Jesus in Color: Toward an Anti-Racist Children’s Ministry

As I Was Saying

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In her memoir I’m Still Here, racial justice activist and best-selling author Austin Channing Brown explains that in her childhood, her only experience with church was the chapel services in her predominantly white Christian school: “These usually consisted of (white) Christian contemporary songs, a passage read from our (white) illustrated Bibles, a (white) speaker sharing some sort of testimony, and finally accepting (white) Jesus as Savior. It was assumed by faculty, staff, and ultimately by most of the students that everything taking place in these chapel services applied to all bodies equally” (p 35). But she didn’t see herself represented here. She then describes how as an adolescent, she began to attend an African American church with her father, and she fell in love with “a Jesus who saw the poor and sick and hurting, ... a Jesus who loved and reveled in our Blackness” (36).

Historians aren't definitive about what the historical Jesus looked like. However, as a middle-Eastern Jewish carpenter living on the road, he certainly wasn't the light-skinned, rosy-cheeked man with kempt, flowing, brown locks traipsing through the pages of my childhood Bible.

As a children’s ministry director, I’ve tried to incorporate diverse representations in our visual resources: children’s Bibles, coloring pages, videos, books. For a while, I thought I was doing enough. I thought, “We have racial diversity in our congregation. The children are building relationships with people who are different from themselves. We have stick figures dressed in clothes from around the world painted in our Sunday school hallways. We are talking about love and acceptance and how we are all, in all our unique ways, made in God's image.”

But then I observed some things that troubled me. I noticed how all the children, regardless of their own ethnicity, chose peach crayons to color their Bible characters. I overheard microaggressions—comments from a white child about how this person’s hair is getting too long, or pointing out that someone stands out as the only person of their race among the children’s ministry. I confronted the microaggressions quickly and individually, but I didn’t know how to go beyond that, how to intentionally create an environment that confronts the subtle prejudices we absorb from our culture. I didn’t know how to address the preconceptions that the Bible is a story of and for white people. After all, I thought, I don’t want to introduce to children the idea of racism if they are still innocent to it.

But over this past year, I’ve learned I was wrong—and privileged—in my assumptions. Studies show that in preschool many children are already beginning to internalize racial bias. We so often assume children are more ignorant than they are. But they notice differences: they see who gets in trouble, who gets left out or included, who gets asked to do special tasks, who gets singled out for their appearance. It’s easy to say, “In our congregation, we welcome everyone.” But that’s not the point. The point is that we live in a society marred by sin, entrenched in the evil of racism, and our children are not immune to the subtle ways in which it influences us. Even if our congregations are welcoming to all people, we need to be intentional about emphasizing the anti-racist direction of the gospel as well as including diverse cultural and racial expressions of our faith.

Representation is important, and it's important for children to see that Jesus identifies with all people, particularly people who have been oppressed, marginalized by society, or ghettoized. It's important for children of color to see that Jesus identifies with them, and it's important for white children to see that Jesus identifies with people who look different than they do. One of the ways we show that in children's ministry is through visual imagery.

But this is only the first step. We need to be creating children’s ministries that are anti-racist, and we can do that in many small, and sometimes big, ways. Bring a diversity of voices into your children’s ministry. Read books written by people of color. Play songs from different people groups and cultures. Share stories from children and people who have different experiences and backgrounds than your own. Reflect on whether your church and children’s ministry leadership reflect diversity, and if they do not, strategize how to change that. Invite guests into the Sunday school classroom. Avoid the temptation to keep children’s ministry light and happy all the time; intentionally address the pain and destruction caused by hate and injustice and in our world. Speak with older children about discrimination and hate crimes in the news. Address stereotypes and reflect on the beautiful ways in which God made us different.

There is a severe lack of racial diversity in portrayals of Jesus, particularly in children's ministry supplies. Because so much of children's ministry relies on visual engagement and imagery, it is essential to our mission of seeking justice that we don't rely on images of white Jesus. And as we lead our children in seeking justice, we must intentionally seek out material and content that shows that we are all God’s image-bearers and that we are all welcomed into God’s family—especially content created by people of color as well.

Children’s Bibles or Ministry Resources:

Children of God Storybook Bible by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (amazon.ca/Children-Storybook-Bible-Archbishop-Desmond/dp/0310719127)

The Tiny Truths Illustrated Bible by Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner (tinytruthsbible.com/)

Illustrated Ministry (illustratedministry.com/)

Children of Color Storybook Bible (amazon.ca/Children-Color-Storybook-Bible-Victor/dp/0840720785)

Children's Bibles or Ministry Resources (kidscorner.reframemedia.com/devotions)

Christian Children’s Books by People of Color:

(Many books on this list inspired by Mrs. G’s blog on Here We Read (hereweeread.com/2019/04/15-multicultural-christian-picture-books-for-children.html)

Love Made by Quina Aragon (lovemadebook.com/)

The Creation by James Weldon Johnson (penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/605251/the-creation-25th-anniversary-edition-by-james-e-ransome/9780823443505)

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson (penguinrandomhouse.com/books/288459/hes-got-the-whole-world-in-his-hands-by-kadir-nelson/)

Who Will I Be, Lord? By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (penguinrandomhouse.com/books/120679/who-will-i-be-lord-by-vaunda-micheaux-nelson-illustrated-by-sean-quallls/)

The World Awake: A Celebration of Everyday Blessings by Linsey Davis (store.faithgateway.com/products/the-world-is-awake-a-celebration-of-everyday-blessings)

ThoughtFull: Discovering Unique Gifts in Each of Us by Dorena Williamson (christianbook.com/thoughtfull-discovering-the-unique-gifts-each/dorena-williamson/9781462794744/pd/794745)

Beautiful Moon: A Child’s Prayer by Tonya Bolden (tonyaboldenbooks.com/beautiful-moon-a-childs-prayer-tonya-bolden/)

The Watcher by Nikki Grimes (nikkigrimes.com/books/bkwatcher.html)

About the Author

Melissa is a writer and CRC chaplain to Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont.

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