Covenanters Say LifeWay Apology Step in Right Direction

By Stan Friedman

LONG BEACH, CA (November 7, 2013) – Helen Lee, one of the two Covenanters who authored the “Open Letter to the Evangelical Church” that decried the use of Asian American stereotypes said she was “surprised but also thrilled” by yesterday’s apology from the president of LifeWay Christian Resources for publishing the “Rickshaw Rally” vacation Bible school curriculum nearly 10 years ago.

Thom Rainer apologized via a video message played at Mosaix, a national multiethnic church conference sponsored in part by North Park Theological Seminary and the denomination’s Pacific Southwest Conference. In the video, Rainer said, “I am sincerely sorry stereotypes were used in our materials, and I apologize for the pain they caused.”

Rainer continued, “I agree with those who have helped us understand the offensive nature of that material. And 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.”

Jimmy Draper, who was president of the Southern Baptist publishing house, defended the material when people raised objections at its release. Rainer became president in 2006. He acknowledged Wednesday that the curriculum is “still a point of hurt for some.”

Lee said today, “I was surprised but also thrilled to discover that Thom Rainer and LifeWay had taken the step to apologize for publishing the Rickshaw Rally curriculum, which is a total departure from the official reaction back in 2004.” She added, “The way the company responded then was demoralizing and painful for so many Asian Americans, because it signaled that our concerns and protests were not worth taking into consideration.”

“What Rainer and LifeWay have done by acknowledging the error publicly, even nine years later, is to demonstrate that it is never too late to do the right thing and to pursue reconciliation,” said Lee, an author and speaker who attends Naperville Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois.

Lee co-authored the “Open Letter” with Kathy Khang, the regional multiethnic ministries director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a member of Libertyville Covenant Church in Libertyville, Illinois. To read a previous Covenant News Service story on Lee and Khang, click here.

The letter signed by many Asian American church leaders attracted national and international attention. In it Khang and Lee called on “Christian organizations, particularly in the areas of media and publishing, to see if there are systemic issues preventing Asian Americans from having a presence and a voice in the evangelical world,” and to commit “to a higher standard of evaluating any media or public content to respectfully reflect Asian American culture.”

Rainer said in the video that, “LifeWay will continue to train our staff to be aware of and sensitive to ethnic and cultural differences so that our materials continue to respectfully represent all people groups. Finally, I will lead our executive leadership staff to engage in dialogue and conversation with ethnic leaders that we might go forth together to strengthen believers and reach people in North America and around the world.”

Khang said she appreciated Rainer’s apology. “He didn’t have to apologize for Rickshaw Rally. The offensive materials weren’t published and marketed under his watch, and after almost a decade there are many people who have never heard of or have since forgotten about the controversy around the materials.

“But what he and LifeWay have done by taking full responsibility and apologizing publicly for the decision is to model the kind of deep soul-searching leaders and organizations must do in order to address systemic injustices and inequities. I look forward to hearing how he now acts on his words.”

Lee added, “I hope positive examples such as this one and the recent Exponential West apology signal to other evangelical organizations that developing cultural and racial sensitivity needs to be a higher priority for the church so that we may present a more credible and compelling witness to the world around us.”

Exponential, a church planting group, played a video at a recent conference that offended many Asian Americans. The group apologized soon after.

Soong-Chan Rah, professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary, was a speaker at the Mosaix conference and told attendees this morning, “I am so thankful for LifeWay, in their words this morning, in a public setting, to say ‘we were wrong.’ I am so thankful because now the healing can begin and the reconciliation we have not been able to have can begin.”

“Pursuing a greater understanding and sensitivity, is hard work, for certain,” Lee said. “But what better way to demonstrate the power of the gospel of Christ than to show our commitment to unity in the context of our God-given diversity?”

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