are already implementing their plans.
Telling the truth about racism does not heap guilt and shame on white children for the sins of their race. This work exposes what white children and black children inherit from the world around them and points a new way forward, through the radically abundant love of God brought to us by Jesus. That is not a burden, but a unique gift that the church has to offer children.
Learn more and sign up for cohort training in 2022 at www.tellmethetruthaboutracism.org
Will Bouvel and Jen Enriquez work in Children’s Ministries in the Diocese of Chicago, at St. Chrysostom’s Chicago and St. Christopher’s Oak Park respectively. Will comes from a Music background and is soon to be ordained to the transitional deaconate. Jen comes from a Law background and has built Peace Camp which offers interfaith summer camps throughout the Chicago area. They are grateful to lean on each other in this difficult work.