Racism and the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

by Catherine Maresca

Racism reared its ugly head in America in 2014. While our first hope is that it does not exist in our atriums and work with children, its persistence and prevalence in our communities force us to take a close and critical look. We ask ourselves if there is any way our materials, our presentations, our art work, our songs, or our behavior unwittingly disrespect or distance people of any race or culture. Further, can we explore ways to proactively confront the presence of racism in our communities and congregations?

My story. I was painting my first Good Shepherd at the dining room table in 1982. Across from me was our foster daughter. She is Black, deaf, and had been institutionalized with people with mental retardation for 11 years before moving into our home. She had acquired neither English nor sign language during those years, and her language was now developing slowly. But she knew Jesus, and she knew the Good Shepherd in my hands was an image of Jesus. I dipped my brush into “flesh-colored” paint. I looked at her. She was steadily watching me. I moved my brush to create a skin tone that exactly matched her own.

Why did I do this? I knew the power of visual images for her. I knew that if I painted a white Jesus there was no language that could explain, in effect,  “Look, I know you are Black and that Jesus was probably browner than every picture you’ve ever seen of him. I know Jesus came for the disenfranchised and those in need of healing and love—for you, in fact. But there’s a white lady in Rome who painted her Good Shepherd white, with yellow hair and blue eyes, and since I’m reproducing her work, I think I better go ahead and make my Good Shepherd like hers, despite what this image may communicate to you. But you understand, don’t you, that Jesus loves you very much?”

Thus began my journey into shaking the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd free of its racial touches to better serve the Black and brown and white children of our school and its atrium. While it has been very helpful to look at our materials through Ruth’s eyes, I am very clear that I no more want to communicate that Jesus is white to white children than I want to communicate this to Black children. I’m also aware that American children see many white images of Jesus; they do not need to see another one in our atrium. They do need to see images of Jesus as he might have looked in the Holy Land, in Africa, in Asia, and in Latin America. At best, I am offering a little balance to the overabundance of white images of God, Jesus, and most Biblical figures that our children are exposed to in our churches, books and museums.

In the late 1980’s I studied for a master’s degree in Religious Studies at Howard University, (one of the nation’s historic Black universities). Here, dedicated Christians of many denominations helped me to sharpen my sensitivity to racism in our churches. I promised myself that I would not keep in my atrium any work I would be ashamed to show my professors from Howard. These professors, by the way, were equally sensitive to issues of class and gender, so my critique of our materials extended to those issues as well.

Material concerns. One of the beautiful aspects of American Sign Language is that nouns are often modified not by signing more and more adjectives before or after the noun, but my modifying how the noun itself is signed. This creates a single “picture” of the noun just the way a sketch of a small rocking chair would be one chair, with rockers, and drawn to communicate its size as well. This was my guide to addressing racism in our atriums. There is no need to add a “racism unit” to our wonderful materials in the atrium, just a need to modify how the materials themselves indirectly communicate messages about race. 

Accordingly, our Good Shepherd is brown-skinned. His sheep are a mixture of the natural colors of wool: grey, brown, black and off-white. Prayer cards show a similar mixture of images of Jesus and the Holy Family. The traditional sole brown-skinned person in the Infancy Narratives – one of the magi – has been expanded to include Jesus, the angel, and all of his family and visitors. Light, a very powerful positive sign among Christians, is not conflated with “white,” an equally powerful negative symbol for many.

Similarly, I make sure that the darkest parable figures in the 6-9 materials are not the robbers of the Good Samaritan and the hireling of the Good Shepherd. And the inappropriate wedding clothing of the Wedding Feast is neither black nor brown. 

The Gifts strip includes people of many places in the pictures on the card for human beings, including interracial families and friendships. Books or materials about the development of humans do not imply that early humans were all brown, but more advanced humans are white. The story of human development is not told in skin color.

A material I struggled with for many years was the Plan of God. The focus of the Roman material shifts from the Biblical lands before Christ to Europe in the years after Christ. With a predominance of European nation states above a few token countries of Asia and Africa at the end of the strip a message of European triumphalism is communicated. The Americas, Australia and most of Asia are not present at all, making this a difficult timeline to present in our atrium. As with the white Good Shepherd, the visual image conveys an unintended message: if you are not from Europe you are not part of the Plan of God. This message is not what we say, or believe, but it is present in our material. With the help of Davette Himes over the last several years we are developing a working strip for the Plan of God that introduces inventions and cultures from every continent, as well as religions in addition to Christianity and Judaism. 

As the children explore the themes of the 9-12 atrium we have many opportunities to be inclusive of all races and cultures. Their interest is far-reaching, they are willing to tackle difficult moral discussions, and they know enough of the news to be seeking clarification within a faith environment. Saints from around the world are introduced, the failures of European theologies that led to the inquisition, slavery and the holocaust are not hidden, and stories such as Hagar and Sarah, the Flight Into Egypt, and the Good Samaritan can be the springboard for sensitive discussions about race and class and immigration in our communities today.

Almost ten years ago a parent gave me a “plate” with the Lord’s Prayer written on it in Arabic. I have displayed this on our Sacrament shelf in the 9-12 atrium ever since. Last year, an Arabic-speaking father took a tour through the school. When he saw this plate his face filled with joy. It became for him a sign of welcome, a sign that his language and culture would be respected within these walls. Take a walk through your atrium and look for such signs that any brown or Black child might find there. Our materials may subtly communicate that the atrium is for white children, despite our belief that CGS serves all children well. Families and catechists of color are underrepresented in CGS. How do our atriums, course books, and parent education materials signal that all are welcome here? As a Black parent, would you send your child to the atrium if it does not clearly communicate that your children are God’s children?

For more on this topic from CCTheo, see this issue of ECHOES: Healing the Racial Divide.

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