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The Race and Beauty Project

Article and Interview by Rebecca DeWhitt

If you make your way out to 123 S. 51st Street on a Sunday morning and walk through the large front doors, take a moment to pause in the entryway. You’ll notice beautiful portraits of Mosaic’s kids, their eyes serious or playful, their energy gripping.

 

Next to each one, look for their self-portraits. Curly hair and straight hair, round faces and long ones, are all carefully filled in with hand-mixed paints.

 

Don’t move on just yet-you don’t want to miss the descriptions. Words like cinnamon gold and peachy tan pepper the paragraphs and describe what each child perceives when they look in the mirror.

 

The Race and Beauty project started last Lent,” Melissa recalls. “I wanted to make Lent meaningful for our children and families, and God had been really pressing into my heart that I needed to focus on Jesus’s heart for the marginalized, and specifically focus on race and racism.”

 

In her role as Mosaic’s Director of Children and Family Ministries, Melissa is always looking for ways to connect kids to God’s heart for justice and marginalized people groups. “I began looking through the tolerance.org website, and started finding some ideas for talking to children about race and privilege.”

 

The first Sunday of Lent, Melissa approached the Sunday School class, made up of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, with a stack of books featuring a diversity of people. “I asked them a bunch of questions about the books. ‘Who is that book saying is beautiful? How do you know? Do any of these people look like you? Are all of the colors of people represented? Is anyone missing?’”

 

Melissa still remembers how one child engaged with a book about famous African American actor, dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen. She couldn’t put the book down, and poured over it. The characters in the book reflected her. “Children need to see themselves reflected in stories, books, and movies. They pick up on what the dominant culture upholds as the standards of beauty, and they will internalize messages based on what they see.”

 

The next Sunday Melissa talked about the construction of race. She brought in a white piece of paper and black rain boots, and asked the kids, “Does anyone really have skin that looks like this?” They talked about why race became a social construct- to maintain the power of certain groups and keep other groups from having access to that power. Then they went around and talked about the colors they actually saw in their skin, using Karen Katz’ book The Color of Us.

 

“I was really focused on this idea that racism exists because we dehumanize people,” Melissa says. “We’re able to enact violence on black bodies and on marginalized people’s bodies because we don’t see them as human anymore.”

 

Melissa focused the lessons around Genesis 1:27: So God created people in his image. In the image of God, he created them.

 

“So that’s where the Race and Beauty Project began. All of us have been created to reflect God. God is beautiful. So what does that make us? Beautiful.”

 

To drive this home, the final Sunday Melissa had the kids mix their own paints to accurately reflect the colors they saw on their own bodies. “We looked in the mirror and really reflected on the features that made us beautiful, and the features that reflected God.” From these conversations, they painted their self-portraits and wrote a description of themselves.

 

“The kids were so proud of their work,” Melissa recalls. “And people ask us all the time ‘how is this work being done in a faith community?’ It’s rare to have these conversations about race and privilege with children in church.”

 

For Melissa, a Korean American, the work goes beyond church. “My husband is Chinese American, and we’re raising our kids to be proud of their Asian heritage and to be aware of inequalities. My 7-year-old will say, ‘I don’t like this book, mama. The people all have peach-colored skin. They don’t have anyone in here who looks like me.’ We have those conversations all the time at home, and it’s reinforcing the conversations we’re having as a church community.”

 

Rare or not, Melissa sees these conversations as vital to the work of the church. “We aren’t going to change the world just by talking about Joseph and his beautiful coat. We’re going to change the world when we start having these conversations about race and privilege and how God’s beauty lives in every one of us and makes each of us worthy of dignity, love, and belonging.”

 

Do you want your kids to learn about Jesus in ways that honor their uniqueness and develop their heart for justice? Join us on Sunday mornings at 10.

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