Jesus Loves the Little Children: Dr. Elsa Tamez and Birthing a Worldwide Church

 Trudy Hawkins Stringer, Tennessee Annual Conference

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Sturdy wood-paneled walls; practical linoleum floors; crank-out windows to cool the fellowship hall on hot Mississippi days; an upright piano; and small, wooden, straight-backed chairs—visual memories of the space where we gathered for Sunday school singing. Auditory memories, aside from scraping chairs and childhood chatter, are the songs we sang so often that we knew them by heart. Most vivid is:

Jesus loves the little children

All the children of the world

Red and yellow, black and white

They are precious in his sight

Jesus loves the little children of the world[1]

We, the young children in a small United Methodist church my great grandparents helped found, sang loudly, if not always on key, about how Jesus loves all the children of the world. We sang this in the midst of a “exclusively white” congregation in the Jim Crow South with the still-distant rumblings of a civil rights movement in the background.

Now, sixty years later, we still struggle with loving across culturally constructed color barriers. The “red and yellow, black and white” lyrics of the children’s song suggest how early we are taught these ways of seeing one another.

Now, sixty years later, we anticipate the 2016 General Conference where we will for the first time consider drafting a General Book of Discipline.

Now, sixty years later, we consider “birthing a worldwide church.”

Now, sixty years later, while I know the words of this old Sunday school song “by heart,” I want to know them written on my heart—edited to read that Jesus loves the children unbounded by “red and yellow black and white,” and that I am called to participate in that love.

In light of these realities I turn to the work of Dr. Elsa Tamez to glimpse what “birthing a worldwide church” might look like. While I am not an expert on Dr. Tamez’s work, I find hope in this Mexican Methodist layperson, New Testament scholar, feminist liberation theologian, activist, and teacher in the church.

Although Dr. Tamez has written numerous scholarly texts, this reflection focuses on two of her shorter pieces, a chapter in Voices from the Margin and an article in The Ecumenical Review. These explorations will challenge us to listen to the history of how a sacred text, the Bible, one of John Wesley’s means of grace, was used in conquest. Listen to the possibility that we Christians, who carry the culturally constructed descriptor of “white,” are in need of evangelization. Although Tamez’s words may cause some of us discomfort, they also give reason to hope that the birth pains of a worldwide church may yield life abundant.

In “The Bible and Five Hundred Years of Conquest,” Tamez challenges us to take seriously how the Bible was misused to legitimate the conquest of indigenous people in the New World and continues to be misused to legitimate ongoing structural oppression.[2] Listen to these words in a letter from the Indians of the Andes and Americas delivered to Pope John Paul II:

We, the Indians of the Andes and Americas, decided to take advantage of John Paul II’s visit to return his Bible because in five centuries it has given us neither love, nor peace, nor justice. Please take your Bible back and give it to our oppressors, because they need its moral precepts more than we.[3]

“Red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight” . . . the children’s song returns to haunt our history.

Birthing a worldwide church means listening deeply and humbly to the trauma caused by misuse of the Bible toward those beyond our context and borders.[4]

In “The Indigenous Peoples Are Evangelizing Us,” Tamez urges European and North American Christians carrying the culturally constructed descriptor of “white” to listen: “So, having been the ones who have done the talking for the past five hundred years, now is the right time for us to pause and listen. . . .”[5]

“[W]e are being evangelized by the Spirit through the indigenous peoples and the challenges that come from them, and we should give thanks to God for this.”[6] Give thanks for recovering “the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ . . . turning us back to the real meaning of evangelism and mission and the practices that go with them.” [7]

Tamez claims that “conversion to our neighbor is conversion to God.” [8] In her words I hear an understanding of the ancient command—the “greatest commandment,” to love God and love neighbor—as a call to an active life of faith, one in which to love God is to love neighbor and to love neighbor is to love God. These actions are as inseparable as the chambers of the heart. If this is so, and I believe it is, then we need the voices of all of the children of the world: voices calling us from isolation and destruction to community and life abundant, calling us to participate in birthing a worldwide church.

Jesus loves the little children / All the children of the world.

Can we do less?



[1] Lyrics by C.H. Woolston (nineteenth century).

[2] Elsa Tamez, “The Bible and Five Hundred Years of Conquest,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, third edition, ed., R. S. Sugirtharajah, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 14.

[3] Pablo Richard, “Hermenéutica bíblica india: Revelación de Dios en las religiones indígenas y en la Biblia (Después de 500 años de dominación),” in Sentido histórico del V Centenario (1492–1992), ed. Guillermo Meléndez (San José: CEHILA- DEI, 1992), 45–62, as quoted in Elsa Tamez, “The Bible and Five Hundred Years of Conquest,” 18.

[4] See Elsa Tamez, “The Bible and Five Hundred Years of Conquest,” 22.

[5] Elsa Tamez, “The Indigenous People Are Evangelizing Us” The Ecumenical Review 44, no. 2 (October 1992): 458. Available from: ATLASerials, Religion Collection, Ipswich, MA. Accessed August 17, 2015.

[6] Ibid., 465.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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