Baptist state conventions contacted by Ethics Daily.com indicated they plan to move forward with training churches to teach LifeWay Christian Resources’ “Rickshaw Rally” vacation Bible school curriculum, despite criticism that it uses racist stereotypes.
The Baptist Convention of New England passed a resolution last month supporting their staff’s decision not to promote the Asian-themed VBS material in the region’s churches. “Asian Americans in New England have found this theme focusing on the rickshaw to be insensitive and to be a poor representation of Asian culture,” said Jim Wideman, BCNE executive director, quoted in Baptist Press. “Some have found it highly offensive. We did not feel that we could stay sensitive to our culture and context in New England and promote this material.”
But efforts over the last week by the Baptist Center for Ethics to gauge wider reaction to the controversy found little indication that other state conventions are considering as strong an action.
Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said his state convention doesn’t “promote” material of any specific vendor but is required to be familiar with LifeWay material for training sessions because the Southern Baptist Convention publisher typically holds a 90 percent market share in Texas Baptist churches. Wade said he has heard concerns about the VBS materials and encouraged staff to review them “so we can provide a proactive response to the whole issue of culturally appropriate materials.”
“If, after study of the materials by our staff and church leaders, it is determined that we can’t recommend the material to our churches we will be prepared to offer suggestions as to other options,” Wade said.
Tom Belew of the California Southern Baptist Convention’s children/preschool leadership department said he has heard only a couple of complaints from some 340 ethnically Asian churches in the state, though he admitted that most of those churches probably wouldn’t be using LifeWay VBS material anyway. Belew said he suggested those churches share their concerns with LifeWay. He said the California convention will provide training in use of the material but will involve Asian-American church leaders in VBS clinics, as it has in the past.
Janice Haywood, preschool and children’s ministry team leader for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said she believes LifeWay made some errors in judgment but that it was unintentional. She said her office planned to develop a tip sheet to help churches identify cultural issues if they use the LifeWay materials.
Janet Williams of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention said she was aware of controversy surrounding the VBS material but didn’t have any official comment. The Arkansas convention promotes three VBS clinics, illustrated by the “Rickshaw Rally” logo, on its Web site.
Jim Gifford at the Louisiana Baptist Convention said any public comments would have to be made by his executive director, who is unavailable for comment.
State convention workers in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina did not respond to e-mails inquiring whether they are promoting the VBS materials or if they have heard any complaints.
Meanwhile, critics of the VBS material continued to object to the use of stereotypes like cartoon-images of a rickshaw and Chinese-takeout boxes to teach the 3.2 million youngsters who attend vacation Bible school at Southern Baptist churches each summer.
“The rickshaw symbolizes poverty and slavery,” the Rev. Paul Kim, pastor of Berkland Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., told Religion News Service. “Rickshaw Rally,” he said, “is misrepresenting Asian-American cultures.” Based on a recommendation from Kim’s church, the Baptist Convention of New England adopted its resolution criticizing the material during its annual meeting Nov. 7-8 in Warwick, R.I.
Kim, a trustee on the SBC International Mission Board, told the Associated Press that he wrote LifeWay President Jimmy Draper, a friend for three decades, and was disappointed with his response that the materials were not meant to offend. “But they do offend,” Kim said.
Soong-Chah Rah, a non-SBC pastor and leading critic of the VBS theme, said he hoped other Southern Baptists would follow the example of the Baptist Convention of New England in boycotting the material, but his main concern right now is refuting LifeWay’s claim that only a few people are concerned about the material.
Robert Goette, a Chicago-based consultant who works with ethnic-Asian church planting in about a dozen Baptist state conventions and with Asian church leaders in other denominations, said he contacted LifeWay with concerns after Rah, senior pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Mass., told him about the Asian-themed VBS material in August.
“I’m trying to be kind of neutral in this whole situation and be a go-between-type person,” Goette said. “There just needs to be a lot more understanding. I just don’t know that the dialogue has been very good on this.”
Goette said he believes LifeWay is willing to make a few changes in the material, but is so far along in the process that any radical changes would be cost-prohibitive. He added that if the company had acted very quickly when first approached in August they might have been able to do more, but he doesn’t believe the five or six people he spoke with understood the seriousness of the objections.
Goette, who grew up in Korea as the child of American missionaries, said he believes the LifeWay material “is not very realistic” in its depiction of life in Asia.
“The only way you’re going to run into a rickshaw in Japan these days is if you’re a tourist,” he said. “Coming from a western perspective, it’s kind of a demeaning image. … It’s a little bit more demeaning when you’ve got a person pulling the cart rather than an animal. I think they could have used a bullet train or anything like that, or a taxi ride. They could have done it a lot more sensitively.”
Mary Katharine Hunt, project manager at LifeWay’s Vacation Bible School Division, told the Nashville Tennessean that she was surprised at the negative reaction. She said the curriculum is intended to “help literal-minded children have an image of what Japan is like” and that the company is listening to critics and making “appropriate changes along the way.” She said LifeWay has made changes to its Web site and has also changed the music.
Hunt told the newspaper that missionaries in Japan, a Japanese pastor and a Japanese media agency were all involved in developing the program. “We always go to people who are experts in whatever subject matter we are dealing with.”
But Goette, who has an adopted daughter of Asian descent, said he thinks many white Americans underestimate the hurt that racial stereotypes inflict on minorities in the United States.
“I think that’s one of the more significant issues,” he said in an interview, “just not understanding the kind of junk that minority groups here in the states have to put up with.” He said consulting with missionaries or Baptists in Japan isn’t the same as Asian-Americans because it is a totally different setting and perspective. “The ones that feel the full brunt of stereotypes are the minority groups here in the states,” he said.
Goette said LifeWay should have rather sought input from “those who have to live with those stereotypes.”
LifeWay officials say complaints about the VBS material represent only a small minority of ethnic churches, and that others are receiving the theme well.
But Goette said he believes LifeWay underestimates the reaction that exists among Asian Americans, because concerns were voiced first in “an Asian way.”
“Typically, when it comes to conflict and things like that—and this is not true among the English-speaking Asian-Americans as much as those with Asian languages—you really try to do things so the other person doesn’t lose face and get embarrassed. You try to resolve the issues behind the scenes. You get second and third parties involved—none of this face-to-face confrontation.”
“Because of that, LifeWay may not have gotten the response that is really out there,” he said.
Mark Wang, a Chinese-American who attends a non-denominational church, told the Tennessean he wasn’t personally offended by the “Rickshaw Rally” theme but that it showed “misguided ignorance.” The San Francisco-area software engineer has created a Web site parodying the SBC product, called “Redneck Rally.”
Goette said he hopes the controversy will generate some constructive dialogue, and he expects things like this to happen again “unless we really do a lot more cross-cultural training and understanding.”
“It’s going to be a long learning process for everybody,” he said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.