Dear Pastors, Kids Ministry Directors, and VBS Directors in the Great Plains Conference:
Over the weekend, Group’s Vacation Bible School curriculum was the topic of much social media discussion and debate. Group describes its theme, Roar!, as an “epic African adventure [that] engages the whole heart.” At first glance, the theme appears to take on a safari feel, with animals as its central decorating pieces and station names like “Stampede Sports” and “Hungry Herd Café.” Over the course of five days, Roar VBS leads kids through the Exodus narrative and emphasizes that God is good when life is unfair, is scary, changes, is sad, and is good. These are beautiful truths to share with children at Vacation Bible School!
Unfortunately, there are a number of problematic activities, incorrect information, and harmful key elements to its curriculum:
1.) On day one, students are encouraged to pretend they are Israelite slaves and their adult leader is an Egyptian slave driver.
2.) Day four references Africa as a country.
3.) Day five has students imitate “clicks” from the Xhosa language and invites them to incorporate them into their names.
These activities are racially and culturally insensitive.
We are in the middle of VBS season, so for many churches who might have chosen Group’s Roar VBS, it may be too late to redirect and choose another curriculum this year. If that is your situation, please meticulously review the curriculum and make changes, where necessary. Below, I’ve provided some alternatives that you can share with your volunteers so that they provide accurate information about the continent of Africa without appropriating or creating a caricature of various cultures. Please do not condone racially charged activities, language, or behavior during your week of VBS, and do not engage in the prescribed activities mentioned above.
You may find that you have a bit of time to fill on days one and five without the prescribed activities. If this is the case, I encourage you to help your volunteers out by providing an alternative activity. On day one, to help illustrate an unfair situation, you might have the children run a race or have some sort of competition. Give each kid a number, then have the even numbers receive some sort of head start. This is a fantastic opportunity to talk about privilege and unfairness. God is with us all, regardless of our circumstances and how fair or unfair they are. On day five, instead of discussing languages, you might introduce animals unique to African areas and have them make animal sounds. There are other ways to celebrate diversity without objectifying and appropriating people groups and their unique cultures.
These activities are simply suggestions and are in no way prescriptive. You know your context better than I, so if you have a better idea, go for it! You may also want to check out Justice Journey for Kids, a free resource full of activities and discussion guides to help youngsters begin to understand God’s diverse Kingdom and how to respond to injustice.
In my years of kids’ ministry, I lived by this guiding principle: Any moment could be a child’s first memory of church, so make it a good one. We will not force children to relive trauma or make light of the trauma of other people, and we will not ask them to appropriate another culture’s language for fun. Instead of perpetuating injustice, this is a wonderful opportunity to help children learn about seeking justice for all. When God called Moses to join in the liberating work in Exodus, we learn that God hears the cries of the oppressed. My prayer is that we will respond as Moses did, and join in on that work. We worship the God of all nations, races, and cultures, and as Christians, we seek to do no harm. I am praying for you and all the servant leaders engaging in Vacation Bible School this summer as you reach kids for Jesus Christ!