I spent my summers hopscotching through neighborhood Vacation Bible Schools.
VBS, as an inner-city kid was the closest I ever got to attending a traditional camp.
Who needed a lake to swim in when there were water balloons by the buckets in the church lawn to splash through. I never felt deprived of mountain trail hikes, when we daily walked as soldier in the Lord’s army.
So when my daughter got excited about attending our neighborhood churches’ VBS, I got excited too—forgetting the neighborhood I lived in.
I have been passing Eastwood Presbyterian Church almost everyday since we moved in our new suburban neighborhood. The moderate size and location of the church reminded me a lot my own childhood church—Mt. Sinai Community Baptist.
A new friend of mine was dropping her kids off too. Neither one of us were members, but we were both excited to take advantage of this fun and spiritual growth opportunity for our kids and the mini-mommy break for us. Our children knew each other from school. Knowing Nya had somebody in the camp was putting to ease that familiar knot that swells every time I have to leave my kids as “the only.”
The confidence my friend had as she left her kids in the care of these spiritual strangers reminded my of how comfortable I feel when I leave my kids in the hands of my brown-skinned community. How I wished in that moment we were on the other side of Interstate 5.
As we walked into the church my daughter was beaming with excitement. She signed herself in and headed to the main auditorium, seating herself in the place she was assigned. I quickly scanned the room for color-skinned folks. No one.
My heart sank a bit. “Here we go again.” We were met with many quiet, gracious smiles and several “Where did they come from?” stares.
My daughter sat alone in a large red-taped square. She was trying to be so brave. Her wide smile was beginning to turn upside down. I waited. She waited. We both waited.
“Come on, somebody. I know you see her alone. Welcome my baby . . . 10. 9. 8. 7. 6 . . .”
I was doing the Momma Bear countdown in my head. This church community had five seconds left to get it together before it was time to go.
They responded too late.
“Mommy, they keep staring at me. I dont think they like me.” She had now curled her nine-year-old body around my waist. I could feel her heart pounding. It seemed as though the entire room had shifted their attention on us.
“Honey, you do not have to stay. It’s ok. You don’t have to do this.” I whispered quietly in her ear. Tears began dropping down her face and her voice shot up.
“I don’t want to be the only Black girl here Momma—but I want to stay too,” she protested.
Certain that we were now definitely causing a scene I quickly escorted my daughter out of the auditorium. As we were walking out, a very concerned elderly woman stopped us.
“Is everything ok?” she asked.
Not wanting to state the obvious and risk the total unraveling of both my daughter and I, I decided to answer in bullet points.
“No. Gonna go talk with her. Thanks.”
“Ok. I get it. I’m so sorry. You have such a brave girl.”
Her response made burning, proud tears begin to roll.
“Yes, I do.” I looked her in the eye and smiled.
My daughter and I walked outside and found a bench. I took my time wiping her tears. I reached for both her hands and looked deep into her eyes. I was quickly trying to put together the words I needed to say. This was not only a teachable moment but a building block opportunity to cement down kingdom principles of her identity in Christ and her God-given uniqueness as a beautiful Black girl.
My older two children and I had already had this same conversation in similar situations. It was now her turn. She was now of age where she could see, feel, and experience the isolation and rejection of being the only minority in the room. Her childhood glasses of “see-no-color” had been exchanged in an instant to “I’m-the-only-color” in the room.
I went on to tell her that she was created in God’s image, that she is wonderfully and fearfully made. I told her that there is no rightful reason why people should treat her differently because of the color of her skin. And that if they did—it was called sin. I would tell her that in God’s family we are all the same and have the same Father. I would tell her that God doesn’t have favorites and she has the same right to step foot in any church that carries the name of God that she wants to.
She responded with “Yes Momma . . . I know Momma . . . You already told me that Momma.”
Convinced that enough of my motherly words of affirmation and truth had stabilized us both, I took her hand and began heading to the van. I was ready to go.
She pulled her hand away and stopped in front of the church.
“Mommy, but I still want to stay.”
“Ahhh . . .ummmmm . . . are you sure honey?” My fear for her began to butterfly inside.
“Yes. I’m not scared any more. I’m sure! Bye, Mommy. I can do it.” She ran back into the church.
Peeking through the door I could see that her red square had been completely filled up. I was relieved to see my daughter being met with the smiles and acceptance we were looking for, that she deserved.
I played helicopter in the lobby for awhile. That elderly, white woman who met me in the hall had been busy during my talk with my daughter. She had made arrangements for the other two (and only) other African-American girls to be in Nya’s group.
What I appreciated most about this woman was that she did not excuse the lack of diversity in her church. She was actually very burdened and embarrassed by it. She acknowledged how difficult it would be to walk in our families’ shoes—to trust the majority when we were living life as the minority.
She assured me that we were always welcome to be here in this sanctuary, that we are family and their church door would always be wide open for us.