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LifeWay’s Asian-Themed VBS Material Draws Protests

“Far-out Far East Rickshaw Rally—Racing to the Son™ is a VBS race that will have kids dashing through the streets of Tokyo, climbing Mt. Fuji, and diving for pearls,” says a promotion of LifeWay Christian Resources’ 2004 Vacation Bible School curriculum on the company’s Web site.
But some Asian Americans are taking offense at the use of stereotypes in Southern Baptist churches like rickshaw races, kimonos, chopsticks, takeout boxes and karate uniforms.

“While LifeWay’s attempt at incorporating diversity into their curriculum is admirable and appreciated, the resulting product is grossly misguided and inappropriate,” contends a Web site, “Reconsidering Rickshaw Rally,” aimed at raising awareness of concerns about the curriculum.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
“It’s devastating and disturbing to know that there are children in many different churches across the U.S. whose first exposure to Asian culture will be this stereotypical, racially offensive material,” says the site, which lists as a contact person the Rev. Soong-Chan Rah, senior pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Mass.
 
The Baptist Convention of New England appears to agree, adopting a resolution earlier this month supporting state convention staff in their decision not to promote the “Rickshaw Rally” material.
 
“We believe that, however unintentional, a mistake was made with this year’s theme,” said Jim Wideman, the state convention’s executive director, quoted in Baptist Press. “Asian Americans in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />New England have found this theme focusing on the rickshaw to be insensitive and to be a poor representation of Asian culture. Some have found it highly offensive. We did not feel that we could stay sensitive to our culture and context in New England and promote this material.”
 
Wideman said the state convention is not at odds with LifeWay and plans to promote other material produced by the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing house as an alternative. A LifeWay spokesperson expressed appreciation for that but disagreed that the material is offensive.
 
“We have listened carefully to every person who has expressed a concern about the curriculum and responded appropriately,” said Mary Katharine Hunt, VBS division project manager, in a statement. “We simply disagree with those who make negative charges about our VBS curriculum.”
 
For every concern raised by an Asian American, Hunt said, “we are receiving dozens of positive responses from Asian Americans that tell us we are fulfilling our intent to lift up another culture and share the message of hope for all people in Jesus Christ.”
 
LifeWay has declined to recall the material or to promote alternatives, but company President Jimmy Draper pledged to review it and “enter into substantive discussion with Asian-Americans regarding the marketing and content of the VBS material,” according to a Sept. 3 update on the “Reconsidering Rickshaw Rally” Web site.
 
But in another update posted Tuesday, Pastor Rah said Draper didn’t follow through with that promise and released the product with no substantive changes. When confronted, he said, Draper replied that LifeWay is “learning in the process” but “the decisions we make in this are ours to make and not yours.”
 
He also stated, “Judge our decisions, not our hearts,” Rah said.
 
“Apparently LifeWay has decided that the protests that have been raised are coming from a small, select group of angry Asians,” Rah said. “They have chosen to ignore these concerns and have elected to proceed with business as usual.”
 
A response letter to earlier criticism from Jerry Vogel, director of childhood ministry publishing for LifeWay, said the content of next year’s VBS material was not intended to be offensive. “While producing the material, we included folks who have served in Asian countries as missionaries and have also consulted people who are native Japanese. Some of our editorial team have actually visited Japan so that we would be as true to the culture as possible. We have not included anything in our materials other than the wonderful and fun elements of the Japanese culture that we have discovered on our own or delved into through research.”
 
But Rah said new material on the LifeWay Web site contains “even more blatantly offensive and racist material.”
 
Among excerpts, he said, are:
 
–A chorus to the theme song which goes, “Wax on, wax off, get your rickshaw ready … to the far out, Far East.”
 
Name tags in the shape of Chinese take-out food boxes, which come in a box of 20 for $5.99.
 
–The entire VBS package comes in a tin shaped like a Chinese take-out food box.
 
Among suggestions from LifeWay’s “Idea Box:”
 
–“I have found that children enjoy large decorations. Use big props, big chop stix, made out of wood.”
 
–“If you have a community theatre nearby, check with their wardrobe master/mistress to see if you could borrow one or two Geisha or Samurai costumes for the director or teacher.”
 
–“You could check in with your local rental suppliers to see if they have the sumo wrestler blow-up costumes for the children to wrestle each other in. If you have never seen this done before, it is hilarious! Pretty much whoever can stay standing wins. This could be done for recreation time or during Family Day/Night and get the parents involved!”
 
Another Web site, angryasianman.com, which describes itself as attacking racism in a “half-joking” manner with exaggerated humor, targeted the LifeWay material when it was released in August.
 
“It looks like someone’s well-intentioned attempt at diversity, but it comes off stereotypical, racially insensitive material.”
 
“While certainly not as blatantly offensive as Abercrombie’s T-shirt designs or the ‘Kung Fool’ Halloween costume, Rickshaw Rally is still a few giant ugly leaps backward,” the site continues. “Absolutely aggravating. That’s racist!”
 
A Baptist ethicist said the theme choice is evidence that “racism has metastasized within Southern Baptist life.”
 
“‘Rickshaw Rally’ represents yet another example of the moral blindness that insults a racial group and seeks to make a profit off of prejudice,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
 
Three years ago Parham criticized two SBC agencies for using an image of a black man on a poster emphasizing a theme of “dispelling the darkness” to raise money for missions.
 
“Southern Baptists cannot address racism with easily forgotten resolutions while playing the race card to generate revenue,” Parham said.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

See also “SBC Mission Agencies Using Racially Controversial Poster” news story from November 2000.