As parents, as followers of Jesus, and as our brother’s keeper, we are all called to the work of justice. And as Rev. John Perkins says, “We are to be incarnated into the pain of those we are called to.”
As parents, and as people of faith, we all have a great responsibility to teach our children well. But, those of us that are in the racial majority have the added opportunity, and the particular responsibility, to train up the next generation in ways that honor God and neighbor. Especially our neighbors of color. If we don’t, who will?
When he was eight, I took my son for his first visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Given the color of my skin and the fact that I have been blessed to obtain a high level of education and income, I have had the privilege of sheltering him from some of the harsh realities of the world and of being the one to introduce and interpret many of them to him when I thought he was ready or it was appropriate. That is simply not possible for many people and it is a privilege that I believe comes with a great sense of responsibility. Not only a responsibility to raise awareness or make a difference but to raise the difference. To advance justice through advancing the Kingdom via parenting.
At the museum we looked at the conditions on the slave ships and the treatment that the enslaved endured he was dumbfounded. “How could people do this?” I could answer that the personal and collective psychology of the perpetrators was one of denial that these captured humans were fully human and had worth. Their lives did not matter. The consensus was that a superior race could do this to an inferior race.
When he saw visual representations of babies being taken from their mother’s breast and separated from them he was visibly upset. He grabbed me tightly and said “What if that was us?” This was a teaching moment that begged the question, “Even under the best circumstances, do you think that trauma would find full healing in our bloodline by the time our great grandchildren got here?”
But this question needed to be asked an age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate way. “How do you think your son and grandson would be affected by you and I being separated?” This led to a discussion in which he was not indoctrinated but in which he could feel and intuit his way through formulating his own answer that I could then accent and guide. I find that teaching him in this way is much more effective than a lecture. A general rule for teaching children this age is that the affective can be effective. He felt this lesson.
All of this is so foreign to him. His heroes, the people he admires most and most longs to be like, have so far been exclusively African American. When he was 5 he was assigned a science project on Pluto. This inevitably led to “The Pluto Files” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson who has been his hero ever since.
He is a vocalist and though he’s starting to get into trendy music, the vocalist he respects the most is Mavis Staples. He is also an avid NBA fan and his heroes in that sport are Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. His love is still pure. That is why I try to preserve his innocence and try to interpret the world to him. Racism is not innate. It is taught. It is a destroyer of innocence that is traumatic to the psyche of the hated and the hater alike.
On the way home I asked, “How you are processing all of this?” He said “That stuff back there, that’s terrorism.” Terrorism. He named it. He got it.
So the task over the next few days was to unpack all that he had experienced that day. To continue the conversation about how these issues, abuses, injustices are still at play in our world today. These realities did not disappear but have simply changed their means of expression. Part of the task was for him to identify where this is currently occurring. “Where are the dark spiritual realities that drove past behavior manifesting today and in what form?” The age-appropriate version of this question: “Where do you see people treated unjustly in similar ways today? Where do you see a similar terrorism happening in our time and place?”
Part of the work for parents is to be intentional about creating experiences that our children can learn from. Visiting museums and memorials is great. But it’s easy to be race tourists if we are not careful. Watching documentaries and learning about civil rights heroes is great. But it’s easy to become race historians if we are not careful. Children also need direct experiences of the present in the present. Contextual learning is extremely important if teaching children about injustice is to translate well. What we are trying to develop are eyes to see and ears to hear. And a constant touchstone for our family is acknowledging that we have a white lens that we have to check continually so that we may hopefully have moments of pure seeing here and there.
More recently, we spent time in the Mississippi Delta studying the murder of Emmett Till and documenting the predatory lending industry in our state which intentionally targets poor, predominantly black communities.
At one point we documented 26 such businesses in a 1.3 mile stretch of a poor rural Mississippi town. The past is still present. It has just found new forms of expression.
We researched predatory lending so that he could get a firm grasp on what exactly that practice entails and who it exploits. The next task was to connect the past to the present for him. But he had already started connecting the dots himself.
The next morning we followed though on an invitation to visit a beautiful, spirit-filled small African American congregation. Silas noticed many one dollar bills in the offering plate. As he added his contribution and passed the plate I noticed that he was trying not to cry. The worship was amazing.
As we sang I noticed him continuing to fight tears. When we got into the car he sobbed. He had experienced the Holy Spirit in many different ways. “What are you experiencing?” I asked. “I can’t believe we did that to them,” he said. “What we white people have done. Those were the most soul flowing people I have ever met. I can’t believe what we have done to them.” This was a major teaching moment. I cried too.
I felt it important to honor the experience we were having, not to shut it down, wrap it up in jargon, or try to make him feel better. But the experience did beg for some containment.
The kind that can only be provided by honoring, bearing witness, and holding space. We stopped at a stop sign and the crossover street was MLK Drive. That signage at that particular moment was a connector for him. The museum, the site of Dr. King’s murder, the slave ships, the Civil Rights movement, the predatory lending, the mass incarceration, the shooting of unarmed black men, Emmitt Till, the Delta, Montgomery, Memphis, the church… it all connected and formed a constellation in his heart and mind.
Through continued tears he talked incessantly about the connections that were forming inside of him. I don’t think I’ve ever watched him grow in real time like that. He was having a profound spiritual experience.
Part of my job here was to address the feeling of guilt that was attempting to narrate his experience. I encouraged him to stick with grief. “Guilt makes it about us. Our task is to be broken and to put that energy of grief into action. We are to be reformed, not deformed, by what we are learning. We are to be not just informed, but transformed, so that we can not only not participate in these things but also do our part in making things better.” “You mean like restoration?,” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “We get to participate in God’s dream for the world. When we do that we are in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
There have since been several instances in which he was convicted and in which I have sought to turn his inner experience into productive outer expressions.
One morning he walked up to me in ears and said, “Dad, I am grieving. Many children in Africa don’t have clean water to drink.” It felt important to join in this experience with him. “Let’s pray,” I said. We prayed about suffering and how we can participate in the suffering of others.
I explained to him that feeling grief was potentially just about us and our feelings, and can be quite useless unless it is seen as, and used as, a catalyst. “Maybe God is instructing you, guiding you, leading you, through this inner experience. Let’s continue to pray that God can use you to address the things that God puts on your heart.” I gave him the task of researching interventions into water shortages and tainted water supplies. He identified a water walk as a way that he can help. We identified a nonprofit to partner with and we plan to follow through on what God has started in him in the near future.
More recently, during a basketball double-header we attended at our local university, he recognized the differences between men’s teams and women’s teams. He was furious. “This is sexism!” he exclaimed. “I’m going to talk to the coaches and administration about this.” On the way home he continued to express his outrage.
I encouraged him to be constructive and, again, to take that inner experience and help it manifest into constructive action. He was given the task of putting what he was feeling into writing as if he were writing to the Chancellor of the university. He did. And it was impressive. He addressed the fact that the women’s team did not receive equal treatment.
Their names, faces, and stats were not on the Jumbotron. Their names were not on their jerseys. He named several more infractions. We have worked on refining this letter together, including some research into how common this practice is across college, professional, and international sports. This research has led to the letter going from an just an indictment of a local practice to a plea for the university to take a leading role in creating systemic change that would hopefully radiate out from there.
As parents, we so often find ourselves on the spectrum between humility and humiliation. In many ways, it’s an impossible job. In addition, when it comes to issues of race, gender, human sexuality, and injustice, we can also feel inadequate, not well enough informed ourselves, and may struggle with the emotional weight that we and our children might face when attempting to stay the course. In many ways, this is optional for those of us in the majority.
We have the luxury of avoiding these conversations. That is part of what it means to have privilege. But children have a natural capacity for empathy and an instinct for justice. This is fertile ground for planting seeds that will bloom throughout their lifetime. If we do our part. We don’t have to be perfect. In fact, the fear of making a mistake ranks high on our lists of why we don’t take action. We don’t have to be perfect. But we do have to be teachable.
As a therapist, parent, and racial healing workshop facilitator, I would say that our largest area for growth is often in being present for our children’s inner experiences in ways that don’t stop with emotion, but move into affirming, equipping, and empowering them to follow their inner promptings.
I can tell you for certain that my personal failings have not been in intention, initiation of conversation, or initiation of action; but in follow-through rooted in long-term commitment. For example, the time lags between my son’s promptings to start a water walk and write a letter to the university and the action on my part necessary for turning these promptings into reality have been far too large. The pace of life can and will take its toll. Competing demands will always be a factor.
But prioritization and commitment are things that can be taught not just through our successes but also our failures, if we acknowledge them and take corrective action. Furthermore, there are also many, many things that I cannot teach. There are many areas in which I must defer to the wise counsel of friends of color, to the guidance of older, wiser mentors, and to the relational networks around us.
What I’ve learned from my son in this process is how to name things from a child-like perspective, how to distill heady concepts down to their essence. I’ve learned that parents can empower children by tapping into their natural tendencies towards empathy and compassion, giving them opportunities to practice these innate characteristics, and guiding them in recognizing, processing, and addressing social injustice at age appropriate levels in the context of a larger hope.
During this developmentally crucial time, we can not only “teach our children well” but “become as little children” ourselves in the process. Raising “woke” children is possibly our greatest opportunity to participate in the Kingdom of God here and now.
Silas and I are presenting together at the Wild Goose Festival this summer. The workshop is entitled “Conversations With Silas: Raising The Next Generation.” That will be one more opportunity for us to share, to learn, and to refine what it is we are building together. If you happen to be at the Goose this year, I hope you will drop by and join the conversation. We’d love to meet you.
Link to Wild Goose Session: wildgoosefestival.org