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The Big Lie of Racism

Educators at St. Chrysostom's and St. Christopher's Expand Montessori-Based Program with Churchwide Grant

Last summer, in the wake of protests over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Will Bouvel and Jen Holt Enriquez enrolled in an online class about talking with children about racism. The class was secular in approach, but Bouvel, director of children’s ministries at St. Chrysostom’s, Chicago, and Enriquez, director of Christian formation at St. Christopher’s, Oak Park, recognized each other from their work in the Diocese of Chicago.

The class, Bouvel recalls, was ultimately unsatisfying. “We took it offline and said, ‘We should do this through faith,’” he says. “It was very difficult to talk about racism in a secular frame because the discussion lacked a common value system. But our faith has concepts it can offer to this big confusing problem.”

Using a Montessori-based storytelling method, the pair developed a story called The Big Lie of Racism that introduces children to the idea that “racism tells us a lie about who we are, and it is still at work in our world,” Bouvel says. “And the way we know it is a lie is what we know about ourselves through God in Jesus. Anything that says some people are better than others is not of God, and not of us.”

Using the story, which explains racism as a chain reaching across U.S. history, Enriquez and Bouvel launched a five-week Lenten children’s program called Tell Me the Truth About Racism on Ash Wednesday. The program, which included about 30 children from 20 families, culminated in students leading the renewal of the Baptismal Covenant at both congregations’ Easter Vigils.

The goal, Bouvel says, was to “hold up the children as the people who are leading us in this way. If we focus on the future and on preventing children from growing up with the racial bias we grew up with, that is a huge way for our church to show up.”

Preparing clergy, vestry and parents was key to the program’s success, Enriquez says. Knowing that parents would want ways to participate in what their children were learning, she and Bouvel convened an online discussion of “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America,” a book by the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey, an American Baptist pastor. The group met during Epiphany so that parents were ready for the experience their children would have during Lent.

“Parents were thankful that we were opening these discussions with kids and walking with them as they explored these issues in their families,” Enriquez says. “They were thankful that they were part of a church that was raising these issues.”

Based on the success of the pilot, Bouvel and Enriquez approached the bishop’s staff about applying for an Episcopal Church Becoming Beloved Community grant. The funds, which were awarded by the church’s Executive Council in June, will help train other Christian educators in the Diocese of Chicago and beyond to use The Big Lie of Racism story with children in their own congregations. Training sessions made possible by the grant will take place on evenings in September and October, and interested educators can apply online.

In preparation for expanding their program, Bouvel and Enriquez, who are both white, realized they needed guidance from Black leaders to ensure that their curriculum was culturally competent and appropriate for children from all backgrounds. They contracted with Miriam Willard McKenney, a Black Episcopal leader who works at Forward Movement and Calvary Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Crystal Elliott-O’Connor, a Chicago-based expert in congregational care and early childhood education.

“I think that for a long time, white people have thought that the work of dismantling racism was the work of Black people,” McKenney says. “Dismantling racism is not my work. But it’s extremely important to me that it gets done, which is why I want to walk with Will and Jen. White people are often more willing to ask difficult questions about racism of other white people than of people of color. In spaces where white people are leading, other white people can say what they need to say and ask questions without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings. And when I attend trainings, I open myself up for people to ask questions, because sometimes people don’t know any people of color well enough to ask the hard questions.”

McKenney, an experienced Montessori teacher and parent, also helps the program find developmentally appropriate ways to talk with young children about the violence of racism.

“We don’t have any more brutality in the story [The Big Lie of Racism] than we do in other scripture lessons,” she says. “People are dying in the Bible, and not everyone gets treated fairly. So we can tie the story back to things that happened in Bible stories kids already know. Bias starts taking root early, and my personal experience is that kids want to talk about difficult things with adults who care about them. It’s all to the glory of God and seeing God in each other, and kids can see that.”

Humility and willingness to learn is essential for white leaders working on issues of racism, Bouvel says. “We’re not going to get everything right, but when we can admit that we’re not going to get everything right, we’re more curious. But we have to try.” The fall training sessions will include Black teacher training participants, he says. “I’m really honored that people of color have looked at what we’ve done and decided to participate.”

“We’ve had really positive feedback, and Will and I both know that we can go deeper,” Enriquez says. “This work is not ‘read three books, do a workshop, check.’ We need to keep exploring.”

Parents, educators, clergy and vestry members can learn more about Tell Me the Truth About Racism on the program’s website and apply to take part in the fall training program online.

image: Enriquez, left, and Bouvel