Every year, many Christian children attend Vacation Bible School, summer camps specifically designed to teach lessons from the Bible (plus give tired parents some time away from the kids).
A lot of the time, however, the curriculums taught at VBS aren’t actually designed by the local clergy. Many churches purchase pre-packaged curriculums and supplies from publishing companies like Group VBS, who have become embroiled in controversy recently due to the contents of one of their lesson plans.
The outrage is centered around the Group VBS curriculum entitled “Roar,” which claims to take its students on an adventure through Africa to learn about the Bible. According to the company, more than 10,000 churches have purchased the program, with many of them likely already in the process of teaching it.
After making it very clear to the students that their story is set in Africa, “Roar” encourages the teachers to decorate the church with murals of the savanna, “raffia-topped huts,” termite mounds and toy insects, all of which can be purchased from the company.
In group VBS’s catalog, it says these products will “transform your VBS room into a vibrant African savanna.”
RE: @GroupVBS #RoarVBS— Leanne Masters (@theleannem) June 11, 2019
After *a lot* of feedback this weekend (apparently I wasn’t the only one bothered by elements in the curriculum, nor their initial response) Group issued a corrective and an apology today.
You can find that here: https://t.co/nkysldpbZM
However, many Christians spoke out against details of the “Roar” curriculum, claiming they could have racist implications.
Pretend to be slaves? How about a church using your curriculum and “Africa” theme deciding to create a “caged child” photo op. The parents were lining up this morning for an opportunity to take pics of their little white kids in a cage. 🤦🏻♂️ pic.twitter.com/visPNQGueP— rob williams (@spillerOthetea) June 10, 2019
On their first day, students are told to act like “Israelite slaves” while one of their classmates take the role of a “mean Egyptian guard” who mocks them to make them work harder.
The lesson of the ordeal is meant to be that “when life is unfair … God is good.” Many critics, however, believe that forcing children (particularly children of color) to act like slaves does far more harm than good.
Apparently @GroupVBS Roar program has kids pretending they're slaves, treating an actual language like it's something made up and imaginary, refers to Africa as a country.— Irene M. Cho (@irenemcho) June 7, 2019
Um WHAT. How does keep happening? Oh rt, white org, writers, editors, publishers. Whiteness. pic.twitter.com/hvlgtilmJ2
In the Day 4 lesson plan, Africa is incorrectly identified as a country:
“Africa is such a cool continent to explore. Did you know that some parts of Africa are really cool…as in cold! They get snow! But a lot of the country is very hot.”
Later, on Day 5, children are told to augment their names with a “click or two” and then introduce themselves in “click language.”
ALSO, I meant to say this before, but it’s worth saying that using clicks as a “VBS activity” like this is the same as leading an activity in which kids say “ching, chong, chang” like they’re speaking Chinese. It’s the EXACT SAME THING, and it’s racist and unacceptable. 13/13— Jonah Ven 李明恩 (@jonah_ven) June 8, 2019
As outrage over the curriculum grew online, Group VBS issued a statement on Saturday, June 8, defending their decision.
Saying that teachers who were offended by the curriculum should merely “omit words,” the company claimed that their lesson plan wasn’t racist because there were slaves when the Bible was written:
“Even though some of these biblical accounts are ugly, we feel it’s important to help children truly understand what is recorded in the Bible, and grow in their relationship with the Lord.”
Now @GroupVBS is making a version of the same argument as slaveholders: Since slavery is in the bible it is ok to have kids pretend they're slaves. And just pretend that is unrelated to US slavery. And their cultural appropriation/misrepresentation is a compliment. #trash https://t.co/9QVNfQXwZY— Wil ❤️ All God’s Children🌈 (@WilGafney) June 8, 2019
When @tandyadams - director of family ministries at her church - reached out to @GroupVBS about her concerns with the slavery lesson, this was their reply, doubling down that it was good and biblical: pic.twitter.com/F75aUcXHCT— Shannon Dingle (@ShannonDingle) June 8, 2019
By Monday June 9, however, in the face of even more backlash, Group VBS rethought their stance and issued an updated curriculum with the problem areas edited out.
Thom Schultz, President of the publishing group, issued a statement saying:
“We realized the modifications needed were very important, and we wished to save our users the work of making the changes themselves.”
Hello, Friends in Ministry! Thank you for calling to our attention some concerns with some experiences in Roar VBS. We...Posted by Group VBS on Monday, June 10, 2019
.@GroupVBS— Nathan Irons Roberts (@Nathaniroberts) June 10, 2019
I called and had a very good conversation with a staff member unpacking the racist impact of the Roar curriculum.
Intent vs impact
And some ways to repent and change.
I am hoping they can make this right.
While all of the three writers who worked on “Roar” were white, the company claims they tested their program on families of many backgrounds “including African Americans.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a minister who often addresses race and its intersection with Christianity, said that this is far from an isolated incident, however:
“White culture is normative for the people writing and developing their materials…A lot of curriculum for churches is created by mostly white Christians who’ve not done the work to examine their own whiteness and how it has shaped their faith.”
This is an unacceptable response. What am I supposed to tell the parents in my church who actually speak a language you call a "click language" about this lesson?— Jordan Haynie Where, O Grave, is Thy Sting? (@GodWelcomesAll) June 8, 2019
Schultz said the company plans to form a “cultural advisory” group to train its staff about racial insensitivity and help ensure issues like this one don’t happen in the future.
“We, along with many other Christians, regret the mistakes made by our ancestors and contemporaries in some of their evangelistic attempts around the world. Today we want children to grow with a full appreciation and honor of other cultures.”