The color of flesh

Rev. John Zehring

June 24, 2021

As Pastor, I usually met with the children for the children’s sermon – The Time with the Children – during the service, which would take about five to eight minutes during the worship service. Preparation could take up to five hours. Children’s sermons are so vital to the children as well as to the adults that it is worth the substantial investment of time and creative energy to produce a great one. The messages are a lasting way to influence attitudes, values, and beliefs where change is possible. Some of the most powerful messages occurred when I invited others to lead The Time with the Children.

One Sunday, I invited our Director of Christian Education to offer The Time with the Children. As I might expect, she produced one which would echo through the generations for that congregation.

The CE Director, at the set time in the service, invited the children forward. About twenty bounded up to the chancel. She sat on the floor with them – at their eye level – and used an object lesson which would haunt memories for years to come.

She started by engaging the children about their enjoyment from drawing pictures with crayons. Each of the children enjoyed a fond memory of using crayons to color a favored experience. The Director then brought out her own beloved and worn Crayola box of crayons from her childhood.  She shared her experience of using many of the sixty-four colors in her box – blue sky, brick red, bronze, burnt sienna, canary, carnation pink, chartreuse, fuchsia, hot magenta, and dozens of others. One of the crayons, from her childhood box, had printed on the wrapper the title of “flesh.” The crayon’s titled label, applied to the paper wrapper, displayed a somewhat pink or peach color. This was decades ago, and Crayola’s depiction of flesh has now changed, but in those days, flesh was the color of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants. Message: if you are this color, you are a person. If you were not this color of pink, well, what message do you think the children experienced? I am not a real person? There is something different… unusual… wrong with me? People’s flesh, then, was depicted as that crayon’s color.

Not all of the children sitting in the chancel could identify with that color of flesh. Some were black, some were brown, some were Asian or Native American. That crayon color of flesh belonged to someone else, not them. How do you think they felt? They felt left out. Excluded. Abnormal. The CE director went on to explain how times were changing, but that their feelings of exclusion were common and sad. Today, Crayola has launched many new colors for “flesh,” but back then, there was only one and it excluded so many.

And so, innocuously, unwittingly, and perhaps even unintentionally, racism emerged. The color of humans was, well, “flesh.” Pink, or peach. How did everyone else on the planet feel? Excluded. Exclusion is not God’s way. God’s way is inclusion. You are embraced, cherished, accepted, loved, and included – even if you are not “flesh” colored. That message did not predominate in every congregation, but blessed are those who proclaimed the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ.

I return again and again to the power of ever-so-brief children’s sermons. They cannot eradicate generations of racism, hatred, and narrow-mindedness, but inch by inch they can influence attitudes and values for good.

Systemic racism screams out to be acknowledged and addressed today, obvious from daily news reports. Overt racism raises its ugly head all too close to home, especially as we become increasingly aware of rising right-wing political groups, often well-armed. Less overt racism haunts from our neighbors, families, schools, workplaces, and churches. In more recent days, national leaders are trying their best to undo practices and laws that discriminate against people of color, but legislation can only go so far. How can we change attitudes, values, and beliefs to create a healthy new generation who will cherish and value diversity and unity of races? 

I return again and again to the power of ever-so-brief children’s sermons. They cannot eradicate generations of racism, hatred, and narrow-mindedness, but inch by inch they can influence attitudes and values for good. Sadly, fewer and fewer children attend churches where they can be exposed to these value-nurturing messages. And yet, even during the pandemic substitution of Zoom services for in-person meetings, I witness families sitting together on the couch in front of their laptop and the whole family hears the message designed for the children of God.

I recall other guests I invited to do The Time with the Children and the values about racism they influenced in less than ten minutes.

  • There was the avid canoe enthusiast who brought his 16’ canoe into the sanctuary just for the children. He hand-picked a bit over half of the children to join him inside of the canoe and pretend to be paddling along a gentle river, calling out wildlife and beautiful scenes for them to observe. But then, he stopped and asked how the other children felt who were excluded from the canoe. They were sad, hurting, and a couple even fought back tears. Then he asked the children how it would feel if they were left out of the canoe just because of the color of their skin. He helped them identify feelings of people who felt unfairly treated or excluded because their skin was not “flesh” colored. In God’s canoe, he proclaimed, everyone is included. Wherever people are excluded, he said, that is not God’s way and it does not please God. Choose to do what pleases God.
  • A woman who was an advanced quilter brought in quilts to show the children. One quilt was all the same color. Others were a patchwork of many colorful fabrics. The patchwork was the most beautiful of all. Her message: when all of God’s children of many different colors and backgrounds are quilted together in God’s world, it becomes a thing of beauty. God’s beauty is experienced best of all in diversity, like the patchwork of a quilt.
  • A surgeon brought x-rays of people’s insides to share with the children. The children were fascinated by this doctor explaining pictures of what is inside of our bodies. He explained how the power of scientific instruments helps us to see in the greatest of detail what is inside a person’s body, but those same instruments cannot see if the person is black, Hispanic, Asian, or Caucasian. The surgeon told the children that God sees what is inside of a person. It is not if the person’s color is “flesh” or not, but rather, what is the content of that person’s character. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this about God and said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The surgeon then concluded by asking the children to view other people like the x-ray instrument, not looking at the outside, but looking instead at the inside of a person and their character.

How can we root out the causes of racism? If we were to consider the question – “Where can we make the greatest difference?” – it would be in the influencers on our next generation. Not all of those influencers are able to sufficiently address attitudes and values, but the humble worship service children’s sermon, with less than ten minutes a week, contains the power and the potential to undergird the next generation with God-like attitudes and values. Sometimes it is the tortoise that wins the race.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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