Before meals at the kindergarten, the students pray.
“God bless our food. Amen.”
They have to say it with their hands together and their eyes closed. They all know they’re not allowed to touch their food until everyone has been served and those words have been said.
Sometimes the kindergarten teacher has the children say a longer prayer, blessing the hands of the person who prepared the food and thanking God for the nourishment the food will give their bodies. It’s hard for the kids to keep their eyes closed for so long, so their faces get all screwed up in concentration.
The kids also sing songs about God—not just God, but Jesus. Jesus and me and the Bible and all that stuff. One of the songs is super catchy:
“Oh Lord…I read and I pray…Oh Loooord, I read and I pray. Oh Lord…I read and I pray…In the Bible, I read and I pray.”
Then there’s a bit in Setswana and a dance; the kids know all the words and they clearly love singing it and showing off.
It’s really nice. Which is really weird.
Because I think I’m supposed to be a little appalled. I mean, who is protecting these orphans and vulnerable children from the religious beliefs of their teachers? What are the teachers telling the kids about Jesus behind closed doors? What are these children who have already experienced significant hardships being led to believe about punishment and reward?
Sure, the orphanage is a privately funded NGO (they may get some government funding—I’m not sure), but it’s not an explicitly religious place. I wonder if parents and caretakers might not expect (or desire) the religious education their preschoolers are receiving.
Recently, I organized some of the educational videos we have. One morning, I popped in a seemingly harmless one called “We’re All Friends And Sunshine And Kitty Cats” or something like that, only to discover the second or third song in that it was evidently created by some American evangelical group with a clearly defined image of God/Jesus, a gendered system of values, and an agenda to spread the message to unsuspecting children. Plus all the kids in the video were white. It was weird.
But while I’m thinking “whoops” and getting up to switch to Barney or another PBS-sanctioned show, the other teachers are like, “Oh, this is lovely. Look at the costumes, and the dancing, and the message.”
So then it’s like, well okay, maybe I just have this visceral approach to a certain Christian element in the United States and that just has no meaning here. I don’t know that there is anything intrinsically harmful about little children singing about God. Unless your heart is made of stone or you’re Christopher Hitchens, that image is sort of peaceful and wholesome, right?
Or maybe I’m just okay with kids singing about the Bible and God in sort of neutral terms. But when they get into Jesus dying for your sins like they did on the video or even when Jewish preschoolers sing about Israel or the Messiah, I get the heebie jeebies.
I mean, that’s why what we do in America works, right? Like I don’t really care if the Ten Commandments are displayed in a courthouse, but that’s exactly why I personally don’t get to decide. Someone else might not care if kids sing about Jesus in public schools, but that's why they don't get to decide, either.
Still, I admire Botswana’s community-generated prayer system. When we got married at the magistrate’s court—definitely a government office—the day began with a prayer, but the prayer was led by whoever in the room wanted to lead it—not by the magistrate. Probably everyone in the room was Christian; I don’t know what would have happened if one of Botswana’s Muslims or Hindus had led the prayer. I’ll be interested to see how Botswana tackles religious diversity as their religious minorities grow.
In the meantime though, (and I'm not saying this should guide public policy) it almost seems petty to care if the song or the prayer or the video is about Jesus or not. Like who really cares if someone leading a prayer before the ceremony mentions Jesus or Allah or Visnu. I wonder if the next moment in religious pluralism will require that we be able to recognize the common human hopes and uncertainties that inhabit prayer. And even that we be able to pray if the words are not our own.