By Bob Smietana
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Ten years ago LifeWay Christian Resources published a Vacation Bible School curriculum they believed would introduce kids to Jesus using an Asian culture theme. But “Far Out Rickshaw Rally – Racing Towards the Son” became a lesson in cross-cultural miscommunication. Critics of the material said it promoted racial stereotypes.
Wednesday (Nov. 6), LifeWay president and CEO Thom S. Rainer apologized for Rickshaw Rally at the Mosaix conference in Long Beach, Calif., a gathering of about 1,000 multiethnic church leaders.
“Ten years ago LifeWay’s Vacation Bible School material used racial stereotypes that offended many in the Asian-American community. I wasn’t part of LifeWay then, but I am now. And I’ve recently learned that decade-old offense is still a point of hurt for some,” said Rainer in a video apology played at the conference.
“As president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, I want to apologize. I am sincerely sorry stereotypes were used in our materials, and I apologize for the pain they caused.”
Several Asian-American leaders responded to the apology including Paul Kim, pastor emeritus of Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass.
“I want Dr. Rainer to know I accept his apology with deep gratitude on behalf of our Asian community and desire we move forward for the Kingdom’s service together,” Kim said. Kim and a group of Asian-American pastors will meet with LifeWay’s leadership in early 2014 to continue the conversation and discuss next steps.
Asian leaders who attended the conference included Ray Chang, pastor of Ambassador Church in Brea, Calif., and Asian-American coordinator for the Evangelical Free Church who agreed “LifeWay’s apology is a step toward healing.”
The apology surprised Robyn Afrik, a speaker, consultant and coordinator for local missional engagement for the Reformed Church in America.
“Hearing the apology did something deep in my soul,” Afrik said. The apology opened the door to rebuilding trust and relationship with LifeWay, she said. “They admitted their shortcoming. You can’t reconcile what you don’t recognize.”
Soong-Chan Rah, a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, told conference attendees the apology allows wounds caused by the VBS stereotypes to start healing.
“I am so thankful for LifeWay, in their words this morning, in a public setting, to say we were wrong,” he said. “I am so thankful because now the healing can begin and the reconciliation we have not been able to have can begin.”
Several recent incidents of racial stereotypes in evangelical churches prompted an open letter from Asian-American church leaders at nextgenerasianchurch.com which called for an end to those stereotypes. Rainer echoed that call in his apology.
“… I agree evangelical church and ministry leaders – particularly those of us who are white – need to commit to assuring, as best we can, these offenses stop,” he said.
LifeWay also pledged to continue to train staff members in being culturally sensitive so the publisher’s resources treat all people with respect.
“Finally,” he said, “I will lead our executive leadership staff to engage in dialog and conversation with ethnic leaders that we might go forth together to strengthen believers and reach people in North America and around the world.”
DJ Chuang, a blogger who writes about multiethnic issues in the church, believes the apology could help restore some relationships with Asian-Americans after the Rickshaw controversy.
“It’s a very significant thing to have this sincere apology as well as a commitment to be sensitive to diversity in America and in the world,” Chuang said.
Ed Stetzer, vice-president of LifeWay’s Insights Division, introduced the apology during his presentation at the Mosaix conference. That presentation focused on cross-cultural communication, which can often go awry, he said.
“When that happens, the best thing to do is say you are sorry,” Stetzer said. “Apologize quickly. Trust Jesus.”
Stetzer said LifeWay was trying to live out that ideal in its apology. He was thankful for the gracious response the apology has received.
“I’m thankful Dr. Rainer wanted to share this apology. I’m also thankful it includes actions and next steps. We’re still learning.”