by Pam Leskowyak
It was the last day of school, and I walking with my dad, preparing to leave. Suddenly, he paused, looked at me intently and said, “Son you’re a black male, and that’s two strikes against you.” To the general public, anything that I did would be perceived as malicious and deserving of severe punishment and I had to govern myself accordingly. I was seven years old.
-Robert Stephens, 26, Kansas City, MO
Let me say that again, SEVEN YEARS OLD, the age of children in our Level II atriums.
I can say years ago I didn’t understand that kind of statement being made to a small child. Why tell children such harsh information? Shouldn’t we protect their innocence? Then I began to experience the necessity of it with the black friends and neighbors being harassed in overt and subtle ways. I’d moved to the inner city to be close to the families of children I worked with in Christian ministry in Knoxville, TN, and “the why” behind the dad’s statement became apparent over time. For example, young men would come to our anti-gang meetings asking who else had been stopped and threatened on the way there for simply “driving while black”. The young men regularly exchanged advice with each other on how to handle themselves, so as not to “catch more charges or be arrested and taken into custody” for driving a car or walking down the street. It was no exaggeration, and I was completely dumbfounded. I had in fact gotten stopped in this same neighborhood, because the police thought white people only came to obtain drugs. Once I explained that I worked and lived there, the police warned me to be VERY careful as it was a dangerous place for white women. I learned from those young men how vital it was not to call the police for help as the results might be entirely unhelpful. A friend of color and I went to Walmart after the dressing rooms had closed, and I suggested she try a shirt over her clothes. Her response caught me off guard, “You crazy? Only white people can do things like that. I’d go to jail.” Children came to my house all the time for band-aids which did not match their skin like it did mine. The inequity in the neighborhood schools compared to the surrounding areas was completely apparent. Children couldn’t play on the playground equipment at times due to a lack of funds for mulch. So many of the families, especially of the boys I’d known, loved, and taught, had gone to jail or died in numbers too big to be ignored. My neighborhood was a literal illustration of lives affected by mass incarceration and discrimination, and in contrast my life in the city revealed my white privilege daily.
This leads me to my life as a catechist and advocate.
With all that is going in the current news, the world, and in particular the black and brown communities of the United States, what are children seeing? What are children hearing? Even more tragic, what are children experiencing, especially those of children of color. How are we responding as the church? How are we responding as catechists? What is the work of the catechist in antiracism? Do we dare pose a question like, “Do Black Lives Matter?” to catechists? In my opinion, questions of race, justice, and children are centrally located within spiritual formation. We cannot leave the heavy lifting of this work squarely on the shoulders of people of color who have borne it for the centuries past — we who have white privilege have our own work to do on ourselves and with the children.
Jodi-beth, a catechist in Washington, DC has children in her atrium who bring these difficult conversations to the work. When wondering with her children about what will be different from this time of redemption to Parousia a child of color answered, “We will see God. No people will be mean. No shooting.” Another child responded, “No people will go in jail. No black people will go in jail for talking to each other. “
Jodi-beth also posed question of considering the gifts that come in Parousia. A child of color responded, “No weapons” and another white child’s response to that child of “No racism, sickness or greediness.” Next the children were asked, “Do you think there will be racism in Parousia?” Some others asked, “What is racism?” Another responded, “When black people are not respected like white people. Like going to jail or killed for just getting what they need at the supermarket.” “I think in Parousia black and white will be the same and everyone will trust everyone the same.”
What incredible conversations. If we haven’t started this work in our own spiritual formation, our children are calling us to be prepared to a deeper understanding of the God of Justice. What I see in adults (and, though I wish it weren’t so, in myself at times) is a way to tune out the news or worse, a lack of compassion with the justification that “people are getting what they deserve.” Children haven’t developed these callous filters yet and call our attention to both humanity and disparity.
So where to begin? Though the New York Times Best Sellers may seem an unlikely source for spiritual development, I’d say it is a good jumping off point finding out “how we got here” and advocacy.
I’m Still Here, White Fragility, The New Jim Crow, How to be an Antiracist or anything by Ibram X Kendi are just a few excellent reads. From a more theological perspective of the God of Justice, my favorites are God of the Oppressed by James Cone, Violence of Love by Oscar Romero and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
If you also like visuals, Slavery by Another Name, 13, Just Mercy, The Central Park Five, and Twelve Years a Slave are in my top slots.
Other starting places are conversations. The Center for Children and Theology has invited catechists to join in the work of Building the Beloved Community. I’m involved in a Be the Bridge group locally. If you don’t know what that is find one and try it. It’s centered on the work of Latasha Morrison on church and racial reconciliation.
I listen to podcasts as well which give me a much broader view of the snippets glossed over or missed by the media.
My reading, listening and conversations on antiracism are leading me to more local, national, and global perspectives and work. I have great concern for which side of history I stand. This work is equipping me to be with the children asking the hard questions about events and mindsets in our world and our part in history writing the blank page together to build Parousia.