Baptist summer Bible school curriculum offends some Asian-Americans

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) It's meant to help children learn about their faith, but the Southern Baptists' curriculum for next year's summer Bible school is drawing fire from some church officials and Asian-Americans who say its images and title ''Rickshaw Rally'' promote stereotypes.

The teaching tool is built around a race through Japan, with children running through Tokyo streets, climbing Mount Fuji and diving for pearls.

But the curriculum's central image, the rickshaw, along with photos on its Web site featuring young people dressed in kimonos and eating out of takeout boxes with chopsticks have been called ''grossly misguided and inappropriate'' by critics.

At least one group of Southern Baptists in New England voted last month not to use the curriculum from the LifeWay Christian Resources publishing house in Nashville.

''We just determined that it was insensitive to Asian culture, and we didn't feel we could stay sensitive to our culture and context in New England and promote this material,'' said Jim Wideman, executive director of the Boston-based regional convention, which includes 240 Southern Baptist churches in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

''We felt that this material, however unintentionally offensive, could prove to be a huge stumbling block for us as we attempted to reach and minister to Asian-Americans.''

Wideman said the New England convention will use alternate material from LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Vacation Bible Schools vary from church to church, but they are typically three-hour, five-day courses in the summer for children in first through sixth grades.

More than 1 million children are expected to attend Vacation Bible Schools next summer in churches that belong to the SBC, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

The main complaint about the ''Far-Out Far East Rickshaw Rally Racing to the Son'' material is the prominent image of the rickshaw, a two-wheeled passenger cart pulled by a person.

The Rev. Paul Kim of Berkland Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., and a trustee on the Southern Baptist Convention's international missions board, said the rickshaw is ''an image of poverty in Asia,'' outlawed in many countries.

''We want to have children of future generations to have the right understanding of who Asians are,'' Kim said.

He wrote LifeWay President Jimmy Draper, a friend for three decades, and was disappointed at his response, which was that the materials were not meant to offend.

''But they do offend,'' Kim said.

Some have also complained that the Vacation Bible School promotional materials are distributed in a container that looks like a Chinese food takeout box.

''While LifeWay's attempt at incorporating diversity into their curriculum is admirable and appreciated, the resulting product is grossly misguided and inappropriate,'' said the Rev. Soong-Chan Rah, pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church on a Web site criticizing ''Rickshaw Rally.''

LifeWay officials say they have had very few complaints.

''We're getting really great response from across the country, saying it's the best curriculum we've done,'' said Mary Katharine Hunt, LifeWay's Vacation Bible School project manager.

She said the rickshaw was chosen because it's a ''fun form of transportation'' found in tourist areas of Japan. Other symbols were used because ''kids are very literal-minded. We had to have things they could wrap their minds around.''

Missionaries in Japan, a Japanese pastor and media consultant assisted with the development of the materials. Hunt said some changes were made to the Web site and its music to address concerns.

E.C. Haskell, executive administrator of mission relations for the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, said, ''I tend to look at it a little like the sports teams that are named after various American Indians.

''It was done not out of derision, but as a proud symbol. From what I can tell, what they're trying to do is make children aware of cultures around the world.''

But Rah said that ''a group of white Americans in Tennessee are deciding this is the way they want Asians to be portrayed. And when Asians say it's offensive, they're not taken seriously.''

He said a seventh-grader who issued a school report on Japan that included Chinese takeout boxes, rickshaws and dialogue from ''Karate Kid'' movies would fail.

''If you hold a seventh-grader to that standard,'' he said, ''you should hold a huge corporation that will profit in the millions off this curriculum to that standard as well.''

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