“Jesus tells us he is the Good Shepherd. I wonder who the sheep are…”
These words, or ones like them, are offered to young children in atriums each week as they hear about the Good Shepherd. And catechists are privileged to watch the joyful epiphany of those same children, who one day proclaim, “I am! I’m the sheep!” They recognize that these sheep, who are so lovingly fed, cared for, and kept safe, are in fact themselves, their friends, their family members. When introducing someone to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I often describe this moment of revelation, because for me, the child’s faith is so much more profound when this epiphany emerges from the child, rather than as knowledge imparted from the adult; the child’s internalized understanding that they are the sheep offers such a solid foundation for their life of faith.
“I wonder who the sheep are?” When that question is asked in your atrium, be it in a church, a school, or your home, what do the sheep look like? So many people are asking right now, what can I do? What can we do, to make sure another murder like that of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile doesn’t happen? My fear is that so many of us will continue to do nothing, because we can’t figure out how we could possibly have an impact on police violence or societal racism. But the profiling and violence that Black Americans are subject to is rooted in bias; bias that many of us, many of our police officers, don’t even realize that we have, because it’s been created by subtle messages throughout our lives, and the bias dwells in our subconscious.
But we who have atriums, we who are catechists, have an opportunity to offer our own subtle message, one that battles against all the others with which society bombards us and our children, unknowingly, telling us that Black and brown people are lesser, or criminal, or threatening, or simply just “other”. Because at the same time that our three and four and five year-olds are internalizing that they are sheep, they are internalizing who else is a sheep. So a very concrete step you can take, today, is to make sure that the sheep in your atrium’s sheepfold are not just white, but various shades of brown as well.
As we help shape the spiritual lives of so many children, we need to make sure our sheep are truly representative, not only because Black and brown children in our atriums need to see themselves and their families in the sheepfold, present, affirmed, and cared for by the Good Shepherd. But also because it is critical that the white children in our atriums see that there are not only white sheep in the sheepfold. They need to internalize the fact that the Black people they encounter in their school or the Latino families at their neighborhood playground are also sheep, loved and cared for by the Good Shepherd. Children of every color will grow up to be our lawmakers and police officers, and people in other positions of leadership and power. Internalizing that Black and brown and white people are sheep of the Good Shepherd when they are four will change how they think and lead and act in those positions when they are forty.
It is small, and a very subtle action to take in the midst of such disturbing violence. But there is a profound message in these subtle changes that will impact who our children grow up to be. So as you are watching the news, or reading the paper, or scrolling through Facebook, seeing these horrible stories, and wondering what can be done to change the landscape, go to your atrium, find solace in the good work you are doing with children, and paint your sheep.
Wendy Shenk-Evans is the Director at Christian Family Montessori School, and trained in Level I of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.