A Southern Baptist agency that produces Sunday school materials has come under fire from some Asian Americans for its 2004 Vacation Bible School curriculum called "Rickshaw Rally -- Racing to the Son."
"The rickshaw symbolizes poverty and slavery," said the Rev. Paul Kim, pastor of Berkland Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass. "That 'Rickshaw Rally' is misrepresenting Asian American cultures."
The rickshaw, a two-wheeled carriage pulled by one or two men and once common in East Asia, is included in the logo of the curriculum produced by LifeWay Christian Resources for use in summer Bible school sessions designed to combine fun and faith for children.
" 'Far-out Far East Rickshaw Rally -- Racing to the Son' is a VBS race that will have kids dashing through the streets of Tokyo, climbing Mt. Fuji, and diving for pearls," the official Web site on the curriculum reads.
"At stops along the route, VBS racers (a.k.a. kids) will find that to obtain the real prize in this Rickshaw Rally, they will need to seek Jesus as Savior and Lord -- and follow him throughout the course of their lives."
The Web site's promotional display of such images as kimonos, chopsticks and packaging in a "decorative takeout tin" has irked some Asian Americans, who say the images are stereotypical and, in some cases, inaccurate depictions of Japanese culture.
Based on a recommendation from Kim's church, the Baptist Convention of New England -- affiliated with the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention -- adopted a resolution criticizing the material during its annual meeting this month in Warwick, R.I.
The regional group said the material "portrays Asians in an unflattering manner through curriculum and images that are at least culturally insensitive, and at worst, racially offensive." The regional convention said it would support a staff decision to not promote the material.
LifeWay, who sold its curriculum to more than 20,000 churches last year, stands by its decision to use the curriculum and will continue to market it for the coming year.
Mary Katharine Hunt, project manager at LifeWay's Vacation Bible School Division in Nashville, said she was disappointed in the New England convention's resolution.
"We believe many churches will use the curriculum because of its strong biblical content, clear message of Jesus and the respectful way in which it lifts up another culture," she said in a statement.
Hunt added that LifeWay disagrees with the critics and has responded to them.
"For every concern raised by an Asian American, we are receiving dozens of positive responses from Asian Americans that tell us we are fulfilling our intent to lift up another culture and share the message of hope for all people in Jesus Christ," she said.
But Robert Parham, editor of EthicsDaily.com and a frequent critic of Southern Baptist initiatives, joined the Asian American opponents of the curriculum.
"Racism has metastasized within Southern Baptist life," he said in a statement on the Web site of the Baptist Center for Ethics. " 'Rickshaw Rally' represents yet another example of the moral blindness that insults a racial group and seeks to make a profit off of prejudice. . . . Southern Baptists cannot address racism with easily forgotten resolutions while playing the race card to generate revenue."
Three years ago, Parham criticized two Southern Baptist agencies for using an image of a black man on a mission fundraising poster emphasizing the theme of "dispelling the darkness."
Kim first heard about the curriculum from the Rev. Soong-Chan Rah, pastor of a Cambridge church that is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Rah received a LifeWay catalogue in the mail and checked the related Web site.
"I was stunned in this day and age there would be this degree of insensitivity, there would be this degree of just lack of awareness," said Rah, senior pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church.
"If you look at what a rickshaw is, it's a human being being used in place of an animal," he said.
Rah has contributed to a "Reconsidering Rickshaw Rally" Web site that has developed in reaction to the material.
The Rev. Jim Wideman, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, said his organization wanted to be sensitive to the concerns of Asian-Americans while continuing its long-term relationship with LifeWay.
"Those who were a part of our convention were concerned that this was going to present a negative witness and were concerned that we would lose the opportunity to have an influence and to have a witness with, especially, young Asian Americans," he said. The New England convention will promote an older, alternative curriculum from LifeWay instead.