Charleston churches modify African-themed VBS curriculum containing insensitive material

The photo displays the thematic setting for ROAR, an African-themed Vacation Bible School curriculum that was criticized for material that instructed children to pretend to be Israelite slaves.

After receiving a summer Bible school curriculum that many said promoted racist stereotypes, Charleston area congregations have modified the study to discuss with children the brutal realities of slavery.

Group Publishing, a company that produces educational resources for churches, compiled an African-themed Vacation Bible School lesson this summer that received criticism because it instructed children to pretend to be Israelite slaves, with the camp leader acting as an Egyptian slave master.

The study also asked children to make up names using what the study called a clicking sound used in the African Xhosa language.

The company apologized and released a revised version, but some congregations had already revised lessons for their summer VBS sessions where children learn about the Bible through plays, arts and crafts, and other creative activities.

Laura Elsey, the preschool pastor at New Covenant Church of God in North Charleston, said she raised concerns immediately after receiving the material weeks ago.

Church leaders rewrote the lesson and instead of having youths imitate slavery, camp leaders talked about the cruelty of forced labor. Faith leaders also omitted video clips that came with study about the African language that church leaders found culturally insensitive.

“I think teaching it is OK," Elsey said. "But not having the kids making light of something that is cruel.”

The multicultural congregation has members who've lived in Africa, Elsey said, and several of the children who attended the VBS session are African American. 

The congregation's VBS efforts are part of the broader message that in Christ, there's no division, the church's pastor Marc Campbell said.

"At church, nobody should feel ashamed," Elsey said.

Predominately white congregations conveyed similar sentiments, expressing shock that something culturally insensitive could fall through the cracks.

The United Methodist Church Commission on Religion and Race issued a statement that denounced the curriculum for leaning into long-held stereotypes about African people and culture, while glossing over one of the defining moments in Biblical history. The study could have offered child-appropriate lessons about how slavery operates and assertions that God is on the side of the oppressed people, the church said.

Megan Lineberger, an associate pastor at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, said the goal for its mostly white membership is to "be inclusive of all people." The church used the revised VBS ROAR material for its summer studies.

"We're not going to support something that has language hurtful to somebody," Lineberger said.

In an initial response weeks ago, Group Publishing defended its curriculum, stating, “Even though some of these biblical accounts are ugly, we feel it’s important to help children truly understand what is recorded in the Bible, and grow in their relationship with the Lord.”

That statement was deleted from social media shortly afterward and the company followed up with an apology for any "misunderstanding, insensitivities, or hurt we have unintentionally caused."

The Roar curriculum was written by three staff members with extensive background in Christian education and curriculum development, but none of the three is African American, said Thom Schultz, president of Group Publishing.

Schutlz said the group did conduct fields tests with children and families from various ethnic backgrounds, including African Americans, who did not raise any cultural concerns about the Roar curriculum.

"Obviously, we need to do better," Schultz said. "We are committed to learn from our mistakes, and put in place more efforts to make sure every aspect of our programs is highly respectful, inclusive, sensitive, spiritually enriching and educationally excellent."

Moving forward, the group is developing plans to expand consultants and contributors, particularly from minority groups, who work with and review materials prior to publication, Schultz said. He added the publishing company plans to form an additional advisory group to help with cultural sensitivities.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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