An online petition is gathering signatures asking LifeWay Christian Resources to stop distributing its “Rickshaw Rally” Vacation Bible School curriculum.
The Rev. Soong-Chan Rah, senior pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Mass., and a leading critic of the Asian-themed VBS material, created the petition, which is on his Web site called “Reconsidering Rickshaw Rally.”
Rah said the site became active Tuesday but wasn’t publicized until Wednesday morning. Signatures numbered more than 350 by 5 p.m. EST on Thursday.
“We respectfully ask the board of trustees of LifeWay, its president and its parent organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, to stop immediately the distribution of the Vacation Bible School curriculum known as ‘Rickshaw Rally,'” the petition says.
“Rickshaw Rally employs images, phrases, music and various stereotypes and caricatures of the Asian community that are inaccurate and offensive,” it continues. “While an attempt at an Asian-themed VBS may have been noble–the final product reflects an ignorance and insensitivity to the diversity and complexity found in Asian culture.”
“Please discontinue the marketing and the distribution of the ‘Rickshaw Rally’ VBS curriculum.”
The third name on the list of individuals joining the petition is Ben Mitchell, a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who just went public with criticism of the VBS theme in a point-counterpoint article in this week’s Florida Baptist Witness.
Early signatories also included Paul R. House, a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College who formerly taught with Mitchell at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Others adding their names included Charles W. Weber, professor of history at Wheaton College; Louis Lee, former National Asian American Coordinator for Promise Keepers; Gary A. Parrett, associate professor of Christian education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; S. Steve Kang, assistant professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College, Peter T. Cha, assistant professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Perry G. Downs, associate dean at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Signatures include both Asian and non-Asian sounding surnames.
“I would not want my daughter, born in Cambodia, to see those stereotypical racist images,” one signer commented. “If that curriculum were used at our Baptist church, our children would not attend VBS.”
“Please stop this racially insensitive program,” said another.
Officials at LifeWay deny that Asians everywhere are offended in large numbers by the curriculum. “For every phone call, e-mail or letter we receive from Asian Americans expressing concern about ‘Racing to the Son,’ we get scores of positive responses,” LifeWay President Jimmy Draper said in his “point” column in the Florida Baptist newspaper.
The Baptist Convention of New England has said it plans to promote alternative VBS material this year out of concern about offending Asian-Americans, but most other SBC-affiliated state conventions appear to be moving forward with VBS planning conferences featuring the “Rickshaw Rally” theme.
Tim Holcomb, leader for the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s growth strategies group, told the Associated Pressthat he will actively promote the material to 3,000 Southern Baptist churches in the state.
“It encourages children to meet Christ, to have a relationship with him and let him shape their lives. That’s the basis of Bible study,” Holcomb said. “This theme wasn’t put together to be slanted toward any group or to be a problem for a particular ethnic group.”
Phil Stone, team leader for Bible study and church administration with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, told EthicsDaily.com that he views the VBS theme as “just that, a theme and not a socio-political or cultural statement.”
“People can take offense at just about anything,” Stone said in an e-mail interview. “I think LifeWay was simply trying to introduce some cultural themes into their work to carry the message in a fun way.”
But Lydia Barrow-Hankins, chaplain at Seinan Gakuin Schools in Fukoka, Japan, and until recently a missionary with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, said Japanese children the age of VBS participants would not recognize their country and culture as presented by the “Rickshaw Rally” materials.
“The indiscriminate mixing of Asian cultures cancels any educational value the materials might have,” she said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com. “For example, the little white Chinese food takeout boxes do not exist in Japan. Outdated cultural stereotypes do not facilitate cultural understanding and relationships.”
Barrow-Hankins compared it to her husband being asked repeatedly by Japanese 30 years ago “Where is your gun?” because they believed the stereotype that all Americans carry a weapon.
She also questioned LifeWay’s defense that the company didn’t intend for the material to be offensive to Asians. “That standard for what is offensive does not lie with the Caucasian originators of the curriculum, but rather with Asians and Asian-Americans,” she said.
“LifeWay should understand that their motives are not questioned until they refuse to listen to objections,” Barrow-Hankins said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.