The Church Bus

racist church conservatives shaming black children

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.

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.


Jen Marshall Duncan

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.
Jen Marshall Duncan
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