In the midst of trying to help young people discover their identity in Jesus Christ, many professional youth workers struggle to make following Jesus palatable for the theological and spiritual taste buds of today’s youth.
I understand that struggle; I really do. Yet I believe that if we are going to be faithful leaders, we have to acknowledge that a pithy Bible study over pizza and cookies simply won’t be enough for postmodern youth.
We need to engage young people, who must learn that following Jesus is not devoid of the bumps and bruises of everyday life. And that means grappling with the difficult issues.
One of those issues is race.
I’ve presented at academic and youth worker gatherings across the country, and it seems that many of us are so far behind the curve that we don’t even know where to begin addressing this.
As youth leaders we must admit that we have failed.
Sure, we’ve become increasingly aware that we need to be more diverse, especially in worship and other gatherings, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.
Yet even for the folks who are doing that well -- a difficult task in itself -- it’s not enough. So how do we move forward?
I think one key is that we’ve got to do more than simply get together. Too often, white people just want to be nicer -- they don’t want to be racist. And their solution is to get together and worship with people of color.
But that doesn’t help youth tackle the hard realities. We’ve got to talk more about young people’s identities across the racial lines. That means addressing the ways in which racial divisions and realities shape the identities not only of people of color but also of young white people.
How has racism shaped the lives of white youth in ways incongruent with the work of the Holy Spirit? As they struggle to find a Christian identity, how can we call them to a deeper understanding of racial identity and help them move toward racial repair?
As Jennifer Harvey has argued in her book “Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation,” our failures largely stem from the fact that we ignore the reality of racial relationships in our local contexts.
The racial systems under which the youth in our ministries live go largely unexamined, thereby reinforcing the power that race and racism have to shape their lives.
Honestly, I don’t know how we as a guild could argue with Harvey on this point. While we have called on young people to reach across the racial divide, most of our ministries and congregations remain overwhelmingly white, and young people of color continue to endure oppressive racial realities.
Therefore, it shouldn’t shock us that little racial healing is occurring. If we are to move forward, then we as white youth workers must model for young people the importance of racial repair.
There are three steps that I think will help white youth leaders facilitate conversations across racial lines.
First, we as youth leaders must admit that we have failed. By doing this, we can begin to create an environment where young people will want to listen at a deeper level.
If our youth can let down their defenses, they may see how they have overlooked the importance of race -- including how they have benefited from white privilege.
This in turn can lay the groundwork for conversations with youth and youth workers of color.
As a second step, leaders of white youth and youth of color can work together to establish opportunities for careful listening: discussion panels, forums and small groups. It is important that these conversations be facilitated to ensure honest and productive exchange.
And the conversations should take place in various locations, including each participating ministry’s regular meeting rooms, so that youth can learn to listen and develop empathy outside their comfort zones.
Whatever approach and location is designated, it is important that the leaders exhibit humility across racial lines and provide emotional and spiritual safety for all those involved. Without it, the youth may close up for fear of being misunderstood or ignored.
It’s also important to remember that the damage racism has done to the identity of young folks didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be solved in an evening. One or two gatherings simply won’t do it.
If youth leaders, parents, adults, pastors and ecclesiastical leaders are serious about racial repair, they must make sure that these practices of listening are supported programmatically and financially over time.
We must establish opportunities for careful listening.
With such a structure in place, churches and ministries can help create an environment where cross-racial friendships may develop. And over time, the youth may model to their local churches the process of addressing historical and contemporary racism.
Finally, it is vital that we root these conversations in the context of local communities; the spirit of admission and listening by white youth ministries should lead to contextual racial change.
Until we begin to examine our own communities, these conversations are going to be superficial. We must push youth to talk about their real lives and to pay attention to the communities that they’re in.
For instance, in my city of Tallahassee, Florida, our young people read the markers in a public park and learned that during the Civil War, three-quarters of the city’s residents were African-Americans -- enslaved African-Americans.
We must root these conversations in the context of local communities.
Over lunch, they talked about one of the results of that system, which was that wealth had not been passed down to African-American citizens in the way it had been passed down through their own families.
For one teen, that lunchtime conversation was the first time he deeply understood what white privilege means.
I can’t promise that these steps will lead to more diversity in local youth groups. But that isn’t the only goal. It is my hope that the steps I’ve described might lead to deep avenues of racial repair and racial justice among young people.
This in turn will challenge all of us to advocate creatively and passionately for a more just world, where all youth can develop a holistic and dynamic Christian identity.