Talking Race with Youth:
In this issue of Engage, we tackle the one of the most difficult and perennial topics in the U.S. and beyond — Race. In 2014, the U.S. was reeling from the extrajudicial killings of Black people in Cleveland (Tamir Rice), Ferguson (Michael Brown), Staten Island (Eric Garner), and many, many more around the country. The IYM published its first edition of this resource that year, but we have continued to bear witness to the ongoing mental, physical, and spiritual brutality and violence done against people of color in the years that followed. As youth ministers, we decry and lament the losses of young people who we have been called to serve. A small sample of this far too long list, includes:
Trayvon Martin, murdered at 17 years old | Michael Brown, murdered at 18 years old | Laquan McDonald, murdered at 17 years old | Tamir Rice, murdered at 12 years old | Antonio Martin, murdered at 18 years old | Renisha McBride, murdered at 19 years old | Tony Robinson, murdered at 19 years old | William Chapman, murdered at 18 years old | Aiyana Jones, murdered at 7 years old | Paul O’Neal, murdered at 18 years old | Abdullahi Omar Mohamed, murdered at 17 years old | Jazmine Barnes, murdered at 7 years old | Oluwatoyin Salau, murdered at 19 years old | Bianca Roberson, murdered at 18 years old | Emmett Till, murdered at 14 years old.
In 2020, in the wake of a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black, Brown, and Indigenous people and the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia (and a list that continues to grow), we’re republishing this resource with additional voices to learn from. What constructive theological framework exists to begin a meaningful conversation with young people on race and racism? How do we worship and journey with youth in communities that are suffering or that remain indifferent? Eight writers below dive into these questions and more in this updated and revised resource.
Our Holy Invitation to Interruption and Inclusion
What are we called to do in times like these? Our traditions often focus on preparation for everyday life, even its challenges and trials, on character, morals, service, and integrity. As if our focus and time are to be spent on high ground; our head held high, and our feet firmly planted in the face of injustice and strife.
What might you expect to read if you received a note of encouragement and instruction from a Christian leader? When you think of bold action in response to the challenges of racial injustice and political unrest, do you picture your task to be falling to your knees, finding yourself on the ground? Do you consider these postures of protest and subversion?
As folks of the Gospel, we like to focus on Spirit and Salvation. We like the theatrics of Resurrections and Pentecost, Blood, and Fire. But these are ordinary times according to our liturgical calendar. These times of pandemic, economic hardship, racial unrest, and political uncertainty are just a regular rhythmic ebb — ordinary times.
Ordinary times are times of potential, promise, and provision; yet, as Christians we are more inclined to look for miracles and martyrs. Though the Gospel does rightfully give us this flair for the dramatic with its feasts and high holidays, ordinary times are when we experience personal and political pressures, cultural and economic hardships.
Ordinary times can overwhelm us.
In 1 Peter 2:1–10, Peter writes during ordinary times to encourage the believers in Christ to show the world what holy living looks like. Peter reminds us in this passage that each of us, all of us, now belongs to the family of Abraham. He lets those of us that believe in the Gospel, each of us, know that means we must go low.
Peter is writing to these believers in the Gospel of Christ while they are in a context of hostility and harassment. He is encouraging them in the midst of attacks and state-sanctioned oppression. The point is to affirm their identity, the reason for their suffering, as a means of creating a flashing neon sign that points to the message and mission of Jesus’ ministry. As a diverse body of folks that follow Christ in this world, Peter lets us know that our identities as believers do not place us together on a mountaintop. Identity, complex, and intersecting, is divisive, it isn’t merely a cultural and political marker—it is a problematic obstacle.
Our identities are not just social markers, cultural stories, or political bait. Our identities connect us directly to God. When we refuse to articulate that #BlackLivesMatter, that #AllBlackLivesMatter, that #BlackTransLivesMatter, we are refusing to acknowledge that you are in a relationship with God that compels you to do something.
We all, each of us, must do something, whether that something is building safe and accessible housing like Noah, arguing with powerful political leaders like Moses, redistributing resources and wealth like Ruth, disrupting genocide like Esther, birthing a little boy that the state seeks to kill before he’s a man like Mary, or simply questioning the wounds and reality of persecution like Thomas.
We have been chosen by God, all of us, each of us; and, as Peter instructed us, we must acknowledge it. We must acknowledge that God has promised all of us, each of us, something. Even if that promise torments you, as it did both Saraí and Hagar in Genesis chapters 16 and 22.
All of these identities were messy, politically or physically violent, economically marginalized, or oppressive; and yet, God showed up fully for them all even in that messiness. Peter encourages us to remember how God sees us in our messy ordinary times.
God honored Moses’s insecurity.
God honored Sarah’s laughter.
God honored Naomi’s and Ruth’s codependence.
God honored Mary’s worried heart.
Jesus honored Thomas’s doubt.
Jesus honored the woman at the well’s skepticism as she sought clean water; though, without a name, she never would have had a hashtag.
Jesus honored Peter’s wondering. He called it out. He named it a thing. He said, “oh, you of little faith…” but then helped Peter take the next best step… and Peter did the impossible, he walked on water.
So, by the time Peter is mentoring, coaching, supporting the churches throughout what’s now known as Turkey, he’s seen what God will do even when your faith is mixed with doubt. Peter has experienced firsthand that God doesn’t want perfect people doing the right thing.
God wants a loud, messy, fiery gang of folks that will do something that causes folks to stumble.
Peter tells us that for “…you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,’ and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall’” (1 Peter 2:4-9).
God intends for us to cause folks to stumble and cry out for a God when they refuse to awaken to the opportunities to do something in ordinary times. God intends for believers to be doers, and the foundation, the cornerstone, of something new. Not a monument to what has been, but the bright, hot spark of something new.
Each of us is to embrace our identity, to wake up to Black life mattering, to acknowledge how whiteness has been internalized in each of us. We have internalized it as expectations disguised as markers of morality and character in our roles as good students, productive citizens of our school and work communities, friendly neighbors that conflate privacy with safety. As unassuming and easy-going participants within a system that whitewashes privileges as rights, we uphold the structures of racism because they supply our necessary provisions. We confess that we are too busy, too distracted, yet we do not repent from how that keeps us from taking up the cross of anti-racism that would free us to follow Jesus into the temples to speak truth to modern-day tax collectors and pharaohs. We accept invitations to tables that Jesus would have turned over–tables where justice is dissected rather than demanded. We sign up for movie screenings and book discussions and fail to speak at our local city council or school board meetings.
When each of us embraces our identities, we connect with how God intends us to become a stone that makes the empire fall. When we see how we have embedded whiteness into the rules of acceptance and inclusion, and, when we awaken to our failure to consistently act as if Black life matters in our communities, we are awakening to the power harnessed in our differences. When we see differences and inequalities, God expects us to accept this invitation to interruption and innovation.
Rev. Dr. Baranda Fermin is a Community Curator at Union Coffee, leading a new church start initiative that includes Brunch Church and Yoga Worship Gatherings. She has numerous published articles, including those in Social Forces, College & University, Better Homes & Gardens, and her book of prayers and prose, For Our Boys: A Mother’s Prayers to Smash the Patriarchy. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Michigan State University; a Master’s in Human Development from Teachers College, Columbia University; and a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from The University of Oklahoma. She is currently working on her Master of Divinity at Iliff School of Theology and, aside from the Old Testament, her favorite things on earth are yoga, tacos, and her son, Montgomery James.
The Important and Experiential Role of Youth Ministry
What is the American Christian who seeks to do right in the world to do with the state of our nation in 2020? We live in a nation ravaged by supremacist ideologies, social unrest, and human subjugation along with a myriad of other atrocities visited upon people who have been minoritized by the interconnected and interrelated oppressive systems. Add to that a global pandemic, economic collapse, massive unemployment, millions more ushered into poverty while politicians and plutocrats siphon off taxpayer dollars and gladly deliver them up to their individual and corporate sponsors. Outside observers might wonder, when will God come in like a “mighty flood” and clean things up? There are millions of professing and practicing Christians in the United States, after all—this nation was built on Christian principles, right?
For millions of Americans and billions around the globe, the only “flood” they have experienced lately is drowning them in debt, death, and despair—leading to destruction and desolation. The power of God appears absent in any appreciable or discernable way. Christian believers are able to recite scriptures from memory, some of the most well-known preachers are little more than poets with platitudes, and daily, people are unwittingly brainwashed into believing that God thinks and feels the same way that we do.
Generalizations can always be challenged, and I acknowledge that exceptions exist. Setting that aside—as an observable pattern, American Christians, by and large, are a large and vocal mass of confusion, infighting, and competition. Those in leadership are sometimes themselves just making it by grace. Then you have those who attempt to project morality and right living from a place of comfort and convenience while others live in a world where they are caught between the state implicitly (slave codes, Jim Crow, Supreme Court) and explicitly (state sponsored terror) terrorizing, antagonizing, oppressing, and murdering indiscriminately (True Justice). As described, Christians in America seem to have little to offer in the way of transformative action.
So, what are we—the body of Christ, the people of God—to do with the state of the world in light of the promises of the gospel? Isaiah 28:1–4 sheds light on what may be occurring. After all, Ecclesiastes reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun (1:9).
America’s birth out of, and incubation in, the period of untreated cultural cancer that is white-supremacist thinking inhibits its ability to adequately function beyond its colonial roots absent significant and sustained pressure. Princeton Seminary, Georgetown, and Stellenbosch Universities have all recently decided to critically examine their own histories. It’s 2020. This is the perfect time for All of America—individuals, organizations, institutions, and employers—to begin examining the reality of America and how progressive possibilities are constrained within a context typified by arrogance, ignorance, and indifference. The administration of government, institutions of higher learning, law enforcement organizations and their industry partners, for-profit health care systems, and paid-for politicians are all showing fruits of their father, the devil (John 8:43–44). Unfortunately, honest assessment requires us to name the church as complicit, even at times being a tool of oppression.
The 400+ years of visible evidence confirms this reality, regardless of how uncomfortable this may be for the reader. Even in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” visible evidence trumps delusional thinking. A cursory glance at U.S. history 1980–present reveals that U.S. society rewards greed, manipulation, and ruthless exploitation. As a nation, we continue to marginalize and oppress those whom the powerful in society deem unworthy. A sobering reality exists here as well; the American Church has mirrored the actions of society. This inability to transcend colonial roots requires a new liberating praxis if “united” is a desired outcome.
In Matthew 5:13, Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its savor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” Jesus modeled an incarnational missiology, while modern American Christians practice a system of rituals, recitation, and exposition of a packaged, systematic, theoretical theology that lacks critical analysis, scrutiny, and practical application in the world.
In this season of pandemic, global corruption, and political ineptitude—police violence, state sanctioned terrorists, human enslavement, and genocide—are accepted as normal and most practicing Christians embody a theology incompatible with the words or work of Jesus as recorded in the Christian Bible. It is within this reality, that I think we find our way out of the wilderness. As youth ministers, you have the most important role in the spread of the Gospel—the shaping of the theological foundation of a young person. The first step in tackling this monumental task is naming and understanding the fact that you are enough. You are enough because the God who called you is the God who has equipped you and the God who will keep you.
Next, be like Jesus. Jesus embodied care and so should we. Jesus demonstrated compassion and that makes a big difference. What might embodying Jesus look like in your ministry? What happens when you and your team all begin to embrace the charge and the challenge that Christ left us? For newer believers—those who are experiencing the same societal disruption as you—what about God might help their situation? Your task as youth minister is to help young people understand how to recognize God.
As a member of the body of Christ, paramount to any title is the task of meeting the needs of the people in your charge. If we are truly a united body of Christ, then we must speak the truth in love and grow until all parts are working properly and promote the body’s growth (Eph 4:15-16). Effective communication, autonomy, vision, and accountability are components of a transformational ministry program.
I wonder what it might look like for Christian leaders, youth ministers, and people in general to stop living in fear of God’s wrath and start embracing God’s love? How would we behave differently if we saw ourselves as God sees us? Would vigilante officers enjoy the protection of the legal system? Would homophobic and xenophobic ideations be allowed to gain airtime and traction? If we, the body of Christ, became the “hands and feet” of Jesus, and a vessel and mouthpiece for God, the world would be transformed in an instant.
Youth Ministers, leaders, and other adults can better teach young people about Christ the more they model Christ. In the Gospel of John, we read of a Jesus who showed compassion (John 8), empathized with grieving families (John 11), made provision for masses of the hungry (John 6), freely critiqued rulers, religious and political leaders (John 5), and spoke to people so that they might begin to see (John 7:46). In our work with young people, our prayers, communion with God, and study of the scripture will help us more frequently model Christ. It is in the daily routines of life—our long, slow wilderness experience of becoming more familiar and intimate with God—that God is revealed. Once this revelation occurs, our job then becomes to witness what we have seen, heard, and have come to know (John 1:34). Regardless of title, denomination, or degree—our primary mission is to help (young) people better understand the language of the divine by drawing from the blood of the lamb and the strength of your testimony. You are enough. You are you-niquely you. God has created and commissioned you for this: Ready… Set… Go! The world needs you.
Kerwin Webb is an educator, consultant, minister, and activist. Currently serving as the Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adults at Second Baptist Church of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and employed as Education Specialist with Interfaith Neighbors, Kerwin received a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. Kerwin also holds a certificate in Christian Ministry (2016), preaching license (2016, 2018), Certificate in Black Church Studies (2019), and an International Certificate in Youth, Theology, and Innovation (2020). Kerwin has been affiliated with the Sacred Sector Fellowship through the Center for Public Justice since 2018, in roles ranging from Fellow to Facilitator. Additionally, Kerwin is in his first term as the President of the Greater Red Bank Area NAACP, is an Equal Justice Initiative coalition liaison for the New Jersey Social Justice Remembrance Coalition, and is a board member of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation in Red Bank, New Jersey.
No Other God
“Margaret Mcfarland of the Arsenal Nursery School in Pittsburgh told me of a four-year-old Negro girl who used to stand in front of a mirror and scrub her skin with soap. When gently diverted from this she began to scrub the mirror. Finally, when induced to paint instead, she first angrily filled sheets of paper with the colors brown and black. But then she brought to the teacher what she called “a really good picture.” The teacher at first could see only a white sheet, until she looked more closely and saw that the little girl had covered every inch of the sheet with white paint.”1
“Them white boys sure can fly,” Gus said.
“Yeah,” Bigger said, wistfully. “They get a chance to do everything.”2
“In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports. Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself—during moments at least—as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior; at times he is likely to pass and at times he is likely to find himself being apologetic or aggressive concerning known-about aspects of himself he knows are probably seen as undesirable.”3
How can churches prepare young people, particularly adolescents, to have meaning-exploring and meaning-making conversations about such issues as race, racism, and inequality? Will these discussions be filled with nothing more than insulting proof-texts (e.g., Jesus died for them too [John 3:16]) and demeaning platitudes (e.g., All Lives Matter)? Or will these discussions address how certain young people are conditioned to become indifferent to and, by extension, complicit in the oppression of the Other? “That’s part of white privilege—the privilege to ignore the reality of a white supremacist society when it makes us uncomfortable… to deny one’s own role in it,” writes Robert Jensen.4 Will these discussions delve into the troubling relationship between power and identity, that is, how one’s sense of self is tethered to one’s domination and oppression of others?
This is important because, as psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson observes, adolescence is “a ‘natural’ period of uprootedness in human life.’”5 In Erikson’s model of psychosocial development, this “uprootedness” is evident in the negotiations between the crises and virtues of industry versus inferiority (Stage 4) and identity versus role confusion (Stage 5). But there are social factors, unfortunately, that force some young people to experience these stages too early, precociously, creating what Erikson terms “an identity disturbance.6
On the one hand, you have African American youth who must contend with the ways in which race and racism create “stigmata which mark an irreversible difference from a dominant type.”7 (An example of this dominant type is Goffman’s complete unblushing American male.) The first epigraph provides Erikson’s vivid account of how this stigma led to various acts of self-eradication amongst African American youth during the 1960s. However, this is still occurring, though in far more detrimental forms. In an article published in The New York Times, clinical psychologist Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler documents the dramatic rise in suicides amongst Black youth, up 73 percent from 1991 to 2017, most notably among Black boys. One of the main reasons for this, she says, is that “[B]lack youths too often receive the messages that their lives are not valued and they are less deserving of support, nurturing and protection than their peers of other backgrounds.”8
On the other, you have white youth, especially the young white male, who, according to Erikson, “is offered special chances and privileges in order to make him define his own identity in the narrow and uniform terms demanded by the system.”9 How many young white males possess all of the characteristics outlined in Goffman’s “complete unblushing male” model? Not many, I’m sure. And what is their reaction to this failure? What are the long-term effects? In what ways do these insecure youth become insecure but dangerous adults who, due to their insecurity, develop various psychological defenses (narcissism) to help them cope with their inability to take up the white man’s burden, which is to dominate? We thereby have what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to as “the [white male’s] duty to assert his manliness in all circumstances.”10
But this is a trap.
The white male’s desire to dominate must be satiated repeatedly. It is for this reason that Bourdieu remarks, that domination is “the product of an incessant (and therefore historical) labour of reproduction, to which singular agents (including men, with weapons such as physical violence and symbolic violence) and institutions… contribute.”11 This occurs repeatedly to reassert to oneself and, just as important, the dominated that one is indeed the powerful or, more to the point, the all-powerful one. What happens, though, when things get out of control? That is, when this need to dominate, at all times, begins to blend fantasy with reality. Think about it. I’m most concerned about the white male whose identity remains in the crises of inferiority and role confusion and whose only sense of rootedness is self-aggrandizing acts of minimizing, denying, or, in some cases, destroying the humanity of others. There’s no other way to put it. It’s playing god.
Some of this is done by small acts we aren’t even aware of. Bourdieu refers to this as symbolic violence (or gentle violence). These are the normative means by which one feels empowered by engaging in socially accepted acts of naming (racial epithets) or gestures (a condescending glance is sufficient). All of this helps to affirm and reaffirm the vast, visible difference between yourself and what philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon referred to as les damnés, the group made to symbolize the nadir of being human. And it all seems natural, as though it were ordained by the gods. But there are more pronounced ways, deadly ways, of marking this difference.
This occurs when, in the delirium or rapture to assert one’s divinity, one wants to be not just a god, but the God. What does this mean? It means that through some violent act—a chokehold, a shooting, a lynching—one extracts the very “breath of life” (I can’t breathe!) from a person. Whether in an instant or over a duration of time (e.g., 08:46) the final judgement is rendered by this vengeful god. Cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter believes none of this is an accident. She contends that the race-based modes of social domination, sacralizing whiteness, which reinforce white male domination, emerged when renaissance humanists wanted to escape their subordination to the world of the Church. Through reason, it was believed, man “partakes of some of God’s functions in that it is intended to rule over a lower order of reality.”12 Man, then, through reason, can engage in God-like activities, such as defining the human and non-human, the sinful and the redeemed, and who lives and who deserves to die. Again, as Bourdieu notes, this requires ongoing acts that are integral to an attempt to evolve towards infinity. Put simply, it’s man trying to be God.
There is hope, though. Church leaders, youth ministers, and Christian educators can begin by teaching the basics. And it’s a very simple lesson. Tell young people to look around and see what is going on: the racism, sexism, global warming, the alarming inequality regarding the earth’s resources. The false gods are failing. They’re trying to do everything. But they don’t know what to do.
But this doesn’t have to happen. Teach young people before it’s too late—
There is no other God.
1. Erik H. Erikson, Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964), p. 94.
2. Richard Wright, Native Son, p. 16.
3. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963), p. 128.
4. Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2005), p. 10.
5. Erikson, Insight and Responsibility, p. 90.
6. Erikson, Insight and Responsibility, p. 94
7. Erik H. Erikson, Dimensions of a New Identity: The 1973 Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), p. 114.
8. Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler, “Young Black People Are Killing Themselves,” The New York Times, December 16, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/16/opinion/young-black-people-suicide.html (accessed July 7, 2020).
9. Erikson, Dimensions of a New Identity, p. 115.
10. Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 50.
11. Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, p. 34
12. Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review3 (Fall 2003), p. 257-337.
Dr. Jay-Paul M. Hinds is an Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He received his Doctorate of Philosophy in Religion and Certificate of Psychoanalytic Studies from Emory University, with a concentration in religious practices and practical theology. He earned his Master of Divinity (2007) and Master of Theology (2008) from Princeton Theological Seminary. Hinds earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religion (Cum Laude) from Felician College. Before returning to Princeton Seminary, Hinds served as Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care, Practical Theology, and Psychology of Religion at Howard University School of Divinity.
The Building Blocks of Beloved Community
The murder of George Floyd has ignited a global movement in support of Black lives. There are countless stories similar to Floyd’s, where a person is presumed guilty and their life is snuffed out in violent, gruesome ways. From the 1955 murder of 14-year old Emmett Till, to the 2014 murder of 12-year old Tamir Rice, and the 2020 murder of 26-year old Breonna Taylor, we are presented with a history of brutality against Black and Indigenous People of Color that will continue unless we find viable solutions for creating a more beloved community.
In 1956, at the close of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “[l]ove your enemies. Keep in mind that a boycott and its achievements do not in themselves represent the goal. The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
As we prepare students to enter into the world as young adults, it is imperative that we equip them with the tools and language to articulate these three building blocks of Beloved Community—reconciliation, redemption, and relationship.
Reconciliation—Scripture tells us that reconciliation brings peace and unity. “…[T]hat he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross…” (Ephesians 2:15b-16a). The Christian faith compels us to live in peace and in unity with all of God’s people.
Redemption—In All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks says, “True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved.” We can only be free from the divisions within and among us if we proactively work together to achieve healing and redemption.
Relationship—Ta-Nehisi Coates says in the 2014 article appearing in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”, that “with segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage.” When we cease to be neighbors but instead are strangers segregated by neighborhood, school district, class, gender, race, ability, orientation, age, or religious affiliation, we are cut off from the very things that give us life. When we build relationships across communities of difference, we develop empathy that makes it impossible to kill or harm one another out of fear or hatred.
When we equip young people with the tools to envision and articulate a more beloved community, we are positioning them to be the thinkers, leaders, creators, innovators, and sustainers who create the beloved community that Dr. King believed was possible 64 years ago. When we prioritize reconciliation, redemption, and relationship, we create a connected, empathetic society. What becomes possible for such a society?
Rev. Lawrence T. Richardson is a pastor, prophet, digital evangelist, and author. He is a graduate of St. Catherine University and Liberty Seminary and serves as lead minister at Linden Hills UCC. The author of I Know What Heaven Looks Like, Rev. Richardson writes about and advocates for LGBTQ people, people of color, and the flourishing of all; with his works appearing in Huffington Post Religion, The Root, Believe Out Loud, The Salt Collective, Rachel Murr’s Unnatural: Spiritual Resiliency in Queer Christian Women, Austen Hartke’s Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians, and numerous national and international publications. Rev. Richardson has received awards and commendations for his service, including the Humanitarian Award from Black Transmen Inc. and the Stellar Award for his work in global communication.
Ferguson and Youth Ministry
The Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, caused an upwelling of emotions throughout our communities and the world. Brown’s death became a boiling point of resistance, civil disobedience, and mass protest to an unquestionable pattern of violence visited upon unarmed Black males by police officers and armed vigilante citizens. Ferguson is not just another police shooting of an unarmed Black youth but is something much deeper and theological. Briefly, Ferguson reminded me (once more) that my call as pastor is to do ministry in a perilous world.
What theological implications does Ferguson point to as it relates to youth ministry?
- Ferguson points us to reconnect with social justice ministry: The protesters seen in the media are not the faces of the Baby Boomers (who undoubtedly knew about protest) but the Millennials who have decided “to take arms against a sea of troubles.” Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrated on countless occasions his zeal for social justice ministry by including the excluded (Matthew 8:1-3), challenging cultural practices (John 4:1-42), confronting the dominant culture (Luke 6:1-11), and advocating for the oppressed (Luke 14:12-14). As ministry leaders, we must find ways to discuss social justice issues with our youth and within our ministry contexts. Social justice ministry empowers our youth to realize their potential in society where they live—and affords them a chance to do something about it.
- Ferguson points to the dire need to revisit incarnational and relational youth ministry: Relational youth ministry seeks to communicate Jesus’s love simply by building relationships with young people through which they can experience the love of Christ (Matthew 19:14). Amidst the peaceful protesting around the country as a result of Brown’s death, there are a handful of people who saw this as an opportunity to loot and plunder. This begs several questions: Who do they turn to when their voices are muted? Is God still on the side of the oppressed? Who is standing in the gaps to hear their stories? Who is giving them hope and reinforcing their significance? Instead of dismissing them as menaces to society, Ferguson affords us (the Church) a chance to reconstruct our youth ministries to be more vigilant and relational to our youth and their communities.
I have always contended that the Church must both proclaim and do theology in public before people and with people in mind. In short, Ferguson isn’t an opportunity to nullify the apparent effects it has on one particular culture or to raise our collective biases based on a sea of unknown facts. Rather, Ferguson gives us an opportunity to examine and mend our fragmented relationships with our youth, families, and communities. Let us never believe that God has left us without hope and new revelation when crises arrive. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Brooks is the Senior Pastor of Greater St. John Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. Brooks holds a Master of Divinity from Virginia Union University-Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a sought-after ministry practitioner with passions for church revitalization, youth ministry, reconciliation, race and theology, and leadership. Dr. Brooks is married to Toccara Brooks and they have two wonderful children, Morghan Rachel and Mason Lee.
God’s Plan for Shalom
“Why should I get out of the game [selling illegal drugs] if all I’m going to be seen as is another black body? They [community police officers] treat us like we are not even human. It’s not just here … you saw what happened with that court case. They just don’t care about what happens to us.” These are the words of “Kenroy,” an anguished 16-year-old boy who shared his plight with a social worker friend of mine.
I wish I could say that Kenroy’s words were an unfamiliar experience of young Black and Brown men in this country. Similar narratives echo in the lives of parents raising young boys of color. Jasmin Hughs insightfully explores the painful realities of parenting boys of color when she asks, “[a]t what age is a Black boy when he learns he’s scary? As a black woman, nothing will stop me from bearing and raising my future child, but nothing will stop me from raising them in fear.”
The dehumanization and disregard of young men like Kenroy and the deterioration of their divine endowment as image bearers of the Creator is far from God’s intention for humanity. Imagine with me please, “If the world was as God intended, what would relationships between neighborhood police officers and young Black men look like?”
Why is this question so hard to answer? Perhaps it’s because the evidence around us shows how far we are from God’s plan for shalom-relational goodness. Shalom is a wonderfully creative and expansive idea that describes wellness of relationships; it is the perfect webbing together of God, humanity and creation. The relationships that God perfectly created are now fractured. Societies. Families. Neighborhoods. Broken. What is the hope for young men of color who bear the brunt of such brokenness with their very lives?
As image bearers, we are invited to join with God in a magnificent enterprise of repairing and bridging the connective tissues that unravels shalom. This goes beyond mere patch work, but is actually the very incarnation of love. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary explains, “Justice is what love looks like when it takes social form.” This is how we manifest true shalom.
Unfortunately, because we see, read, watch, tweet, and participate in the unraveling of shalom every day, its torn seams have become commonplace, and we have the very foreseeable potential of becoming desensitized to suffering and pain that are not our own. We don’t connect to Michael Brown’s parent as a mother who is mourning the loss of her son. We don’t connect to Ferguson as a community in the throes of anguish and sorrow.
How might a shalom mindset lead to a reexamination of national standards on the use of lethal police force?
How might shalom connectedness reverse the probability that one in three black men will go to prison in their lifetime?
Ultimately, how might shalom reconciliation lead to structures (e.g. public education, housing market, criminal justice system, and labor market) in the United States that serve all people—including Black people—equally?
Dr. Mayra Lopez-Humphreys is an Associate Professor in the College of Staten Island’s Department of Social Work. Mayra holds a Master of Social Work from CUNY Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, New York, and a Ph. D. in Social Welfare Policy from The Graduate Center at City University of New York. She’s a native New Yorker, with a fondness for sidewalk treks and people watching.
Naming Racial Injustice
The Tuesday following the city of Ferguson’s decision regarding the death of Michael Brown, I found myself in a cafeteria with throngs of boisterous middle schoolers. Ten minutes in, my appetite was gone (if you’ve had a school lunch lately, then you understand my stomach’s reticence), and I was talking to “Chris”, a Black eighth grader. After sharing pleasantries, I just blurted out, “Has your mom had The Conversation with you?” He responded by saying, “What do you mean?” The pitch in his squeaky voice and sly smile told me he thought I was talking about the three-letter word conversation.
His smirk quickly withered when I said, “You know, the one about what to do when a police officer stops or questions you.”
“Oh yeah,” he peeped up. “Mom tells me to not say anything bad and do everything they ask you to because, ya know, you never know what could happen… because I’m Black.”
I said, “Yep, man. Sadly it’s pretty much true, but people are working to change that junk. In the meantime, listen to your mom because she is right and loves you.”
Then I patted his back, let him know God was always with him, and that I would see him soon. I turned to go to another table and as I did, he said, “That’s right B, God’s with me. I’ll see you soon.” I shook my head reluctantly and walked away knowing we had shared a very brief moment of existential and divine truth amidst the sordid mess of U.S. race relations.
Sobering as that moment was, truth was shared because we named how race negatively shapes the identity of young people amidst the mire and monotony of daily living. I think these moments need to happen like churches have council meetings—in other words, all the time. We must enter cafeterias, sanctuaries, restaurants, or wherever we find ourselves with young people and name the racial powers that unjustly shape their lives. It can be downright tough at times but part of their knowing that God is in the madness is for us to name The Powers, even in lunchrooms, and proclaim that God’s people should change them because they are damaging God’s children.
This is crucial, and it’s not just for the Chris’s of the world. It’s for those young white girls that I spoke with just after sharing eternal truth with Chris. While talking with them, they largely agreed that racism stereotypes youth of color and often has awful effects (yes, these were young white girls raised in the Deep South. Aren’t you glad the Spirit is still at work?). In their own way, they felt that the absurdity of racism needs to be called out and transformed, and God’s people best be in the fight to redeem it. If not, as one young lady reminded me, can we really say God’s people care about everyone, including Chris?
Dr. Brandon M. Winstead has served in a variety of urban and suburban youth ministry settings across the United States and in several denominations and non-profit organizations. Her currently serves as an Associate Minister at Bethel AME Church in Tallahassee, Florida. He has written and presented on African American religious history in the 20th century, the historical impact of racism on youth ministry practice, and the relationship between food and youth discipleship.
I have a confession, and it is this: I don’t want to talk about Ferguson. In fact, it’s the one topic I’d rather not share my thoughts about. I don’t want to write about Ferguson because the topic is drenched with landmines. Every conversation is a loaded one—racism, police brutality, violence, injustice, systemic white privilege, looting, murder, delinquency, prejudice, bad cops, good cops, guns, whites against Blacks, Blacks against whites, protests, no justice, no peace. The issues are complicated, heated, and emotional. Opinions hit a nerve, CNN is the ultimate drug for news junkies, and everyone has something to say on social media because it’s safer to voice one’s intimate thoughts in the webisphere where comments can be deleted and “friends” blocked.
I want distance from the Ferguson situation because seriously considering the weight of it from all perspectives—including those like Wilson’s fiancé who is also an officer or Michael Brown’s closest friends— that kind of pausing and considering requires a response.
But I need to do something.
I need to respond with compassion, to be someone better than my persona on social media, to be part of the change towards peace, understanding, and justice for all.
I need to look at the underbelly of humanity that is within me, that thing we call sin, that thing we all have in common, that thing I like to ignore.
I like to ignore the sin in me. I like to keep it at bay and make no such comparisons with those whom I deem more sinful than me; those who, in my eyes, are identifiably a part of the systemic problem of perpetuating injustice. The sin of the oppressor is not my sin; my sin is far less grand. And that’s the problem; it’s another confession I have. I have a problem of weighing sin. Yet Scripture tells me that all have sinned and fallen short. In fact, this “all” includes both the oppressor and the oppressed, for they are both within me. The ugliest parts of humanity coexist within me, for I have sinned and fallen short. That’s my confession. What’s yours?
Rev. Dr. Aram Bae is the Associate Pastor for Youth & Mission at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Aram is most passionate about the faith development of teens, equipping parents, and partnering with the larger faith community on how to best address questions of faith and spirituality during adolescence. She holds a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Master of Christian Education from Union Theological Seminary. Along with her work as Associate Pastor for Youth and Mission, Aram adjuncts on occasion, teaching classes on faith development, religious identity, and the relationship between church and the local community.
- Talk about the social and racial context of your church or group. Are you in an ethnically diverse or homogenous context? How does your situation form your perspective(s) on race?
- It has been six years since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. What has changed in the conversation on police brutality and racial justice? Have you seen change in your home town? Country? Church?
- What are the implications of incarnational ministry as we enter conversations about race and identity?
- What is your story? What pieces of your identity shape your story?
- When you think about the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor cases (among others), are there people whose perspectives are difficult for you to understand? Who do you relate to most easily and why?
- How can compassion transform conversations we have about race? What spaces exist, or could we create, where these conversations can safely happen?
- Where is God calling you to interrupt? How might you begin to “take up the cross of anti-racism” in your community?