MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, October 4th, 2019.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
It was a shocking story of a racially motivated attack … perpetrated by children.
A 12-year-old girl at Immanuel Christian School in Springfield, Virginia, accused three male classmates of ambushing her on the playground. She said the boys—who were all white—pinned her to the ground and cut off some of her dreadlocks. She said that during the attack they called her hair “ugly” and “nappy.”
The outrage was fast and furious. The school asked local police to investigate, as did the girl’s family. Both the girl and the boys she accused stayed out of school while investigators looked over the evidence.
But they quickly found inconsistencies in her story. And on Monday, the girl admitted she made the whole thing up.
In a statement the school said it felt “tremendous pain for the victims and the hurt on both sides of this conflict.” It added that the school is prepared for “what will be a long season of healing.”
Pastor Jesse Johnson will be a big part of that process. Immanuel Christian School is a ministry of Immanuel Bible Church. Johnson is its lead teaching pastor.
He wants to use this incident as a starting point for an important conversation the church needs to have. How are we, as adults, modeling healthy race relations to our kids?
REICHARD: It’s Culture Friday. Neither John Stonestreet nor Trevin Wax is available to us this week, but we’re grateful to Pastor Jesse Johnson for bringing his first-hand knowledge on this difficult story and making some time to tell it here.
EICHER: Pastor Johnson, good morning.
JESSE JOHNSON, GUEST: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.
EICHER: This is a heartbreaking story all the way around. And obviously it fit a narrative the national news media were ready to run with. According to the Media Research Center, “the flagship morning and evening shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC combined with CNN and MSNBC” all gave substantial airtime to the story—and it painted the school in a pretty negative light.
When it first came out, pastor, tell me what was your initial reaction?
JOHNSON: Well, I first heard about it when it was brought to our attention on Wednesday last week. We didn’t know what day it had happened on. And so we began looking at video footage and everything to try to figure out what happened. We didn’t figure out a more specific time frame until the next day. But it was a shocking allegation and it was like a gut punch. My heart broke for the girl. I thought there’s just—what an incredibly difficult thing to go through. My heart broke for our school that we might be a place where something like that could happen. My heart broke for the teachers that are so professional in how they care for the students. But most of all, my heart broke for the reputation of Christ because we are a Christian school and we take that seriously and I knew that no matter how this played out, the reputation of the gospel itself could have even been tarnished through it. So it was just an expression of sadness and really sorrow about what the implications for this were.
EICHER: And there was that additional media spotlight that had to make it that much worse. And that happened some days after you found out about this, I assume. Right?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Some of the parents, some of the guardians involved brought it to the school’s attention. But it hit social media before the school was able to investigate it, even. It hit social media the very evening that we had heard about it, before we even had people back on campus to look into it. We brought in people that evening, but, again, we didn’t know the time frame and by the next day, the media had picked it up. And the media ran with it, of course, on Friday afternoon. It just exploded. Which we had experienced before when we had hired Mrs. Pence, the vice president’s wife, as an art teacher. She had taught for our school for a decade previously, so she wasn’t really a new hire. But when she came back in, we had gone through a similar news cycle, so we felt we were prepared for it. But that was different because of just how false those initial allegations were about Mrs. Pence. Whereas in this incident, we were operating under the assumption that the allegations were true. And so that, in a sense, made it even worse.
REICHARD: When you hear a story like this it’s easy to jump to conclusions about the racial makeup of the school. But Immanuel’s student body is pretty diverse. About half the children are students of color. Is racial reconciliation something you talk about at both the school and your church?
JOHNSON: Yeah, it is a diverse church. Our area itself is very diverse and the school reflects that. The school is probably even more diverse than the neighborhood in which we reside. We don’t intentionally approach that because of how diverse the school is. Almost talking about it really adds a layer of difficulty that would otherwise not be there. There’s friendships across racial lines. The friendships at the school go more along the lines of sports and clubs and those kinds of activities than they do by external appearance or hair or anything like that. But we do teach the students from early on in middle school, we make sure they’re aware that we all descend from Adam. We are all of one image. There is one race, the human race. We’re all in the image of God. Culture is diverse and we celebrate diversity of culture. The more diverse the culture, the more the transcendent power of the gospel is magnified. When you have diverse cultures that worship the same Savior, that shows you really the surpassing worth of that Savior. And so we try to celebrate culture while constantly reminding people that we are all one race.
REICHARD: Before we move on to talk about the healing process and lessons learned, I do want to note that the young lady involved here says that while this incident did not happen, others did. She says she has been the victim of bullying. That seems to be a rampant problem across the nation. How can we as Christians fight this problem and teach our children to respect and love others?
Yeah, you teach students and adults, for that matter, it’s no different as we grow up. You teach people that you respect each other across cultural and ethnic lines. You respect each other just by simply being made in the image of God makes you worthy of dignity and honor that comes with being a human being. You teach students to be courageous. And to speak out when they see something that is not right and to speak for the defense of those who can’t defend themselves, those who are intimidated. You want to avoid cliques in the school. You want to avoid cliques in your friendship. And that’s a similar principle. The students learn that in elementary school. It will help them when they’re adults in church because in any social setting there’s a tendency towards division. And this event, obviously, happened in a culture that is harmed by racial strife and racial division and we want the church to be the antidote to that. We want people to see that what we have in common in Christ is more powerful than what separates us based upon appearances. And the more you appreciate that, that’s the only way forward. That’s the only hope for healing in our racially divisive society.
It’s our fear that this kind of false allegation would make it harder for people who are the victims of bullying or racism to speak out. And that’s one of the things that we want to make clear. It does trouble me that in the aftermath, we’re glad that the reputation of the school is in some sense vindicated, but we would be so sad—I see online and it just makes me sad when people say, oh, this goes to show that so many allegations of racism aren’t true. Well, I hope that’s not the lesson that people take from this, because we are, as an American, we’re in a racially complex society owing to our country’s history that in many ways comes out of a history of racism and we’d be naive to pretend otherwise.
EICHER: You have said you want to use this as an opportunity to talk about how adults are modeling healthy race relations. What do you mean by that?
JOHNSON: Yeah. The main question I got before it was revealed that the allegations weren’t true, the main question I got was what are you guys teaching people at a Christian school? And it came from an attitude of almost dismissiveness, like this is why I would never go to a Christian school or this is the problem with Christianity or evangelicals or everything. Whatever you had a problem with, this incident showed that. And I want to flip that around and say, to answer the question, what are we teaching people at a Christian school? Well, we’re teaching them the freedom and power of forgiveness. That after something like this, you can model forgiveness because forgiveness should be immediate and instantaneous. If we’ve been forgiven by Christ, there’s no grounds that we have to hold onto bitterness to someone who’s wronged us. So, I hope that this whole incident can be used as an example for forgiveness across a potentially divisive culture.
EICHER: You’ve got to be thankful that this situation didn’t go on and on. It was pretty quickly resolved.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I am thankful for that.
EICHER: Although those days must have seemed like weeks and years to you when it was up in the air.
JOHNSON: Yeah, and there were days, also, where it was kind of clear that the allegation didn’t have as much merit as it had been presented initially. But there was no way, of course, that we could publicize that or say that. We wanted the police department to finish their own investigation without us trying to interfere with it at all. And I really am thankful‚ this sounds strange, but I really am thankful to Amari and her family for having the courage and the integrity once they realized—her extended family—once they realized what was going on to speak out instead of digging in. Because I know, especially for the adults involved, that took some humility and I really am thankful that they had the courage to say the truth once they realized it.
REICHARD: Jesse Johnson is lead teaching pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Virginia. It’s Culture Friday. Pastor Johnson, thanks so much for talking with us today!
JOHNSON: Well thanks for having me. I’m grateful for the opportunity.