During Easter at library, there's no room for Jesus

April 13, 1999|By Michael Olesker

AS WE LIVE in sensitive times, Jesus will have to stay out of the Baltimore County library in Perry Hall. Nothing personal, it's just America trying to work things out.

In the beginning, the kids at St. James Lutheran School thought they were supposed to bring Jesus to the library, but it turned out only Easter was welcome. There is a distinction. Artistically, that is -- and separation-of-church-and-statewise, too.

And therein lies our little morality tale of the day.

Some weeks back, Perry Hall library officials approached Barbara N. Travers, principal at St. James Lutheran, in Overlea. The library would love to display some of the elementary school kids' artwork, Travers was told. She was delighted, and so was the library.

"We love having children's art in our libraries," Lynn Wheeler, Baltimore County's assistant director of libraries, said yesterday. "We want to encourage children to feel comfortable here. What's happened is very upsetting to everyone."

What happened was: The kids at St. James, kindergarten through fifth grade, submitted artwork to the library with Easter themes. One first-grader's drawing had the word "Jesus" on it. A third-grader's drawing showed an egg with a baby chick emerging, with the inscription, "God Made." Others had similar references.

The drawings were not displayed. A telephone call was placed to Travers, explaining the touchy nature of religious displays in public institutions. She was asked, might the children do a second set of drawings, based on a nonreligious theme?

Travers, and many of the school's parents, were not pleased.

"Unfortunately," Travers wrote in an April 1 letter to parents, "no one at the Library felt it was necessary to mention to me that anything with a religious theme was not acceptable. ... When I spoke with our library contact, I had specifically said we would do some art with an Easter theme. Our children worked very hard on their projects and were very proud -- justifiably so. The art projects were beautiful. I am very disappointed in the library's decision."

Anna Eardley, the mother of two disappointed St. James students, said yesterday, "What did the library think Easter was? Just a bunch of bunnies? They have books about every kind of religion. Why can't they have a few kids' drawings about it?"

Library officials understand such arguments, and apologize for not being clearer in their original instructions. Also, though, they're trying to be sensitive about the diverse religious beliefs that make up America.

"We certainly didn't want to disappoint the children," said Lynn Wheeler. "Sally Stanhope [Perry Hall's branch manager] was very concerned. Ironically, right after she made her decision, a family came into the library. She didn't know their religion, but they were Middle Eastern, and she thought, 'A Christian art display might have been very uninviting to them.'

"Public agencies wrestle with this all the time. We're very careful about not having Christmas decorations, or at least limiting them to greens. The purpose is not to denigrate any one group or school or belief, but to represent an institution open to all people regardless of background. We put a lot of effort into diversity."

And there's the constant balancing act of America.

We're a nation of open arms, welcoming people from around the world. It's the country's great strength, and keeps us forever fresh and vibrant. But, in the course of this multicultural embrace, not all cultures have felt equally welcome.

Thus, we're forever adjusting. In one earthquake gesture, we removed prayer from public schools. This wasn't intended as a slur against God, just as a declaration of the schools as neutral territory, where no one has to feel left out on religious grounds. That's particularly important to young people still trying to figure out an identity, and still sensitive to feeling "different" from their friends.

What sometimes happens, though, is the implosion of our sensitivities. We're so concerned about not offending each other that we fail to celebrate our differences. We're too busy officially shrinking from them.

All ethnic minorities feel a sense of standing on the margins, and all majorities feel a sense of crowding from those minorities. The country's at its best when we make everyone feel they're part of the same grand production -- not by getting everybody off the dance floor, but by pulling everyone in.

Maybe that means making room for children's Easter displays -- and for displays of all religions, thus showing that it's the great cultural mix that nourishes the country and gives it its true strength.

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