Many children attending public schools have the day off in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 20th, and the occasion can provide an important time to share our commitments around race, justice, peace, courage, hope and love with our children.
I struggle with how to talk about the ongoing struggle for equality, justice and civil rights with my daughters, aged six and three. When we speak of King’s work, I find myself needing to set the context: years ago, when your grandparents were still kids, some people thought that people with lighter skin were better than people with darker skin, and some of the people with lighter skin made laws that treated the people with darker skin very badly.
We talk about drinking fountains and restaurants and buses. They know the story of Rosa Parks. My congregation is reasonably racially and ethnically diverse for its size; their school is less so, but not terribly homogenous. They cannot imagine what segregation would have been like. I find myself distancing us from that time – I want to reassure my children that things are different now. But that’s not really the case. Most of the black kids they know from church are being homeschooled because their neighborhood Chicago Public Schools are so bad; and my three year old has taken to asking me why one of her teachers at school (whose ethnic or racial heritage I don’t actually know; her name suggest she may be Italian like a good chunk of my husband’s family) doesn’t have “regular” skin like us.
Race, socially constructed or otherwise, continues to be a huge part of our global, and Christian, conversation.
Award winning children’s author Jacqueline Woodson has a number of remarkable works, but I’d recommend finding a copy of her picture book Show Way to share with your family this King Day. It tells the story of a family, from Soonie’s great-great-grandma down to her great-grandchildren, and how they passed on traditions and lived through hard times, but carried on in courage and love. The beautiful illustrations, done by Hudson Talbott, depict both the history of the American south and the traditions of picture quilts.
After reading the story, turn to one of the genealogies of Jesus, either in Matthew 1 or Luke 3: 23-38, depending on whether you want to involve the presence of women or the unity of the whole human family (Luke goes all the way back to Adam, and God!). Talk about how these passages may seem like long lists of names, but each name reminds us of stories of whole lives and communities throughout history. Just as Soonie’s family was full of women and men acting bravely and wisely and lovingly through time, so was Jesus’s family: Joseph, and Ruth, and Jacob, and Abraham, and Noah . . .
Next, think about your own family. Are there stories told of how your parents or grandparents, or great-grandparents witnessed to God in the world? We tell of a great uncle who was gassed in the first world war and became a pacifist pastor, and of the local congregation that was divided in the 60s over civil rights, and the grandmother who was the first woman in her college drafting program in the 40s, and my kid’s dad, who was the first person in his family to go to college, and who became a teacher. If you don’t know the stories, have your kids call some older relatives and ask if they would share a story.
If you’re a tactile sort of family, you might bring out heirlooms to touch and pass around; if you’re artistic, you might work together to depict some of these family stories. Or simply record your children telling the stories they gather. Just remember to take them off of your phone and save them somewhere!
This day is an opportunity to honor and remember the work of Dr. King, certainly. As parents, do take time to read some of his work; there’s a reason his sermons are much studied. But his work depended on helping people to realize their own power, their own spiritual gifts and worth, and their own political strength. The work of justice takes great leaders, but it also takes feet on the ground, and hands reaching out. Telling our stories, mining our histories, helps our children to recognize bravery, and to recognize the work of the Gospel in their own lives and in the world.
Close in prayer:
Gracious God, parent of all people, creator of all the world, we give thanks this day for the people who have come before us. In every time, in every place, in every country on the globe, there have been unjust laws, and people who thought their lives were more valuable than others, and other hard realities. But in every time, in every place, in every country on the globe, there have been people who have acted with courage. There have been people who have been brave, and shown love. In their stories, we see you present with us, and we see your hope for justice for all your people, everywhere. Thank you for them, thank you for your son Jesus, your servant Dr. King, and for your Spirit with us here, helping us to serve you and all your people. Help us to be of good courage to work for love. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.