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How to Talk with Your Kids about Charleston- Shannon Jammal-Hollemans

We are deeply thankful to all the parents who have shared so far in this series. Up today is Shannon Jammal-Hollemans, mother of 3 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  

1. What phrases do you use when explaining racism and hate crimes--like what happened in Charleston--to your kids?

My children are teens and tweens. The older two are on social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.), so I assumed that they heard about it before I could talk with them. We were on vacation when the news broke about what happened in Charleston, so I didn’t bring up the shooting until we got back.

I brought it up it to my youngest child, asking her if she had heard anything about Charleston. She said no, so I explained what happened--that  some people were having a Bible study in their church when a man walked in, shot and killed them because they were black. I told her that the crime made me very sad, and I asked her if she had any questions about it. She said no. She, like me, takes time to process things, so I likely will bring it up again when her siblings are around so we can have a family conversation about it.

I explained racism to my eldest child when she was in fourth grade. They were learning about racism in school, and I thought it would be a good time to tell her my perspective, and share a bit of my story as someone who was a victim of harassment and threats when I was in high school because of my Arab ethnicity. She didn’t say much in response, but the next week in school, when her class was watching a film about the Ku Kux Klan, her teacher told me that she walked out of the class crying. She was disturbed by the images of the people in hoods and the burning crosses because I had recently told her about the people who approached me wearing white hoods and threatened to burn a cross in my yard. It hit too close to home for her. She was probably too young, although African American parents don’t get the choice of when to bring these things up.

About two years ago, I was getting ready to share my story as a speaker a chapel service. I decided to read my story to my kids the night before. It was the first time they all had heard the whole story, and they were visibly shaken by it, but I don’t regret sharing it.

I don’t want to raise kids who are oblivious to the racism in our society. I point things out to them, and ask them questions, hoping that they will learn how to ask questions themselves--for example, why are our neighborhoods and churches so segregated? Why are so many of the African Americans in our community poor? I want them to recognize the barriers to equality that African Americans, and many others, face in our country--in areas of education, housing, healthcare and more. I also want them to recognize their privilege so they can use it for good.

2. How do you comfort your children and offer them hope when faced with situations like this?

My story involves a lot of hurt experienced at the hands of Christians, so a large part of telling that story means sharing how when I could not rely on anyone else, especially the Church, I could rely on God. In my most lonely and frustrated moments, God was there. That is the testimony of many people today.

I also point my children to the rich tradition of African American writing and music that expresses a theology rooted in the saving power of Christ. I have yet to discover another theological tradition that engages with themes of suffering and deliverance with the same depth. African Americans live in a country that was built by the hands of their ancestors, but that work remains largely unacknowledged. My hope is that in telling these stories of the shared heritage we all have in African American history, we can correct the larger narrative that has squelched their voices for too long and move into a future with greater equality.

3. What were your kids' questions?

My kids are at the age when they keep a lot of their questions to themselves, so it is up to me to bring up things that matter to me. I talk about racism a lot. I want them to recognize the power that it wields in our world, and that it is a sin that has particularly shaped our nation.

Most of their questions have to do with why the laws don’t work the same way for everyone, and why unjust systems continue to operate. This is where the Christian understanding of human sinfulness is helpful. Sin permeates not only us as individuals, but also our systems and our laws and the ways they play out. Just as we are responsible to fight against our own sin, we are responsible to fight against the sin in the systems we participate in that hurt others.

4. What are you hoping other parents are telling their kids, particularly moms who are raising kids whose race is different from your own?

I hope parents are doing what God instructs us to do in Deuteronomy 6--to tell their children the stories of God and God’s love for people, to confess and lament our personal and collective sin, and to turn and return to God, again and again, as the source of our strength.

Verses 10-12 of that chapter are particularly significant for us Americans who are not of Native American, Latin American, or African American descent. We live in a land that was taken from others, and in a nation that was built by the slave labor of others. Only God can work to redeem and restore what has been done, but God seeks to do that through us, particularly in what we teach our children.

Editor's note: Want to read the rest of the series? Dig in. 

Anissa Eddie

Rachel VerWys

Idella Winfield

Lisa Van Engen


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