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Five Lessons on Race, Faith and Parenting while White

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Cover image: Rietema kids with neighborhood friends

After parent Casey Phillips shared her story about race and parenting in a previous blog post, a number of our readers asked us for additional ideas and resources. In this post, we’ve invited Kurt and Emily Rietema share what they’ve learned about race, faith and parenting.
Kurt leads Youthfront’s Justice Initiatives programs. Nearly two decades ago, Kurt and Emily led the launch of Youthfront’s ministry in Croc, Mexico, where they lived for several years establishing relationships and a community development site, helping build homes and economic opportunities alongside that community. Today, a binational team of Youthfront staff serve more than 60 youth in a year-round afterschool program. Kurt and Emily next shaped and continue to provide leadership to Youthfront’s ministry in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, where they live with their sons Luke, Perkins and Leo. 
We asked them to share their perspective and lessons learned in how, when and why to engage with your kids about their faith and issues of race. 
Thanks to the Rietema’s for taking the time to share some of their family’s lessons learned.

by Kurt and Emily Rietema, Guest Bloggers


1. Remember that the Bible is a story of God healing all of the world’s hurt and making us one family.

A silver lining of the pandemic is that it gave us opportunities to create new habits as a family.  One of the most important has been reading a Bible story and praying a memorized prayer together every morning.  With our kids, we frame it as a story of God bringing heaven to earth, and we’re invited to be God’s secret agents in making that happen. 
It isn’t just about going to heaven when we die, but about God recreating a world with no more death, mourning, crying or pain (Revelation 21).  Through Jesus, God destroyed the dividing wall of separation and segregation between us to create one new family (Ephesians 2:14-19).  Healing our country from the wounds of racial injustice isn’t an extracurricular activity for followers of Jesus; It’s part of the core curriculum.  

2. Be intentional to make friends with people who don’t look like you.

Our family’s commitment to antiracism comes out of our commitment to our friendships with people of color.  When you share a meal together and share your stories – your hopes and heartaches – you can’t not want for your friends what you want for your own family.  A part of us is homesick for brothers and sisters with whom we’ve been estranged through racial and spatial boundaries. 
We’ve had so many immigrant friends who have lived in the US for years and have never shared a meal with an American family.  Even if the relationship you have with someone who doesn’t look like you is on the periphery of your life (or your kids’ lives), show interest in them.  Be proactive.  Invite your families to do something together.  And when you do, be genuine and don’t consider it as “helping” the other.  Friendships can only happen on an even playing field.

3. We aren’t responsible for the advantages we’ve been handed, but we can control what we do with them.

There’s often so much shame wrapped up in being white, growing up affluent or any other things that give people an advantage.  Those with an upper hand  can be made to feel guilty as if they had any choice in the matter. None of us can  change what’s been given to us.  But we do have a choice to either keep those advantages or to advance the interests of those left out. 
In Philippians 2, Paul teaches us that Jesus, though he was God, didn’t consider his status “as something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”  How did Paul apply this to himself?  Look at the next chapter.  Paul tells us that he had it all according to the society around him – he was born in the right family tree, he had the best education, the right work ethic.  But what his upbringing had taught him was an advantage, was actually a disadvantage in God’s upside down kingdom where the last are first.  
Do an inventory with your kids.  What things give them special privileges or advantages other kids may not have?  Think of ways that your family can  work toward making a more fair world for all of God’s kids?  And then do some of those things together.

4. Start with the symptoms of injustice and learn to see systems.

“That’s not fair!  I’m not playing!”  It’s a common refrain from our youngest son.  If your kids are white, they won’t understand the peculiar kind of unfairness that people of color face. But you can help them to empathize. Little kids are always attuned to what’s fair and what’s not.  Build on that.  Read about how Jacob took Esau’s birthright when he was vulnerable (Genesis 25). 
Talk about unfairness between individuals.  Wonder aloud together about what would need to happen to repair that unfairness.  Then see how taking advantage of people on a mass scale when they’re vulnerable can create unjust systems by reading about how Joseph used the insight God gave him on the coming famine.  What started off as a safety net to protect Israel’s health and wealth turned into a scheme that took away the money, then the livestock, then the land, then the labor of the Hebrews to amass power and wealth for Egypt (Gen. 43 & 47).  
Friendships with kids not like themselves are a great place for children to start when they’re young.  It builds kids’ capacity for empathy when they put themselves in another’s shoes.  But as they get older, ask the deeper questions and look at the histories that led to systems that treat people of color unfairly.

5. Normalize difficult conversations and confronting unjust systems.

If you were anything like my family growing up, you didn’t talk about race or sex or anything that could upset the political commitments of your friends and family.  By contrast, we strive for more open dialogue in our home today. We decided that we don’t want our kids to be without practice in talking about uncomfortable topics, or taking responsibility for benefitting from racism, or seeing us stand up for our marginalized neighbors even if it’s unpopular. 
We normalize taking our kids to protests.  We took our kids to a migrant shelter on the border in Mexico.  We openly dialogue with our kids about the experiences of our immigrant neighbors. When they witness their best friends’ parents struggle through the asylum process, the political becomes personal. 
They learn that politics can be a way of advancing the love of neighbor or a way of turning our backs on them.  They learn that the Bible is full of rich stories of protecting those left out, of practicing civil disobedience and protesting unjust policies of corrupt rulers and standing up for the dignity of all God’s kids.


Rietema family

Rietema family

Kurt and Emily Rietema and their sons, Luke, Perkins and Leo live in an under-resourced neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas called Argentine.

Their work includes intentional neighboring, youth social entrepreneurship, immigration advocacy, just housing and lending partnerships for immigrants.

Kurt is the Senior Director of Justice Initiatives at Youthfront.

He holds a Master’s in Global Development and Social Justice from St. John’s University.

Kurt is also an adjunct at MidAmerica Nazarene University and at William Jewell College.


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