childhood, music, religion, social justice

Children of the World

When I was little, my mother took me to the First Christian Church of Ardmore. As churches in southern Oklahoma go, it was fairly liberal, and I am so grateful that the family’s church home wasn’t a Southern Baptist congregation.

Although I am no longer associated with the church, I have fond memories of the fellowship and the friends I had in my Sunday School classes and at church camp.

I also enjoy memories of the songs, which were a part of youth groups, church services, vacation bible school, and camp. Sometimes, one of these songs will pop into my head for no apparent reason.

First Christian Church Vacation Bible School
circa 1981

Last night, just this phenomenon struck me, and the melody and words (at least those of the first chorus) of “Jesus Love the Little Children” arose as if I were in the fellowship hall on a summer afternoon. It struck me that this children’s religious song even now reflects my values and concerns about social justice (that is if you just assume Jesus is a kind, wise historical figure and if you ignore the racist undertones of the labels for skin colors*):

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Black and yellow, red and white
They’re all precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world

The Interweb records that a C.H. Woolston (1856-1927), wrote the lyrics to accompany the music composed by George F. Root (1820-1895) who had originally written the score for a Civil War song called, no joke, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.”

I know many of the people who grew up with me in Ardmore sang this song, too, as did children all over the country (world?). The song is the subject of myriad blog posts and forum discussions. And yet, here we are, in 2014, still plagued by prejudice and discrimination perhaps heightened (embarrassingly so) by the election of the United States’ first black president. (The New York Times has gathered a collection of opinion pieces that explore this issue in the Racism in the Age of Obama feature.) It is amazing to me that, as a whole, we are so poorly behaved and so cruel. Maybe the song is too childish and the message is too simple, but I cannot see how people who profess to be Christians and who embrace Jesus (as the son of god, not as my historical hero) are so often the same people who do this and this. (Look at this one just because it’s funny and you deserve it after viewing the first two links.) Even if you argue that these are fringe groups that don’t represent the majority of conservatives, modern racism affects people of color in subtle and insidious ways.

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do know that many groups are working to achieve social justice. Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program provides resources to educators to promote acceptance and understanding. Teaching for Change published a number of books and toolkits for parents and educators. Here in Ithaca, the Park Foundation has provided local organizations tens of thousands of dollars to promote equality and social justice. Many large corporations in the United States value and support diversity. Even Denny’s, which in the 1990s systematically discriminated against employees of color, has since improved it work culture and bottom line by committing to properly managing diversity (Brathwaite).

This might be an issue that seems so overwhelming that one might feel powerless to change the institutional forces contributing to inequality and injustice. And, yes, alone, we might be, but that doesn’t mean that we can abandon our individual efforts. Let’s remember and honor the meaning of the children’s song so many of us sang on Sunday mornings.

* I’m not sure how prevalent this is, but some internet sources indicate that the lines “Black and yellow, red and white / They’re all precious in his sight” is substituted with “Every color, every race / They’re all covered by his grace” for more palatable and modern lyrics.
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