"Something to Believe In"

We knew taking our son to an African-American church would be a great way to cultivate his ethnic pride. But first, we had to work up the courage.

Ethnic pride is important in the diverse Cuchens family.

When our son, Isaac, first came home, a friend said to us, “We’re so excited! Our child doesn’t have any black friends.” The phrase “token black child” rang in my ears. Visions of my son in a classroom, the only black child in an all-white school, ran through my head.

After becoming a father, I suddenly became aware of my own whiteness. Until then, I’d always considered myself racially progressive. I’m always careful not to say stupid things — like any sentence that begins with, “I don’t mean to sound racist, but…”

But racially progressive and racially educated are two different things. Our pre-adoption training had emphasized the need to instill ethnic pride in our children. “Become students of your children’s culture,” an instructor told us. So my wife, Laurie, and I began to research ways to care for our child’s skin and hair. We amassed a library of books on transracial adoption, child rearing, and black history.

It was a bit more of a challenge to surround ourselves with families of other races. At the time, we weren’t close enough to any of our African-American acquaintances to ask questions like, “Does his hair look like it was done by a white person who doesn’t know what she’s doing?”

Our first attempts at casual conversation were awkward, bordering on nosy. We’d see a child at the store and try to think of a nonchalant way of asking his mother what kind of lotion she used on his skin. A nice black man sold us our van. During our test drive, I concentrated on the vehicle’s performance, while Laurie interrogated him: Where did his wife shop for their kids’ clothes, and did he know of a store that sold ethnic toys? He responded as graciously as could have been expected.

Finding a lifeline

When our son was two years old, we decided to attend a local church that was primarily African-American. Laurie and I spent weeks researching the church online. Really, it took this long for us to work up the courage to go. We were used to white people staring at us wherever we went. But this would be different. For some reason, it felt more like a moment of judgment — what would it feel like if they stared at us?

After pulling into the church parking lot, we sat in the car for a minute or so. My wife and I had both attended church regularly for years, but neither of us could shake the feeling that this was our first time. “It’s natural to fear the unknown,” I told myself. We took deep breaths.

We walked into the church and were greeted by two fresh-faced college students. “Welcome to Lifeline,” one of them said, as the other handed me a program. I waited for a double take, but it never came.

As we walked in, Isaac began pointing to people and shouting, “Mom! That man is African-American, like me!” This was his new thing. He’d begun to notice other people’s races, and to point this out in public. Loudly. At the mall or the grocery store, we could usually shush him before the person noticed. Now, surrounded by African-Americans, his enthusiasm and volume were more difficult to hide. We expected to get dirty looks, but people smiled and even laughed.

We found seats in the back and watched as people trickled in and milled around. Finally, a few singers took the stage. They began to clap and chant, “Welcome to the Lifeline family.” People around us shook hands and hugged one another.

A few minutes later, the pastor took the stage. “What’s up, Child of God?” he shouted.

“What’s up, Child of God?” everyone shouted back.

“I can’t hear you! I said, ‘WHAT’S UP, CHILD OF GOD!'”

“WHAT’S UP, CHILD OF GOD!” everyone yelled.

“All right, then. It’s time to break into your small groups.” My wife and I looked at each other in confusion. White church never told us to break into groups. The routine was set: Sing some songs, listen to some preaching, then stay and socialize for an hour or two. A young woman must have noticed our apprehension. She approached us and invited our family to sit in her group.

Our group leader explained that we’d be discussing the text the preacher would be using throughout his sermon. Once we got into the discussion, Laurie and I began to like it. It felt genuine, and our group had a lot of fun.

A warm welcome

After small-group time was over, the pastor directed everyone to their seats for praise and worship. At one point during the service, when the entire congregation was singing and clapping and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, I looked over at Isaac. I saw my son standing on a chair, stomping and clapping enthusiastically. The people around us were watching him and smiling. I couldn’t help but feel as if he knew he had found his roots.

As the service wound down, the pastor closed in prayer, made a few announcements, and invited everyone to stay because his mom had made barbecue. Laurie and I exchanged glances that said we’d be staying. We felt welcomed. That is, until we made our way to the back to eat, when a white man approached me and asked, “Is he yours?”

Returning quickly to a guarded mindset, I considered several responses. “Actually, he was our ticket in. How’d you get in without one?” But since we were in church, it seemed wrong to antagonize a total stranger. So I forced a smile and said, “Yes, he’s ours.”

Our place in the world

Over the next few Sundays, we became comfortable at this church. People went out of their way to welcome and engage us — especially Isaac, whose favorite part of the service was the greeting, when he got to high-five everyone.

Isaac’s comfort with his race grew into enthusiasm. He continued to point out people on TV or characters in books who shared his skin tone.

“That’s right,” Laurie said one night as she read Isaac a bedtime story. “What color is Mommy’s skin?”


“It sure is. And what color is your skin?”

“It’s brown!” he shouted.

“Isn’t it cool that your skin and Mommy’s skin are different?”


We moved to another city a few months ago. Our new church is not as diverse, and we’ve had to find other ways to educate our son. Last summer, we attended an inner-city Juneteenth celebration. This month’s calendar is marked with a Martin Luther King Day parade. We want both of our children to know that there are lots of people who look like them, and that they have a place in our family and a place in this world, too.


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