Updated: Jun 17
I am a Northern European (Finnish), light skinned woman, and a fairly new immigrant to the United States. While I grew up in a small, homogeneous Finnish country town, my *ethnic consciousness started to develop in early childhood as our family would travel abroad, and when I learned about other cultures and people groups at school. I have spent all of my adult life outside of my country of origin and I have had the honor of living amongst very diverse communities. As a result, my view of God has become bigger, more beautiful and increasingly mysterious.
Each person whom I have met has changed me and taught me something about myself, the other, and God. Conversations about cultural differences have been part of my almost daily life for over a decade. And yet again, I have plunged into a new world of learning after immigrating to the United States and marrying a Korean-American man.
I acknowledge that, especially in light of the current events in the US (which have an international impact), talking about ethnicity is a very complex and delicate matter. Each individual's journey is profoundly personal and unique. And yet, as a follower of Jesus, I feel compelled to continue entering the conversation about the complex, necessary, holy search for ethnic diversity and justice. We, as a body of Christ, have a lot to learn and mature.
Wherever you find yourself in the development of ethnic consciousness, please join me as a fellow-learner right at the elbow of children. We as adults do not have to have all the answers in order to accompany children. We need humility, curiosity and commitment to do the work. Let's put aside our guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride and desire to avoid the hard conversations, and ask God to give us courage and compassion to grow in love for the sake of the Gospel for all people.
There is no doubt that our cultural and ethnic background influence our spiritual formation in significant ways. However, I will not focus on the specifics of those influences now, but rather explore some practical ways, how we, adult spiritual companions to children, can accompany children in the important developmental task in their spiritual formation of maturing in ethnic consciousness in relation to those who are different from them. I will explore this as faithfully as I am able through the lens of the Christian narrative.
Disclaimer, I have not read all the resources mentioned in the article. I have simply put together a collection of resources and ideas, and my hope is that this tool kit will expand and mature as I (hopefully alongside with you) continue engaging in this important work with children. I would love for you to share any other resources and your experiences with the ones that I share here. This needs to be a work in progress.
1. God's Good Creation: Moving beyond Color-Blindness
"God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." Genesis 1:31 (NIV)
Even very young children see their own and other people's color, and respond to ethnic differences. Children are not color-blind. We support a healthy ethnic development (which is part of cognitive, social, emotional, moral and spiritual development) in children as a part of their spiritual formation by marveling together the complexity, beauty and diversity of humanity. The Genesis story sets out a foundation for human dignity as an image-bearer of God, and the command to love, protect and respect all of humanity in its glorious diversity. By giving language to ethnic diversity to children we show that it matters to us and to God. We are not all the same, and it is a good thing. It was God's plan for his people all along.
Ethnically Conscious Art, Crafts, Books and Games
Think about the kinds of arts projects you engage in with children and how color-conscious they are. Consider the cultural connotations of songs, images, stories, rhymes, games, holiday traditions, dances and even foods that you share with children, and your own assumptions and attitudes about them. Are the creative mediums opportunities to celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity, cultivate wonder, respect, curiosity and consciousness among children about differences? Or are these activities divisive, exclusive to some, favoring the majority and disrespectful of or marginalizing children and communities who do not share many of the assumed expressions with the majority? How comfortable are you to engage in exploratory conversation about ethnicity and cultural diversity? Are you willing to examine your own areas of color-blindness and stereotypes? What might hinder you from taking the time to really listen and seek to understand people of different color, instead of assuming their experience being the same as yours?
"If children are not allowed to talk about color, then the implication is that something is wrong about color. How do you feel if your child points out someone is black or brown? How do you feel if your child points out someone is white? Does it feel more “wrong” for a child to point out someone is black/brown? What is that teaching the child?" — Cindy Wang Brandt, An Anti-Racism Conversation for All of Us Picture Books about God's Creation & Ethnic Diversity
Thankfully, there is an overwhelming number of beautiful picture books that celebrate each child's uniqueness and the diversity of God's creation. Here are just a few examples. Picture books like these are great conversation starters, and they invite children to listen to God's heart for all his people, and nurture love and respect for their own physical bodies.
1. God's Very Good Idea by Trillia Newbell
2. God Made Me and You: Celebrating God's Design for Ethnic Diversity by Shai Linne
3. He's Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson
4. When God Made You by Matthew Paul Turner
5. God's Big Plan by Elizabeth F Caldwell and Theodore Hiebert
6. God's Dream Archbishop by Desmond Tutu
Finally, if you haven't yet "fallen in love" with the diverse family of God, this might be a developmental stage that you want to linger in for a while, and return to often.
2. Problem of Evil: Conversations about Prejudice, Racism and Discrimination
"Stories of evil read in safety help children (and adults) create how they will engage evil when they inevitably encounter it in themselves and others. ... They need stories to give them the language and alternatives to imagine how justice can be accomplished with caring and courage despite evil. They need to ask questions, be confident in seeking justice, and to use their creativity to find a better way despite the pull of evil's smoothness and shortcuts." — Jerome Berryman, Becoming Like a Child
I admit that it is tempting to me to end the story in the garden, and remain in the bliss of God's colorful family, but let us not hide the rest of the story from children. They will anyway find out, sooner or later.
Stories about Injustice, Prejudice and Discrimination
The Biblical narrative tells a story of how God's people turned against God and each other. As we too well know, this is not just a story of history books but sadly still today's reality. Ethnical tensions, discrimination against specific people groups and prejudice are closer to us than we dare to admit. I believe that we hinder children from maturing in holistic Christian spirituality if we do not accompany them into wrestling with these hard realities, and invite them to respond to God's voice.
What are some stories, both personal and societal, about the impacts of lack of love and respect for all humans that you might explore with children? How might these stories inform the ways children think, feel, pray and act?
Picture Books about Injustice, Compassion and Resilience
Again, there are too many excellent books to mention, but here are a few great examples of stories that evoke compassion and respect for differences. Many of these books can also be found as read aloud versions on YouTube.
1. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson
2. Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
3. The Journey by Sanna Francesca
4. My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits
5. We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debbie Levy
6. I'm New Here by Anne Sibley O'Brien
7. Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez
8. Old Turtle by Douglas Wood
Become aware of your own experiences of injustices committed to you, or people around you based on your / their skin color, way of speaking, or country of origin. How might these experiences be in the way, or gateways to opening up conversations about these painful realities with children? How willing are you to make space for children to express their experiences of discrimination and listen to them without a need to defend or belittle their stories? What does it look like to you to model asking for forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, and recommitting to learn, when hurt and damage has been done?
3. Hope of the Nations: Middle Eastern Jesus
Every people group and culture on earth is equally broken and in need of a Rescuer. God reached out and brought healing, reconciliation and peace through Jesus. Jesus was a humble, middle Eastern man who was a refugee and a manual-worker. In today's society, I think he would have carried labels such as "ethnic minority", "disadvantaged, "nomad", "working class" and probably "at-risk child".
Children may have a wide range of images of God, and it is important to encourage them to explore and express those images. And still, most children who I get to listen to describe God as the Jesus of their picture book Bibles. Let's introduce children to Jesus of Nazareth as accurately as we can, as a real, brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jewish refugee. Images of white Jesus are not only historically incorrect, but they contribute to color-blind understanding of the Gospel narrative, and intentionally or not, support white-supremacy ideology.
Why don't we research images of both modern day and 1st century Middle Eastern Jews and create our religious art, story images, puppets, etc. with and for children based on what we discover?
If you have already introduced children to white European Jesus, and they seem confused or upset about the idea of anything different, it is especially helpful to include the children in the research and give them the joy of discovering something new for themselves.
You might also like to explore religious art around the world and look at images how various artists have made images of Jesus with their own ethnic features, and talk about why people might want to think that Jesus, when he was on earth, looked like them. The child might still prefer an image of Jesus that looks like them, regardless if it is vastly differently from the historical Jesus, and while we can teach children the facts, we can also respect their need and desire to relate to Jesus as someone who feels and looks familiar to them. Finally, none of us really knows what Jesus' resurrected body looks like right now.
Picture Story Book Bibles with Middle Eastern Jesus
Here are a few illustrated Bibles and stories of Jesus that have non-white Jesus.
1. The Tiny Truths Illustrated Bible by Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner
2. The Very Best Story Ever Told: The Gospel with American Sign Language by Robin Currie and David Williams
3. Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu
4. The Friend who Forgives by Dan DeWitt and Catalina Echeverri and other books from "Tales That Tell the Truth" series.
5. My Friend Jesus by Kathryn Slattery
6. The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones 7. The Bible App For Kids Storybook Bible by OneHope and YouVersion
8. The Whirl Story Bible by Erin Gibbons
9. The Family Time Bible Mary Manz Simon and Fátima Anaya
4. Kingdom of Justice and Peace: Multi-Ethnic Worship
"Then I looked, and there was a great number of people. There were so many people that no one could count them. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language of the earth. They were all standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and had palm branches in their hands." Revelation 7:9 (International Children’s Bible)
We know the end of the story. God will gather his stunning, colorful church from all the corners of the world to an everlasting feast. The injustice, discrimination, hate and evil will have their end. What would it look like for us to nurture this vision of heaven in our children? How could we empower children as peacemakers who bring glimpses of heaven's joy to earth?
Martin Luther King Jr. famously noted that "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning".
Unfortunately, not much has changed since these words were spoken, and this does not only apply to Northern America. While not all worshipping communities are called to cultivate a multi-ethnic gathered church, we can all find ways to be led, serve alongside, and worship with those of different cultures and ethnicities from us.
It is important that children get to experience gathered church beyond their own ethnic and cultural context. They need to witness that being a follower of Jesus does not assume a certain ethnicity or nationality. If children are part of an ethnic majority in their school, church, neighborhood, etc., interacting about their shared faith with people of other color will also enhance their capacity for empathy, as they get to experience what it feels like to be in a room where they are a minority.
If you live and worship in a predominately homogeneous community, prayerfully seek out ways to build bridges of friendship with people who are ethnically different from you. I wonder, what opportunities might there be for building bridges across communities in the body of Christ in your area?
Finally, I am aware that I have only written on this subject in very large brush stokes and the subject is much more nuanced and problematic. However, my hope is that we would not be immobilized by the complexities but rather inspired by them to dream and learn together with children. And when our feet get weary, perhaps this little imagined conversation by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, offers us some courage to keep walking.
"You are not troubled by other people's happiness? Or by the innocence of children?
I like happiness and I love children. Then why do you tell them sad stories?
My stories are not sad. The children will tell you that.
But they make one cry, don't they?
No, they do not make one cry.
Don't tell me they make one laugh!
I won't, I will only say they make one dream."
— Wiesel Elie, One Generation After
*While the words "race" and "ethnicity" are often used interchangeably, I use the word "ethnicity" deliberately in this article instead of the word "race". While the word race is a widely used term in the US, it is not universally meaningful and does not exist in all communities around the world. The word "race" is typically used in relation to power, status, social position (class) and identity as classified from the outside by the society instead of self-assigned identity. The word ethnicity is typically used by social scientists when talking about how the various groups define themselves based on national origin, language, and other cultural markers. There is certainly a need and purpose for the use of race terminology, however I decided to approach this exploration mainly from a lens of ethnicity for the sake of clarity in my focus.