Local church leaders have raised concerns about sections of a Vacation Bible School curriculum they say are racist and culturally insensitive, forcing leaders of some religious summer camps to rewrite parts of the program themselves.
The "Roar" VBS curriculum, published by Group and intended to teach elementary school students central Bible stories, uses the African continent as a backdrop for teaching about the Exodus stories of the plagues of Egypt and Israelis freeing themselves from slavery in Egypt.
Several local faith leaders were particularly troubled by a role-playing activity in which children were expected to pretend to be Israeli slaves making bricks in Egypt, with the camp director acting as a slave master. In another, children were asked to create their own language using "clicks," similar to the Xhosa language. The original curriculum did not include the name of the Xhosa language, or that it is an official language in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Rachel Broughton, St. Paul's Episcopal Church director of children's ministries, said a summer Bible camp is typically not the best time to discuss topics such as slavery and poverty, as the "Roar" curriculum does, because a week-long camp does not have the time to present the topics to elementary school students.
"When you're showing something like poverty [and slavery] in Africa, juxtaposed with crafts and games, how do you handle that sensitively?" Broughton said. "I didn't feel that we could, so we cut that immediately."
Broughton was among the children's ministry staff at St. Paul's who rewrote the "Roar" curriculum to better fit the more than 30 children who attended the church's VBS earlier this month. They changed the Bible story lessons related to slavery to the story of Paul and Silas in prison, Broughton said. The lesson in the director's guide asking children to mimic the Xhosa language was crossed out with green colored pencil and a large "No" written across the entire lesson description.
Several parents had contacted the church with concerns about the original "Roar" curriculum after reading online about the insensitive parts, she said.
Some Chattanooga faith leaders in charge of their church's VBS program said they regularly rewrite parts of the VBS curriculum they buy to better align with their individual church's theological views.
At least seven churches in the Chattanooga area used or are advertising "Roar" for their VBS programs, including St. Paul's, Ooltewah Baptist Church, Christ United Methodist Church, Hixson United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church, Woodland Park Chattanooga and First-Centenary United Methodist Church. Several church leaders using the program did not respond or declined the opportunity to comment.
The staff of First-Centenary are still reviewing and revising the curriculum for their VBS program next week and are expecting around 200 children, said the Rev. Will Lauderback, First-Centenary associate pastor.
Lauderback said the themes presented in the "Roar" program are important but were not articulated in a way that would be beneficial to young people.
"We want to make sure that anything that we offer - from the youngest child to the oldest adult - is being done in a way that affirms people from any of those different segments and creates a welcoming and inviting environment," he said.
Group, the publishing organization behind "Roar," posted an apology June 10 on Facebook and issued an updated version to replace the insensitive parts of the curriculum. Thom Schultz, Group president and founder, said the response showed the previous editing procedures for their curriculums were not adequate.
"We are very sorry and our whole staff is very grieved over the whole situation," he said.
He said Group will involve even more people from a variety of racial backgrounds and create more pointed review questions in the creation of future curriculums. Staff will also complete sensitivity training, Schultz said.
Several critics of the "Roar" curriculum posted a photo of the Group staff on Twitter to highlight the lack of racial diversity. Not having a variety of voices while creating the curriculum likely contributed to the oversight in how some of the lessons would be offensive, said the Rev. Claire Brown, St. Paul's curate.
"Part of the problem here is if you're a white writer and editor and you're creating a curriculum for your white children and white churches, you're not going to think about what it means to go into a religious space and classroom and pretend to be a slave," Brown said.
Christian scholars said the parts of the "Roar" VBS program the public found offensive fit into a larger narrative of racial insensitivity by white Christians and racial segregation between American pews.
Jemar Tisby, author of "The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism," said preventing racist mistakes in the church requires implementing specific structures and procedures to create racial equity. Modern racism is not as explicit as previous iterations, such as Ku Klux Klan members wearing white hoods in public. Instead, racism continues when those in power, or those creating VBS curriculums, have a limited understanding of racial stereotypes and their racial blind spots, Tisby said.
"Racism today, it has never required the specific malicious intentions of a person or group of people," he said. "But [with] the long history of not valuing people of color, you get perspectives like this one."
One of the blinders many white Christians have is a bias toward believing the white Christian interpretation of the faith is the correct and only interpretation, said Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Fordham University theology professor who studies diversity. The other blind spot, she said, comes from an unwillingness among white Christians to confront a racist history in their religion.
For example, the story of the freedom from slavery detailed in Exodus is not just an opportunity for religious communities to discuss the concept of liberation, but also a place to draw connections between the evil in the enslavement of Israelites by Egyptians and the enslavement of Africans by white Europeans. Many white Christians miss those kinds of connections, Hill Fletcher said.
"It appears that there was a missed opportunity in really telling the Christian story and dealing with our failures, dealing with our white Christian failures," Hill Fletcher said. "The entire period of enslavement [in America] was done by white Christians. They justified it with their Bible. We justified it with our Bible."
VBS programs using the "Roar" curriculum will take place in Chattanooga throughout the summer.