The Church Bus

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Image: El Primo

The Church Bus

It’s just about that time of year when the church bus from the local Baptist church drives through my neighborhood each Sunday. The driver is a woman named Mary, who wakes up early and crisscrosses town picking up children.  She knocks on doors, helps kids into the old 15-passenger van with the church’s logo on the side, and takes them to Sunday school/worship.  And every summer I face a moral dilemma: should I let my kids get on that church bus or not?

Mary seems like a nice enough person. In fact, she and my husband know each other from work. Many of my children’s friends get on that bus every Sunday, so I figured that other parents must trust her. When my son’s best friend asked him to go to church with him one Sunday, I decided to call his parents and ask for more information. They said that Miss Mary was very nice and that the kids always have fun. The parents never attend services themselves, but the kids attend every Sunday morning. Mary picks them up early and brings them home just after lunch time. Sometimes she even takes them out to lunch.

My husband and I agreed to let our son get on the bus and try the church out once with his friend. It’s not often that our kids actually ask to go to church. We want them to explore their feelings about religion, and ultimately we’d like for them to decide on their own what they believe.  The little Baptist church seemed like a good place for our oldest to start exploring his feelings about God. When I walked my son out to the van it was already very full. Kids were tightly squeezed into seats and it worried me.  But something else worried me more: Mary was the only white person on the bus. Every kid on that bus was either Black or Mixed.

My husband grew up Baptist. In fact, no less than five of his uncles are ministers. I have wonderful memories of listening to his cousins sing in the choir, and hearing his uncles preach truths that left me with goosebumps. I did not grow up Baptist, but after visiting the family’s churches and thinking about the diversity of our neighborhood I assumed that the church was one that is attended by Black folks.

I was wrong.

When my son returned home I heard some shocking news. All of the congregation members and ministers at the church are white. All of the kids they recruit for Sunday school are not. Still, I kept an open mind. When my two daughters asked if they could attend church with their friends, I agreed to let them try it once. When they returned home, my youngest daughter was hyped up on sugar. I discovered that the Sunday School program offers kids candy for attending. They bribe them with toys and treats. They lead the children to believe that Sunday school is for eating junk food and playing with friends, not for learning about God and religion. The girls told me that their friends were so happy they’d decided to go to church because they’d met their goal of having 10 visitors. Meeting the goal meant they’d earned a class trip to McDonald’s.

My middle daughter was not hyper, but she was upset about something she’d heard at church. The minister who preached in the service after Sunday school said that the children there were all sinners who needed to repent or be sent to hell.

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My husband and I both acknowledge and accept the fact there are many religions that believe in hell. But it really bothered us–me in particular–that a white preacher would preach such beliefs to a room full of Black and Mixed children. We had to wonder, does this minister know anything about the children and the choices they’ve made? Or is simply being a person of color a sin in his mind? Do all people of color need to join his church to be saved from the fires of hell?

These white church members remind me of  old-fashioned missionaries. They do not respect our diversity. Instead, they think that anyone who is different from them needs to be saved. While I feel strongly about keeping my children away from this church, my husband thinks it is okay for them to attend. He considers it a learning experience for them. I am not sure it is the kind of learning I want them to do. Last summer we debated and debated until I finally came up with a plan: if the kids want to go to church, and we want them to learn about and explore religions, we must lead them on a journey of exploration.

I started researching local churches, temples and synagogues. I called to find out about services, educational opportunities and visitor policies. I told Mary, the church bus driver, that she no longer needs to stop at our house. If we decide to attend her church I will drive them myself and sit in on Sunday School to see what my kids are being taught. We started visiting different churches and are still in the process of learning about all of the religious institutions in our area.

My children were upset that they would no longer have access to free candy and said they would miss seeing their friends on Sunday mornings. They still whine about it every so often.  But we have begun a new journey together. We are looking for ourselves, for acceptance, and for a spiritual home that celebrates us rather than condemning us to hell. Our search will continue this summer. Meanwhile, the church bus will make its rounds, picking up all the kids of color in our neighborhood so they can be saved.

 

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Jen Marshall Duncan

Jen Marshall Duncan has been in an interracial relationship for almost 20 years. She and her husband have three biracial children ages 8-12. She lives in a diverse college town in Iowa, and is a high school teacher working with kids who have behavioral issues and/or are at risk of dropping out. Her goal is to spread the power of empathy–recognizing and sharing the feelings of others.
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Comments

  1. says

    Wow Jen what a great article.  You've articulated well my feelings of the "missionary" cause although I know not all of them have that modus operandi.  I hope that your spiritual journey is a great experience (though I'm sure it will be an educational experience if nothing else!)

  2. says

    Wow, OMG!!  I am speechless….I am sure most the parents have no idea what is going on.  When you find the right church home with your family you will definetly know, it's important to find a place where everyone is accepted.  Finding an accepting church is actually more of an issue than I ever knew; until last month when someone brought it up on my site.  I was surprised how many people said they felt uncomfortable or had issues at church.  You would think this is a church and they would be accepting towards everyone seeking to know God.

    • says

      I will check out your site, Angelique! I will be trying to let other parents in my neighborhood know about what happens at the church. It really, really upset me. School is out here this week and I am sure the bus will make its rounds this Sunday.

  3. says

    Tracy–thanks so much for sharing your story. It sounds like your experiences with religion are similar to mine. To be honest, I would be pretty happy just leaving church out of my life. My husband and I are spiritual, but not religious. And like you, we want our children to decide about religion for themselves. It is such a hard thing to do, though! We were happy to just not go to church until they started asking questions about God, church, religion; and now we both find ourselves confronting our old baggage–similar to yours. All I can say is that we feel we are doing what is right for our family. It's not the easiest path, but it is one that we think will help our children realize their own spiritual beliefs. 

    I don't think you are too liberal, too new age-y at all! You make me feel happy–knowing there is another family out there like ours. Maybe we should start a "church" together :)

  4. says

    Jen, thanks so much for talking about this.  I've had experiences like this too and it's disappointing because you have higher expectations for religious leaders and there are times where they make bigger mistakes than those outside the church walls.  I think it's definitely a position that can be misused, as certain offices are for politicians, and they don't always send out positive messages.  Obviously, bribing children to attend church isn't acceptable, and passing through neighborhoods to search for "at-risk" or "minority" children to save is downright offensive!  I've seen similar things happen in churches I've attended and even had one that would refuse kids of color from participating in any church events, except the "special" one that was created for "their group".  I'm a Catholic, a strong Christian, but I'm not a sheep and I don't think anyone should be.  If a church leads you down the wrong path, you better be calling them on it!  Thanks for this story. ♥

    • says

      It's hard to believe that a church can only allow kids of color to participate in "special" events! I am happy that there is a separation of church and state in the US, but sometimes I wish there was a way to sanction churches that abuse their power like that.

      Thank you, Chantilly, for creating this site as a place where these discussions can take place!

  5. says

    Thanks for commenting, Ezzy! It's so hard to even think of it as "over-vigilant" when you know that your children can be hurt out in the world…we want to protect our babies, but know that the only way they can learn is by letting them experience some of that hurt. Parenting is so hard sometimes! But I will take your advice–follow my instincts, and hope for the best.

  6. says

    It is a task to find the church that fits your family, for everyone, but particularly for the multiracial/multicultural family. We find one that the kids like but we don't, or the other way around.
    A few things from your post and comments stood out to me. First of all, I commend you on taking this into your own hands and making this a family experience. Until I got toward the end of the post, I was wondering why you weren't checking this out for yourself, so I applaude your efforts. I am a Christian woman, and although we have had difficulty finding our church home, we raise our children with God.
    Where are the parents of the rest of the black and mixed kids on that bus that Mary is driving? I can see how something like this may look offensive, but if those parents aren't involving themselves with their kid's Sunday mornings, well, I'm glad that Mary does. I can't speak too much on how the minister talked about those kids being sent to hell, the delivery of that message is TOTALLY out of line, but IMO there is a hell.
    As for the candy, most churches try to "encourage" children to learn scripture, invite friends, etc. by using some sort of "motivation". Children don't generally want to just do this on their own. As for the quota, I sort of doubt that this church is gaining additional tithes and offerings from kids whose parents don't even attend, in addition to the gas and time it takes to pick all the kids up…it seems that the only profit they probably perceive for their actions are souls in Heaven.
    Again, I don't know this minister and I don't know Mary. I just wanted to offer up a different persective after reading the article. I hope I didn't offend anyone. Tony and I were just talking about this Jehovah's Witness that keeps coming by to chat about End Of Times. It's irritating since he comes at the most in-opportune times, but for some reason, he cares enough about strangers to try and "save our souls"…So, we're always nice to him ;-)

  7. says

    I attended the first communion for my nephew. The church has a mixture of all different ethnic backgrounds. One of the children (I think he was Indian from India) raised his hand and asked the priest if he would go to hell if he didn't believe in Jesus Christ. To my amazement the priest said "No, you will not go to hell if you don't believe in Jesus Christ." I was pleased by the answer but shocked at the same time. 

  8. says

    Donna, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have talked to the other parents and discovered that they only send kids on the church bus because it is free child care. They don't agree with the teachings of the church or even practice religion themselves. They just want a break from their kids and don't have the money to pay a sitter. I personally believe that religion should be about more than just childcare, but I understand where they're coming from. I do not believe in hell and I don't believe that there is any one true religion. Therefore I am very uncomfortable with a church that exploits my neighbor's poverty in order to indoctrinate their children (through candy motivation) with the notion that there is only one right way to think about God. Why not encourage kids to learn about all perspectives on God? Why not give them the tools to examine their worlds and determine what's right for them?
    I did find a church that believes in doing just that–teaching about every world religion and allowing children to choose their own path. However, my kids were the only people of color there and didn't feel comfortable. We are still looking.

  9. Regina says

    Personally I would have to be there to my an honest opinion. I don't think the candy is a big deal. I grew up in a white church and they gave us candy for riding the church bus every week. I'm white. Everyone was. Now that I'm adult I do notice that Most of the time not all most churches including mine do out reach in impoverished neighborhoods which are mostly black. But I believe this has more to do with the clustering of impoverished people where as most impoverished whites are spread out everywhere. But they will hit trailer parks which is most whites or Hispanics. My church does alot of out reach in black neighborhoods and there is alot more than some candy. They actually have BBQ's and games for the kids. They even cut their grass. They give school supplies, and toys at Christmas. My church tries very hard to become a diverse church but it's still mostly white. On Wednesday nights they bring in alot of black children but the out reach members are very diverse. I don't think there is anything sinister about it at all.

    Now as far as the sinners need to repent comment. I would have had to heard it b/c well everyone is sinner regardless of color and all sinners would need to repent. So I'd have to know that they are only talking about the minority children and not the whole church or all the children including the white ones. Also the way those terms could be used could creep me out. I wouldn't feel comfortable with religious fanatics at all.

    • says

      There are many people in the world–a majority of humans, in fact–who do not believe that everyone is a sinner. Most of the world doesn't believe that everyone needs to repent in order to be saved. To have a group of people trolling through neighborhoods and pushing their beliefs on others is a problem for me in and of itself. But then to have it be all of the brown people targeted for saving bothers me even more. There are other ways to help impoverished people without pressuring them to change their religious beliefs or giving them unhealthy foods. I think that giving jobs or having a rummage sale where all clothes and household items cost a nickel is better than giving candy. Helping people to help themselves can make them feel respected because they can provide for themselves. "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he'll eat forever."

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