More than 1,000 individuals have signed the on-line petition protesting anti-Asian stereotypes in LifeWay Christian Resources “Rickshaw Rally” vacation Bible school curriculum in a little over three weeks.
The petition calls on the Southern Baptist Convention publishing house to withdraw the curriculum, which uses images like rickshaws and Chinese takeout food boxes that critics decry as “inaccurate and offensive” stereotypes.
“As a Christian, a former Southern Baptist, and a longtime VBS teacher/director, I find the Rickshaw Rally theme offensive not only to Asians, but to the Gospel itself,” wrote a recent signatory to the “Stop Rickshaw Rally” petition, which went online Dec. 9 at the Web site “Reconsidering Rickshaw Rally” launched by an Asian-American pastor in Massachusetts offended by the theme.
Protests led by the Rev. Soong-Chan Rah, senior pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Mass., prompted the Baptist Convention of New England to decide against promoting the material in the state’s Southern Baptist churches this summer and to encourage use of alternative curriculum.
Similar concerns voiced in other state conventions are being handled less publicly, according to a source familiar with the controversy. State conventions in California and the Northwest are modifying the material for use in their churches.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas is evaluating several other lines of VBS material to offer alongside LifeWay curriculum at upcoming training clinics in Baptist associations around the state, according to Diane Lane, preschool and children’s consultant for the BGCT.
She mentioned Gospel Light, a California publisher; Group Publishing, an interdenominational publisher in Colorado; Cincinnati-based Standard Publishing; Smyth & Helwys, a moderate Baptist publisher in Macon, Ga.; and an adaptation of the BGCT’s own Baptist Way Press online children’s Bible study curriculum.
Veryl Henderson, executive director of the Hawaii-Pacific Baptist Convention, said comments he heard about the Asian theme were in good humor, reacting to the material not as racist but instead “not fully understanding the cultures for which they were writing.”
“The issues raised, if any, were more focused on embarrassment for the writers than any other agenda,” Henderson said in an e-mail interview. He said churches there will adapt the material to fit their “contextual environment,” but added that is normal procedure. “Very few materials translate into Hawaii’s multi-ethnic cultures without some adaptation,” he said.
Most state conventions have received little feedback about the material, said a source speaking to EthicsDaily.com on background. Even most state convention workers who find it objectionable believe LifeWay made an unintentional mistake and learned from it, and value their partnership with the publishing house, he said.
LifeWay continues to insist that criticism of the VBS theme is coming from a small number of people and the material is being well received overall.
Company spokesman Ron Philips told Religion News Service that Rah’s online position is part of an “ongoing campaign against LifeWay” and “demonstrates to us what we have said all along and that is that he will settle for nothing less than the complete removal of our VBS curriculum, which is totally unreasonable and unnecessary.”
But Rah told EthicsDaily.com that many Asian-Americans find the material to be disrespectful of Asian and Asian-American culture.
“Initially we gave LifeWay the benefit of the doubt and viewed this material as an unintentional offense based upon ignorance,” he said. “But LifeWay’s subsequent actions reveal they are not concerned about the concerns of the Asian-American community.”
While much criticism is coming from outside the SBC, one high-profile exception is Ben Mitchell, a consultant for the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
“The apostle Paul reminds us to avoid all appearances of evil (1 Thess 5:22),” Mitchell wrote in the Florida Baptist Witness. “Because of our history, Southern Baptists should especially heed this warning when it comes to dealing with race and ethnicity. We cannot afford to falter again. I was part of the drafting of the painful but necessary 1995 SBC resolution lamenting our racist past. While I am sure that the writers at LifeWay have the very best of intensions, ‘Rickshaw Rally’ is less than helpful.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.