Category Archives: Spirited Action

TEN THINGS THE CHURCH CAN DO TO HELP ABUSED CHILDREN By Victor I. Vieth, 1st Year MA DL, Sr. Director and Founder, National Child Protection Training Center, Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, WI


“It is to the little children we must preach,
it is for them that the entire ministry exists.”
–Martin Luther

The academy awarding winning movie Spotlight has again focused attention on the relatively recent and widespread failure of the church to protect children from abuse or to respond with compassion when abuse is discovered. Although the church has made important strides in the past twenty-five years, church policies and training continue to lag behind research and what many national experts consider best practice. Although this article includes a checklist for improving church responses to the needs of maltreated children, it begins where it should–with the teachings of our Lord and an exploration of early church views on the maltreatment of children.

Jesus, child abuse and early church history

Jesus scolded the disciples for keeping children away from him and warned that it would be better to be drowned in the sea with a millstone around our neck than to hurt a child (Matthew 18:6). Jesus also had strong words for those who preached in His name but failed to care for those who were suffering—promising to one day tell these false Christians “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23; Matthew 25:41-45).

The early Christians took seriously the words of Jesus and distinguished themselves by opposing the abuse and neglect of children that was common in the Greco-Roman world. In his book Bad Faith, Dr. Paul Offit writes:

Jesus’s message of love for children was embraced by his followers…the church was the first institution to provide refuge for abandoned children [and] the church put pressure on the state to legislate against practices that endangered children.

Ten things the church can to do help abused and neglected children:

  1. Make sure church child protection policies meet minimal standards 

The Centers for Disease Control has promulgated guidelines to assist churches and other youth serving organizations in developing and implementing child protection policies. The CDC guidelines, published under the heading Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth Serving Organizations, are free and online. All churches should review and adhere to these guidelines.

  1. Make sure child protection policies address all forms of abuse

Most child protection policies, including those promulgated by the CDC, focus only on preventing child sexual abuse within a church or another organization. Although commendable, these policies exclude from protection children who are physically abused, emotionally abused or neglected. These policies also fail to protect most sexually abused children since the vast majority of these children are violated in their own homes. Since it is inconceivable that Jesus wanted his followers to protect only a fraction of the abused children in our pews, churches must expand their policies to include all the children in their care.

  1. Require pastors and other called workers, as well as all staff working with children, to be rigorously trained in recognizing and responding to child abuse and neglect

According to numerous studies, the vast majority of clergy and other mandated reporters fail to report even obvious signs of child abuse. When working with survivors, clergy often fail to make appropriate referrals or to coordinate pastoral care with medical and mental health care. In these and other failures, a lack of training plays a significant role. Seminaries should work with child protection experts in addressing this issue before graduating clergy or other called workers and major denominations should require continuing education on these issues.

  1. Provide personal safety education to children participating in church programs 

According to several studies, children are more likely to disclose abuse if they have received personal safety education. This instruction is easily provided and numerous organizations, including the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, have a wealth of information to help churches in providing this essential instruction.

  1. Develop effective child protection and faith collaborations 

The Office of Victims of Crime encourages churches to collaborate with child protection agencies. In Minnesota, for example, an organization called Care in Action helps churches connect with child protection agencies to meet the needs of abused and neglected children in their communities. When an abused child has a need the government can’t provide, such as the entry fee to little league baseball, faith communities share this need with their parishioners and, invariably, one or more Christians agree to help. It is a simple way for churches to share their faith—and to make at least a small difference in the lives of maltreated children.

  1. Have church resources for child abuse survivors 

Clergy and churches should have brochures and other information for families seeking counseling or other services in response to maltreatment. Church libraries should have books and other materials families can easily access. Church websites should include helpful links that will aid families seeking help discreetly.

  1. Address the spiritual impact of child abuse 

Dozens of studies, involving more than 19,000 abused children, document that many abused and neglected children are not only impacted physically and emotionally but also spiritually. This may happen when religion is used in the abuse of a child or simply because the child has spiritual questions such as unanswered prayers to stop the abuse. The American Psychological Association has noted the importance of addressing the spiritual impact of abuse and numerous experts have called for coordinated medical, mental health and pastoral care. The church should be front and center in meeting this critical need.

  1. Tell parents God allows them to discipline their children without hitting them

According to the CDC, as many as 28% of children in the United States are hit to the point of receiving an injury. Often-times, this is done by parents who were lead to believe the Bible requires corporal punishment. Numerous biblical scholars, conservative as well as liberal, have concluded the scriptures do not require parents to hit their children. Unfortunately, pastors are often afraid to make this clear to their parishioners because corporal punishment is deeply ingrained in our culture. Every major and medical health organization in the United States discourages hitting children as a means of discipline and it is time for the church to join this chorus.

  1. Deliver a sermon or conduct a Bible study on child abuse 

Over the years, numerous survivors of child abuse have told me they left the church not because clergy or other faith leaders abused them but because these leaders never spoke up about abuse. One survivor told me that during the years her father was sexually abusing her she desperately wanted to hear a sermon or a Sunday School lesson condemning the abuse of children. She never heard that message and, when she became an adult, she walked away from a church she deemed indifferent to the suffering of children. Still another survivor told me “I used to spend my Sunday evenings listening to the podcasts of all the area churches desperately hoping to find a message about child abuse. I never heard that message and I finally just gave up.”

  1. Listen to the needs of survivors 

Many survivors want the simplest things from their pastors and churches. A woman abused while her father hummed a certain hymn wanted to return to the church but was afraid of hearing that hymn and losing control of her emotions. Another survivor was abused on a church altar and needed to be ministered to in a facility without altars or the traditional symbols that comfort others but were used to violate her tiny frame. These and other survivors are not asking for much but, in order to meet their needs, we must first hear their voices. 


Although millions of child abuse survivors have fled the church, many of them tell me they still cling to Christ. “I love Jesus,” one survivor told me, “because he knows what it is like to be abused.” Another survivor told me that when he feels abandoned by his church, he recalls that Jesus was also rejected by the religious leaders of his era. The fact that so many survivors align themselves with Christ, but not organized religion, is a stark reminder of how far the church has fallen away from the teachings and example of Jesus. It is also a reminder that if we truly desire to find Jesus, we will need to look among the children.

FOOD, FAMILY AND FELLOWSHIP FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NONE Excerpts from “Stories of Hope” ELCA Central States Synod


Childrens Memorial - Lunch Line lr

In the midst of a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Kansas City is a tiny church community where a pastor, outside volunteers and highly-engaged church members have come together to create a sense of hope and joy. . .in spite of their surroundings. The church has been through some very rough times as the surrounding neighborhood has declined. But Pastor Ann Rundquist sees hope. While Ann was at Wartburg Seminary she was asked to do part of her fieldwork at Children’s Memorial. “I bit,” said Ann, “and then I didn’t want to leave.” The church is under synodical administration with an oversight board consisting of the community and synod representatives. “We really are the synod’s church. . .a mission outpost. . .with nontraditional ways,” Ann remarked.

Children’s Memorial Lutheran Church is an ELCA congregation in northeast Kansas City, Missouri that was established in 1884. The church’s name describes the story of its origination. Back in 1882 a capital campaign was conducted where children across the U.S. sent money to the congregation so they could buy land and build a new church. The church and neighborhood prospered into the 1950’s and then declined as its families moved to the suburbs.

Childrens Memorial - Earl Tony Ann lr

Ann was consecrated as a diaconal minister and installed as pastoral leader on May 9, 2013. Because of the needs of the people and as an expression of her diaconal service in this unique ministry setting, she completed additional classes and was ordained and installed as pastor on March 14, 2015. “I am so thankful that ELCA congregations’ support our unique ministry in what many think is an ‘undesirable’ location. Isn’t that where Jesus lived?” Though she serves only part-time, she is breathing new life into an area that is comprised mostly of people who are homeless or living in extreme poverty. “One of my roles is to develop leaders who love to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, welcome others, and serve one another. Our consistent message is ‘come and see.'”

Even in such a poor area, where the total weekly offering might average $5, God is doing something extraordinary. When the plate passed by me during Sunday morning worship, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of the widow’s mite:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” ~ Luke 21: 1–4

“Gone are the days of just a handful worshiping and serving on Sundays. Thirty faithful disciples come together consistently as a Christ driven community,” Ann said. Retired pastor and church member Bill Pape suggested a Saturday morning worship, which gathered 30 people to word, sacrament, service and lots of singing. And the church’s street corner worship on Fridays attracts about 10 people. Bible studies are on Tuesday and Fridays. Two hundred hot nutritious meals are prepared and served each week. Holiday diners (Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas) number about 300.


The church also has a volunteer-run Thrift Store chock full of clothing bargains that helps offset the church’s expenses, and a Clothes Closet that provides free clothing for those in dire need. Pastor Ann is hoping to add a licensed Food Pantry in the near future to meet people’s requests for food to take home. Food can be bought from Harvesters at a discount, but the Pantry needs funding.

Thirteen synod congregations partner with CMLC to serve lunch, donate clothing, provide financial support and prayer. Generosity USA, a local nonprofit agency, funds all the food expenses and in 2015 MLM volunteers donated Christmas gifts. “It is amazing how adults and students come to serve lunch and before long they match their talents with our needs. An Eagle Scout built shelving units and a Girl Scout just brought us twenty Easter baskets. The Chamber of Commerce and Northeast High School partner with us, too. And we look forward to Youthworks volunteering, again, this summer,” Pastor Ann commented.

Childrens Memorial - Earl and Freezer lr

“I’m spoiled rotten!” said Earl the Church Caretaker.
Earl has served as Church Caretaker for three months now. Before that, he lived under a bridge on I-70 and Truman Road. Earlier this year, Children’s Memorial had several robberies of items used in church services, one being the altar cross. The members of the community were quite upset and organized a search. One night they found the cross in the middle of an abandoned lot, shining in the light of the moon.

“It’s a pleasure to volunteer here at the church,” said Earl. “It’s amazing and I’m still getting used to it. I get to help people who have needs most people can’t imagine. I get to use my skills around the church and make dinner for people. I get to sit in a pew and pray early in the morning and late in the day. It’s so peaceful. I’m spoiled rotten! The only thing I don’t like is having food for the kitchen but not being able to hand it out to people to take home. But we are working on setting up a Food Pantry so I won’t have to turn people away any more.”

Pastor Ann found a creative solution to two problems by asking Earl to volunteer at the church. Caretaker Earl makes use of his handyman skills and has fixed long-neglected problems with plumbing and electrical, as well as an issue with the gutters that resulted in water pouring down the stairs of the main entrance people use for the Community Kitchen and Chapel services whenever it rained. He also serves as a cook in the kitchen and is proud of his homemade spaghetti sauce.

“Our ministry is word, sacrament, fellowship, meals, and clothing. Most of the people who come here learn about us from a friend on the street. Creating a safe, family environment has been key in welcoming others as many don’t have families. So we visit, eat, work, and pray like a family. Nutritious meals, which include fruits and vegetables, are often a luxury to our diners. Travel with us from the dinner table to the Lord’s table,” said the determined pastor.

Because of the support from other congregations and God’s grace and abundance, a growing church ministry has been created here at the corner of Independence and Brighton, right in the midst of poverty. Instead of children across the U.S. sending their pennies here to build a new church, local congregations and volunteers are making contributions and driving a short distance to rebuild what was once a thriving congregation.


“There certainly are other churches in our neighborhood,” Pastor Ann said, “yet, people tell me they worship and eat at Children’s Memorial because they feel respected, listened to, understand worship, seek forgiveness of sins, like the food, and have opportunities to participate and lead.”

“The tremendous, collaborative ministry that’s happening at Children’s is a vivid example of what God’s people can do when we work together,” said Roger Gustafson, Central States Synod bishop. “The overall theme we’re exploring as a synod is HOPE, and all of those who are lending a hand at Children’s are showing that in the midst of difficult and challenging circumstances, hope springs to life when we focus on sharing our abundance.”

“As you may guess, we have few ‘frills,’ such as a telephone, janitor, secretary, or musician. However, our followers of Jesus pitch in and take leadership roles to maintain the building, sing solos, prepare meals, and spread the good news of Jesus Christ,” said Pastor Ann. “The majority originally came for a ‘sloppy joe’ meal and stayed for the Lord’s meal. . .over and over again. Jesus instructed us that ‘when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. . .you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

Childrens Memorial - Chapel Service lr
Quick Look at Children’s Memorial Congregation
A recent survey of 53 adults at Saturday lunch found:
64% Have disabilities
42% Receive Social Security disability
17% No income
41% Intermittent jobs: scrap metal, clean parking lots, move furniture
3% Full-time employment
38% No permanent shelter
21% Live outside
21% Have transportation
55% High school diploma or GED
30% Addictions
43% Receive food stamps
34% Former felony convictions
96% Come to Children’s Memorial for food, clothing, and to socialize
87% Attend worship weekly
62% Volunteer at church

Read the article by Rick Moser in it’s entirety here.


Tanzania - 703

During January term this year, my husband Daniel (final-year MDiv student) and I traveled with a group of seven people from Wartburg Seminary to Tanzania. Our goal on the trip was to witness the work God is doing there, and we spent an incredible two and a half weeks visiting a wide variety of ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) including multiple churches, primary and secondary schools, a university and a vocational training school, a rehabilitation center for people with physical and mental disabilities, a hospital, an orphanage, and even a coffee cooperative. We also experienced the tremendous beauty of God’s creation during safari tours through two different national parks, a definite highlight of the trip!

For me, the most meaningful part of the trip was getting to meet Naomi, the young girl I sponsor through Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship organization whose mission is releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name. After traveling almost 10 hours from where we were staying in Arusha to the capital city of Dodoma, I finally came face-to-face with this girl I’ve been sponsoring for almost seven years.

While there, we had a chance to visit the Compassion center and the church Naomi attends. I learned from the site director that I was only the second sponsor to ever make it to that site for a visit, so everyone was very excited to see us. Naomi was fairly shy and a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation, and I’m sure the fact that we didn’t speak the same language didn’t help much (though we did have a translator there to assist). That being said, she became a little more comfortable and relaxed throughout the day, and she and I were able to share a beautiful moment as we sat and looked through the collections of letters and photos we had exchanged over the years.

After our tour of the site, we walked to a local shop where our Compassion host helped me to purchase items like flour, rice, beans, and cooking oil to present as gifts for Naomi’s family. Then we had the opportunity to walk to Naomi’s home and meet her family.

Her house is very modest, consisting only of 1-2 small rooms with clay walls and a dirt floor. There is no electricity in the house and the only furniture was a few wooden stools and a mat on the floor where the family sleeps. However, we were warmly greeted by the entire family and graciously welcomed inside. Naomi lives with her parents and 3 siblings, but we also met her grandparents and multiple aunts, uncles, and cousins whom we suspect also live in the house or nearby.


After being introduced to everyone, I presented the gifts of food as well as a backpack I had brought along packed full of toys, school supplies, hygiene products, candy, etc. Daniel and I also received gifts from the family: a shawl and several clay cooking bowls for me and a ceremonial bow and arrow set for Daniel. We also exchanged words of thanks and prayed for one another, and of course, took lots of pictures. It was an incredible blessing to witness the work of Compassion first-hand, and it’s a day I’m sure I’ll remember and treasure forever!

Tanzania - 748

In addition to visiting Naomi and tour her Compassion site, we also happened to visit two additional Compassion sites located at ELCT churches as well as the main Compassion office in Tanzania. We witnessed again and again the work of this amazing ministry and the real difference it makes in the lives of children. We learned there are about 75,000 children in Tanzania who receive assistance from Compassion and have sponsors just like me. My family has been a supporter of Compassion for many years now, and it’s a commitment that Daniel and I knew we wanted to continue when we got married. Daniel and I have even volunteered at several Christian concerts to help find sponsors for Compassion children.

However, it’s one thing to hear the talks, watch the promotional videos, and hold the child packets, and another thing to actually get to see those faces in person, to hug the girl that you send letters and money to each month, and to meet the incredible people who make sure that money actually helps to make a real difference in the lives of those children.

Through all of these experiences we witnessed the amazing work God is doing through the Lutheran church in Tanzania. We experienced generous hospitality from so many wonderful people who are passionate about proclaiming the love and salvation of Jesus through worship, education, and service. We learned about the challenges of ministering in a nation where the average person lives on about $200 a year. We were reminded of the many things we take for granted here in the U.S such as reliable electricity, paved roads, access to affordable education and quality healthcare, and clean drinking water.

Tanzania - 759

But most of all, I was reminded of the simple yet profound truth that God is God no matter where you go. God’s church in Tanzania is not all that different from God’s church in the U.S., and while we may look different, dress or eat differently, or face different challenges in life, God is still God, and God is still good!



Sarah Wicks is pursuing an M.A. in Social Work and an M.A. in Diaconal Ministry. She writes this article describing her joint degree work.

I’ve spent a lot of time this school year at the Almost Home shelter located at St. John’s Lutheran Church in downtown Dubuque. In my role as a social work field placement student at Project Concern, I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the work at St. John’s and am involved with the lives of the shelter residents. St. John’s Lutheran is such a beautiful example of the powerful relationship that can exist between the worlds of social work and diaconal ministry.

One of my former social work professors told me once that, “social work is not just about understanding who the people are that we serve, but to more deeply understand what is happening in their lives and in their community that influences their lives and brings them to seek your services.” Social work is about seeing the visible and invisible social systems of power, poverty, racism, classism, and privilege at work and applying that understanding to the work we do with people. In my own understanding of diaconal ministry, I also see it as essential that we can identify and incorporate those visible and invisible systems into the work we do on behalf of congregations within the community.

St. John’s Lutheran is a powerful example of a congregation that saw those systems at play in their community and sought to build a bridge between the congregation and the people in the wider community. The shelter provides overflow beds for the Dubuque Rescue Mission and can shelter up to 12 men at a time. They offer showers, laundry services, social supports, and work with Project Concern and people like me to connect the shelter residents to rehousing programs. As someone who has training in social work and is also learning the fine art of diaconal ministry, I can speak both languages and that has been a critical resource. I understand the mission of the church and the history of downtown, urban churches that are declining in membership and have a need to fill their unused spaces.

I also understand the needs of the community, which I learn from the people I serve, and the programs in we participate. I can serve as a case manager for the shelter residents to get them back into permanent housing and connect them to supportive services. It is a really wild and exhilarating position to be in! I’m so grateful for congregations like St. John’s that have taken on this diaconal work and are doing it so well in their communities. I pray that we all continue to listen to the callings in our own lives, and to be creative in considering ways that we can continue to bridge these experiences and backgrounds with congregations and communities we will serve in the future.


“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body” (Col. 3:14-15, NRSV).

The Wartburg community gathered together on campus as brothers and sisters March 4th in love and fellowship for the specific purpose of participating in God’s mission (mission Dei).  Individuals entered into conversation with their own past experiences of racism and the division that it causes.  Some entered desperately seeking ways in which to participate in God’s work of reconciliation and the healing of wounds caused by racism.  People were guided by the power of the Holy Spirit to struggle together with questions of what to do about racism within our Church, our communities, and even within our own selves.

Through the teaching, sharing, and practice of some skills on how to go about carrying out a conversation surrounding the topic of racism, the night progressed quite quickly.  As I observed the group with which I shared conversation and also looked around at other groups, I felt a strong sense of passion and emotion flowing among participants.  At the end, when the entire group gathered together for a sharing of final reflections, many ideas and emotions reverberated throughout the narthex: Heartache, Hope, Determination, Acceptance, Love, Pain, Resolve… These words along with the stories and shared experiences I heard that night will stay with me forever.

My hope is that others left that night with a sense of purpose and hope for the future just as I did. A strong mix of emotions flowed through my very being but one thought stuck with me:  the conversation continues because it must.  The Church has everything to lose if it does not continue to address racism through conversation and action.  We must realize that we, as the Body of Christ, are not whole when certain voices are being ignored or silenced.  My hope is that the Holy Spirit will continue to stir within us all, not only just in the Wartburg community, but in the whole world.  Let us not be content with the state of the Church right now.  Let the Word of God continue to unsettle us when we hear it and look around us at the walls that separate us.  Let the reconciling work of Christ work in and through us all, and let us come to the fullness of glory because of it. May almighty God give us God’s own peace.


KNOCK AT THE DOOR By Paul Waterman, Final-Year MDiv

I love to have company. The idea of having a house full of people, laughing and conversing, makes my heart swell. Providing hospitality and sharing my kitchen, dining room, and living room to host a gathering is among my favorite things. It all starts with a knock on the door! There is great anticipation to see who has arrived. However, I have a new perspective as a result of a January term trip in 2016.

A classmate and I were invited to a house in Austin, Texas, share a meal and conversation. The pastor, Pastor Joe, who himself is an immigrant from Central America, but currently serves a Latino congregation near Austin, Texas. prepared us for the home visit. We were given some details about the people which revealed the complexity of the living situation for this immigrant family. Three people lived in a duplex: one who is a dual citizen of El Salvador and the United States, their child, who is a natural-born citizen of the United States, and an ‘undocumented immigrant.’ I struggle using words to describe this individual who has arrived in the United States from Central America because of human-made boundaries (we call them borders). For this writing, I will use “undocumented immigrant” because it is the most fitting term. For this story, he will be referred to as Bill.

The family of three, the pastor, my classmate, and I were gathered around the family’s dining room table to enjoy a meal. We prayed and dug in. The food was absolutely delicious and the conversation was deep! All was well with our souls and stomachs as we reached for seconds. Then, things all changed.

There was a knock on the door. Time stood still. People froze. Silence rushed into the dining room. The atmosphere changed. The mood had taken an about face. There was another knock. The husband/father of the house, Bill, stood up and walked to the door. All eyes followed him. I can’t speak on behalf of the others around the table, but I immediately feared the worst, that ICE had arrived. We were going to see the ‘apprehension’ in front of our eye. This beautiful family was about to be torn apart! I was speechless and uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to respond.

Being an Iowa native, I was familiar with the ICE raids in Postville in 2008 and was faintly familiar with the difficulties that immigrants face daily. Bill had talked about being employed in the United States without having ‘legal documents.’ Bosses treated him differently, often withholding pay or only paying a portion of what was owed. Work hours were long; there are no ‘safety precautions’ for people without documents. They can be replaced easily by the next person looking for a shot at a better life. The working conditions were often treacherous. But what really got to me was the fear of driving. Every trip in the car could be the last time in the United States. Every law enforcement officer poses a threat of possible deportation.

Bill answered the door, and two gentlemen were outside waiting for him. The one on the right had a hat on with the logo of a local collegiate sports team. The other one was wearing a camouflage jacket. They said something to Bill that I couldn’t hear, and he walked outside. Seconds felt like hours. The silence was deafening. The tension was thick. A few seconds later, Bill returned–smiling! The men were repossession agents who were looking for someone and they had been given the wrong address. Bill made a joke about them taking his wife’s car, and we laughed. Bill sat back down and supper continued. Things were the same, kind of, for the rest of the evening.

The thoughts and feelings I had during those brief moments of unknowingness led me to a reality outside of my own experience and into the life of the roughly 11 million ‘undocumented immigrants.’ Nothing is simple; there is no such thing as a quick trip to the store. Every element of public life is a heightened experience, with the thought of apprehension looming. I cannot fully understand what Bill was going through when he heard the knock on the door, but I am certain that it is much different than what I feel from unexpected knocks on my door. What I do know is I have been changed; I have seen my neighbor differently. Looking at this experience through Bill’s lens has changed my life. Every knock on the door now takes me back to a dining room with friends, new and old, when the rhythm of the world was out of sync for a few moments. Thanks be to God for opportunities of transformation.

BLACK HISTORY AND WHITE PARENTING By Elle Dowd, Candidate for Ordination in the ELCA


(photo credit Fresh Blend Media in St Louis.

When other white folks hear about the way my family was formed via transracial adoption, they will often respond with some well-meaning phrase that goes something like, “Oh how great!  Everyone knows that it doesn’t matter what color a child’s skin is, love is all they need!”

In some ways, I know what they mean. I agree that, as Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms puts it “Love is the most powerful force in the universe for social change.”  But when that statement is coupled with words saying my child’s skin color “doesn’t matter”, it gives me pause.

Because even though I grew up in white suburbia on a steady diet of Colorblind Ideology, my conversations with adult transracial adoptees [1], the anti-racism training I’ve received, and my work following the Uprising in Ferguson, Missouri have lead me to understand that while being “colorblind” sounds nice, it does nothing to dismantle the system of racism and only serves to erase the experiences of people of color.

That’s something that doesn’t sound very loving at all. [2]

trust anyone
who says
they do not see color.
this means
to them,
you are invisible.”
― Nayyirah Waheed , salt.

I don’t want to erase my daughter’s Black skin.  I don’t want to tolerate it.  I want to celebrate it as one of the best parts about her.  “Dear one,” we whisper to her as we rub coconut oil over her luminescent dark, African skin, “Your melanin ties you to all kinds of beauty and power throughout the ages.”

Representation matters to children.  To be able to see themselves reflected in the world around them justifies their existence in the world and gives them role models to aspire to.  This is crucial for all children, but it is particularly important for children like my daughter who does not see her own face reflected back in the faces of her parents.  Our mainstream culture in general is awashed in whiteness, and so this takes some special consideration and effort.  Love might be enough, but often love requires mindfulness and intentionality.  Love requires sacrifice.  Love requires reflection, repentance, learning.  As a white parent of a Black child, I try to be conscious of the pictures on my wall, the neighborhood I live in, and the media I consume. This is a job for us year round. My daughter is Black all day every day, 24/7, forever and ever, amen, and thank God for that.

Yet I look forward to February.

February is Black History Month.  And in our family that means it is a special time to really lean into and celebrate our daughter’s Blackness. [3]


In our family that means this: we go through her entire collection of books and pull out all of the Black History ones.  She has an enviable collection, thanks to gifts from family and friends who understand how important representation is for the development of her racial identity. After nightly prayers and family devotions, we have story time. We commit in February to only read bedtime books about Black History, with Black protagonists, or African/African American folk tales. This might mean that we read an illustrated version of one of Maya Angelou’s poems, read one story from “The People Could Fly”, a gift given to her by Womanist Theologian Candace Simpson, and then wrap up with reading a biography about Wangari Maathai from Kenya.


Before bedtime each night in February, after our activities and homework and dinner, we like to watch a documentary or a piece of a biopic about Black History.  “Watsons go to Birmingham” is a favorite of my daughter’s, although between the recent PBS documentary on the Black Panther Party and Beyonce’s new lyrics  my daughter has become a fan of documentaries of revolutionaries with Afros.  A lot of the documentaries and films take a lot of unpacking. A lot of them are hard to watch. We leave plenty of time for questions and plenty of room for feelings.

And then each year for Black History Month, we do a project as a family.  Last year in 2015, my daughter interviewed prominent Black leaders in our community. She interviewed one West African immigrant who works for the Army, Johnetta Elzie, one of the important voices coming out of Ferguson and St. Louis as part of the Movement for Black Lives, one older church member who marched with MLK Jr. when she was my daughter’s age, 8 years old, and one trans Jew of color.  Our daughter knows that Blackness and the Black experience is as diverse as it is beautiful.  She wrote the interview questions herself, took notes, and wrote a report for each of them.


This year for Black History Month 2016, we chose an artistic, creative project.

Together, with help from her dad who is an artist, she made a mask out of her favorite influential Black folks. My daughter is a West African immigrant, so the mask symbolized Africa, since we have a lot of West African masks in our house it is a symbol that makes sense to us. They created the mask, paper-mache style, in the shape of my daughter’s face, connecting all the power and beauty of these Black Americans back to Mama Africa.  My daughter researched each of these people and chose them herself, from well-known historical figures like Harriet Tubman all the way to contemporary leaders like the founders of Millennial Activists United in Ferguson. These are the people who made a way for my daughter and whose stories and courage helped to form her.

AlicesArt2 AlicesArt1AliceWearingHerArt

This might seem like a lot of extra work, but unfortunately, its necessary.  The more I learn about Black History, the more I am aware that outside of Rosa Parks and MLK Jr, most of us weren’t taught much in our schools.  For example, how many of us white folks know anything about Fred Hampton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker?  How many of us have heard about the bombing of MOVE or Black Wallstreet?  More and more it is becoming clear, we are seeing a blatant white-washing of history because as Naoimi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “In this country we teach history to teach pride, not to learn from it’s lessons.”

As parents and as Christians, we are charged with telling the Truth.  And so here is where I plead with you, parents and faith leaders:

It should not only be Black children who are learning Black history.  White children, white adults, white churches need to take up this task.  We must be able to see the image of God in our neighbors, and in times such as these, that means our Black neighbors especially.  We need to know that Black Lives Matter because Black lives, like all lives, were created in the Image of God.  When we teach and learn about Black history and Black contemporary leaders and issues, we are showing that we believe that Black people matter, that their contributions were important. We are saying, “We see you. You are not invisible to us. We are willing to learn.”  During this season of Lent, this means confessing that as white parents and as church leaders, consciously or unconsciously, we have not always taught that Black Lives Matter, that they are made in the image of God, that Black history and Black representation is essential. I am challenging you to do this, as a faith leader, but as a parent, I am begging.  I am begging you to help create a world where my daughter can grow up safe and celebrated, knowing that she matters to her neighbors because she matters to God.

It’s a task that must happen year-round, 24/7 for a lifetime, for generations.

But maybe we could start this February.


Elle Dowd is a candidate for ordination in the ELCA, planning to attend seminary this fall. She has been active in the Uprising in Ferguson, MO. To read more of Elle’s writing, check out her blog.

[1] To hear what adult transracial adoptees have to say about their experiences, read Simon’s “In Their Own Voices”.

[2] For an amazing article on why Colorblind Ideaology is harmful, full of tons of links, please see the article 7 Reasons Why ‘Colorblindness’ Contributes to Racism Instead of Solves It.

[3] In some ways I find this rhythm similar to how I work with the liturgical calendar. As Christians we are called to confession, repentance, and special care for the poor YEAR ROUND, yet during Lent we have a special time to be reminded and to really lean into it.  My daughter is Black year round and representation for her is always a top priority. But February is a time to lean into it, to be reminded.