It’s that time of the year. Churches all across the country offer free week-long Vacation Bible Schools for children.
If you aren’t familiar with VBS, here’s how they generally work. A handful of Christian publishing companies create and sell curriculum kits to Vacation Bible School leaders at churches around the country. Parents sign their kids up for the week-long day camp, assuming that their kids will be occupied for a week with themes ranging from sports to video games.
But one 2019 theme is under fire for its blatant racism.
Group Publishing released three VBS themes for 2019, one of which is “Roar.” According to Group, this theme offers “an epic adventure to engage the whole herd. At Roar VBS, kids explore God’s goodness and celebrate a ferocious faith that powers them through this wild life.”
Videos published by Group promise a week of fun, including delicious snacks, lively stories, colorful decorations, and hands-on activities, all supposedly based on African culture.
Except this VBS is anything but fun and games, because racist activities are actually part of the curriculum.
The first is an activity based on the Biblical story of enslaved Israelites. Children are directed to an activity area where they’re provided materials to mold bricks like the slaves. The leader is instructed to be the slave driver, walking around the children and ordering them children to work faster to provide Pharaoh with the bricks he wants. This activity, which is presented as “hands-on fun,” is shown in seconds 8 to 13 in the Wild Bible Adventures at Roar YouTube video, published by Group.
Have VBS creators learned nothing? Forcing children, especially children of color, to pretend to be slaves can be humiliating and traumatizing. As a mom of four Black children, I would be raising hell (pun intended) if an adult forced my children into a slavery reenactment.
The second activity that is glaringly problematic is when leaders are instructed to encourage children to practicing clicking their tongues for a few seconds before showing them a “click language” video. After showing the video, the children add “clicks” to their names and introduce themselves to one another.
Attendees are both mocking and culturally appropriating the Khosian language. Cultural appropriation is when someone takes from another, usually minority, culture and uses it for one’s personal benefit, whether that be for money, fame, or entertainment. This disrespects the culture. And it’s not okay.
Group also refers to Africa as a country in one of the its VBS leader manuals. A country?!? Um, I don’t know where the curriculum writers were educated. FYI, Africa is a continent made up of fifty-four countries. Countries within Africa are diverse, not monolithic.
The problematic curriculum and company were called into question by writer Shannon Dingle on Twitter for their seemingly all-white staff. Dingle is a mom of six, four of whom are children of color.
— Shannon Dingle (@ShannonDingle) June 7, 2019
Then Nicola Menzie, founder of Faithfully, a publication centering on faith communities of color, published an article outlining the many issues with the VBS theme and teachings.
Group Publishing responded on their VBS Facebook page with a long, whiny, justification of the VBS theme and activities.
Basically, they gave the us the old “sorry, not sorry.”
The Internet, per usual, wasn’t having it. Cultural appropriation, white privilege, and white supremacy are glaringly obvious. And we are not having it. No. Just NO.
I grew up attending church VBS every summer. In fact, my parents were often the leaders. VBS curriculum is expensive, and the publishers offered little to no preview of the activities. Ironically, leaders had to choose a VBS kit in blind faith.
Once the kit arrived, leaders could then explore the daily schedule of snacks, games, and selected Bible stories. Even today, in 2019, with all of the technology we have, VBS leaders don’t really know what they’re getting themselves and their attendees into until the massive kit arrives.
I suspect that many 2019 VBS leaders are going to be stunned to find the racist activities in the ROAR! curriculum. They then have a choice. They can cancel their VBS altogether, re-write all of the inappropriate activities, or frantically order a VBS kit from another company.
Group Publishing states on their website that they offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee of their products so VBS leaders should be able to get their money back. Then perhaps, if teaching children to appreciate other cultures, they can bring in people of color from those cultures to educate children. This is preferred to a white minister putting on an Egyptian headdress and reading from a white-written script.
What we’ve learned and keep learning is that when there are little to no people of color in decision-making and leadership positions, white shenanigans are a real possibility. Yes, there are progressive white people. But apparently none of them are employed by Group.
There is absolutely nothing cute, clever, or educational about the aforementioned activities children attending one of these VBS sessions are participating in. Instead, kids are encouraged to take part in traumatic slavery reenactment, appropriate a native language, and learn about the “country” of Africa from curriculum created by white people.
Vacation Bible School can be a magical, fun week for children. I went to many during my childhood, and my own four kids also attend one each summer. Kids can learn about their faith through snacks, songs, activities, and stories. But we can all do without the racism. In fact, we can call it out and then reject it.
Ruby Bridges said it best, “Racism is a grown-up disease, and we must stop using our children to spread it.”