Difference, diversity: Welcome all

Jan SnellEvery Family Matters

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When we look outside our windows, it is clear that our creator is a big fan of diversity.

Yet in 2013, a cereal commercial has generated hate mail to the company that produces the cereal. Why? Because the commercial depicts a little girl, her Caucasian mom, and African-American dad.

The angry reaction makes me wonder:
How would that family be welcomed in my congregation?
How would that little girl be accepted in our Sunday School?
Will that little girl be bullied at school or on the playground?

In Minnesota, where I live, civil marriage between same sex couples became legal as of August 1. Many of our congregations and most of our communities include single parent families, immigrant families, or families of racial or cultural diversity. Will families with two dads or two moms find a place to worship and serve in our churches?

Bias is taught. Hate does not come naturally to a child. Hate, bullying, and fear of the “other” are taught in homes, schools, churches, and neighborhoods. And often bias is taught with no actual intent to hurt or harm even though that can be the result. If bias can be taught, acceptance can be taught as well.

Bullying makes headlines somewhere every day. Children are bullied for many reasons, including race, socio-economic status, gender, and family configuration. A company in St. Paul,  called AMAZE. (www.amazeworks.org) came into being in response to incidents of bias and bullying in Minneapolis Public Schools. According to AMAZE staff, 75% of bullying is related to bias. But bullying and teasing do not have to be a part of growing up. They can be prevented through honest conversation, asking questions, and getting accurate answers.

In 1996, the Families All Matter Book Project was created by AMAZE and is now used in 26 states coast to coast. In this program, children’s literature is used to help children understand diversity. Since then an early childhood program has been developed, and now a faith program that was piloted in four ELCA churches has been added.

To quote from AMAZE literature:
Imagine a school and community that thrive with its differences.
Where everyone is included and treated fairly.
Where differences in family, personalities, race, ethnicity, economic class, sexual orientation, gender, age, religion and abilities are valued.

AMAZE curriculum for faith communities teaches acceptance, inclusion, and love for preschool through youth. The Families All Matter Book Project explores 10 different themes of diversity: families are different, race/ethnicity, divorce and break-ups, GLBT family members, socioeconomics, immigration, adoption, disability, aging and religion.

The material developed for churches helps congregations use familiar faith language to teach children about difference and acceptance of difference as part of the amazing diversity that is reflected in all that God has created.

Some congregations have used the Families All Matter-Faith material in intergenerational settings, where people of all ages and stages hear the stories and then explore the themes through conversations, questions, and activities. Some congregations use the material in classroom settings as a special unit of study. In my congregation, we used the Families All Matter curriculum in a Sunday morning enrichment setting.

We began by inviting parents to a meeting so that they could review the books, explore the materials, and ask questions. The majority of parents were supportive, and the materials as well as the stories are very age-appropriate.

Parents were emailed prior to each session, informing them of the topic, the book(s), and also providing families with ideas for follow-up conversations at home.

The discussion and activities vary according to the age of the children. For example, “persona dolls” are included in the preschool program. The dolls are lifelike examples of children of different races and ethnicities, and each doll has its own story and personality, reflecting the 10 themes of the AMAZE curriculum. Used in a classroom, the persona doll becomes another member of the class, and the children develop a relationship with the doll. The doll “tells” the children about being teased because she wears a hijab, for example, and the children respond with ideas of how to stand up for a friend being teased, or ideas of how to help a target of teasing feel better after being teased. Compassion and empathy are developed.

Nancy Michael, the executive director of AMAZE, related a story of a young Caucasian girl who was particularly taken with the persona doll Rahma, who is Muslim and wears the hijab. When this little girl started kindergarten, her first friends were little girls who wore the hijab, because they were familiar and because of a friendship developed with a doll.

Other benefits of using the Families All Matter-Faith materials is that parents and other adults are empowered and equipped to know how to have the conversations about difference when their children ask questions. It is a safe and inviting way to learn about difference, and helps to build community. Offering this program in churches has helped congregations to broaden the diversity in the congregation.

As we look for ways to be welcoming of all people and to respond to God’s call to act on the Golden Rule, this is one resource that churches may want to consider. For more information about Families All Matter–Faith, go to www.amazeworks.org

Jan Snell, director of children’s Christian education, serves The House of Hope Presbyterian Church PC (USA) in St. Paul, MN. She holds a diploma in Lay Ministry–Christian Education from United Theological Seminary. Jan has been a workshop presenter at the APCE annual event, and a contributor to the APCE Advocate.