“Jesus isn’t white” – 5 ways to make your children’s and youth ministry less racist

I am white. I have lived my whole life with the immense and entirely undeserved privilege that brings, and for much of that time I have been largely unaware of the ways I benefit from my whiteness.

I minister in a context where many of the people I meet and work with are not white. In my school, for instance, less than 50% of the children are White British. In the light of current events in the US, I have been reflecting on how I minister among children and young people in this context.

I am enormously grateful to the people – adults and children – who have pointed out to me, and continue to point out, my own racism. If any of us who are white and ministering in the C of E (and many other places besides) think we are not racist, then we are not looking hard enough. We need to take the beam out of our own eyes.

The following are just a few of the ways I have tried to make my ministry in my context a bit less racist. I will be very grateful for any suggestions anyone wants to add, especially from people of colour. I am learning, and I am trying, but I know I am still getting it wrong. But if sharing my own inadequate attempts can get others thinking about how to challenge racism in their own ministry contexts, then that seems worth doing.

So, here’s a bit of what I’m doing:

1. Pictures, picture books and videos

We all use images, all the time. A photo of a baptism, a book about going to church, a video about the lives of the saints. And I often ask children “Who can you see in the picture?” If the answer is “nobody who looks like me” then we have a problem.

The Communion of Saints is not white. It never has been.

And yes, it’s harder to find more diverse images. It takes longer and (especially with picture books) it might cost more. That’s because you’re bucking the trend in a racist system. Trust me, it’s worth it. For children to see themselves represented as part of the body of Christ, it’s worth it.

2. Jesus

Jesus wasn’t white.

That shouldn’t still need saying, but it does, and it will for as long as our default images of Jesus – in art, in church buildings, in children’s bibles – are white.

Again, it can be a struggle to find resources. There is an excellent pack of images called “The Christ We Share” which is  good starting point. I’m not sure if it is still being produced, but those images are also available in a YouTube video here.

In terms of children’s bibles, the best I’ve found is the “Children of God Storybook Bible” by Desmond Tutu, illustrated by artists from around the world. If anyone has come across other children’s bibles where Jesus (and everyone else!) is not depicted as white, I’d be interested to know about them.

3. Role models

Who do the children and teenagers at your church see in positions of leadership? If the answer is “white people” you need to do something about that.

Perhaps you are thinking “but the leaders in our church *just happen to be* white.” Not good enough.

Firstly “just happen to be”? Really???

Secondly, if that is the case, then think about who you invite as guest speakers/preachers, whose books you recommend, and (this is a big one with teenagers) whose YouTube videos you show/link to/recommend.

If you use contemporary worship songs, who are the written and performed by? This seems to be a particularly non-diverse area – any recommendations of non-white worship leaders with a YouTube channel would be gratefully received!

4. Name the issue

Talk about racism with your young people. If they’re watching the coverage of Charlottesville (and they will be) don’t just talk about “violence” or “people being nasty”. Name the issue. “White supremacy”. “Racism”. “Bigotry”.

Take time to explore with young people what the Bible has to say about racism. Yes, that can be challenging. Which is exactly why we should be doing it.

5. Colouring pencils

There is no such thing as a “skin colour” colouring pencil. Or rather, there are many colouring pencils which could be used to depict the skin colours of various people.

If a child asks you to pass the “skin colour” pencil, and you unquestioningly hand them the nearest thing to a white person’s skin colour, you are part of the problem.

Does that seem trivial? Maybe. But the little things matter, and it’s not just about colouring pencils. To leave a racist assumption unchallenged is to endorse it.