Helping young people grieve and take action

Diverse ministry perspectives to help teenagers respond to racialized violence and injustice

photo by Clay Banks

The Fuller Youth Institute stands wholeheartedly with Fuller Theological Seminary in denouncing “the senseless, brutal killing of George Floyd and the countless instances of abuse and othering of black and brown bodies in a long line of systemic injustice … The loss of life is cause for full-throated lament, and it is for that reason that we choose to stand in solidarity with those who have lost loved ones, with those who are seeking justice, and with those who are advocating for drastic and overdue change.” (Click here for Fuller’s full statement and a powerful conversation between President Mark Labberton and Dwight Radcliff, Assistant Provost for the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies).

In the midst of this week’s protests, vigils, and calls for justice nationwide, we spoke with five youth ministry leaders from different backgrounds and parts of the country to gain insight into how we can help young people grieve the unjust losses of Black lives, think and pray through the many complexities of racial injustice, and be empowered to take action.


Garrison Hayes is Pastor for Generational Ministries at Community Praise Church in Alexandria, VA.

Phil Lewis is Director of High School Students at University Presbyerian Church in Seattle, WA.

Rose Lee-Norman is Associate Pastor of Formation at Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN.

Sam Kemp is Middle School Pastor for Fellowship Monrovia in Monrovia, CA.

Tara Hollingsworth is Director of Mosaic Youth & Family Ministry at Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN.


 

Lamentation as a spiritual practice

The biblical practice of lament offers a powerful space to pour out sadness, anger, grief or any emotion to God, as individuals and as a community. Here are some reflections from leaders this week on helping young people lament.

Sam: We’ve created space for our young people to lament, to grieve the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. When we lament, it is disruptive. It becomes personal to us. Lamenting brings us into the presence of God. A prompt for lamenting can be found in Psalm 13, where the psalmist says, “How long Lord?” How long, Lord, will unarmed Black men be killed by white police officers? How long, Lord, will racism infect our country?

Rose: We are encouraging students first to speak their truth about the pain they’re feeling and holding. We’re trying to offer spaces for that sharing, but also empowerment to know their voice and emotions in this time matter deeply to us as leaders and our whole church. It’s an important time for us as adults to listen to their feelings and needs.

How are you helping young people process what’s happening in your community?

Phil: Malcolm X said, “Education is the passport to the future.” I really believe that. I think we have to be educated before we act, but those things go hand in hand. I’ve been creating a resource list for students and parents to engage in, and for leaders too. I wrote a letter to parents saying, “Hey, we see it, we know it, this is a reality that God is at work in, but also, there are tangible resources that we’re going to be giving you so you can start engaging in these conversations with each other.”

Sam: As a youth team, we recently shifted our entire conversation to center around police brutality, racism in America, and specifically the most recent murders. We opened up our Zoom call this past week to talk about protests, looting, and the violence happening in our nation. We spent time in small groups to talk about everything going on, and how to find God in the midst of it. We’re a multiethnic youth ministry and we have a lot of differing opinions. It was important to name and acknowledge what’s happening, and for young people to say out loud what they’re thinking through and processing in a safe space.

How are you encouraging young people to use their voice during this time?

Phil: If there’s a petition, we want to encourage that. To help get African American history, for example, in the public school district: that’s something we want to push forward and encourage students to do. Speak up about local injustices in their neighborhood. If Black lives really matter, awareness is key.

Encouraging them to have conversations with parents is also huge, because I think sometimes as youth leaders, we underestimate the voice that students have not only in their community, but also to their parents. Parents have been really responsive in saying, “Hey, thank you for bringing this up. We’re excited to learn more about this. We believe this is a gospel issue, not just a social issue.”

Sam: We’ve created spaces to listen to our students. The reality is, our young people are more diverse, more open-minded, and more informed than any generation before them. Our young people give me hope by the conversations they’re having about race and reconciliation. By actively acknowledging racism in our country and the history of racism in our country, our young people can work to create a better future. The biggest question is: will we listen to them today?

Garrison: When I’m talking to my young people, I keep coming back to antiracism. I think that is fundamental to any conversation on progress. The beauty of antiracism is that it really is a conversation for everyone. The way we can use our voices the best is to be clear that it’s not enough to just be not racist. We have to be actively opposed to racism. Are we actively working against the powers of racism?

The foundational element of antiracism is the belief that all people are inherently equal, and therefore we have to look at everyone through that lens of equality. There are no inherent inequalities in the personhood of one individual or race over another. And therefore any inequity in outcome is the result of inequity in opportunity. Centering that at the core of our understanding of race, racism, and race relations allows us to cut through some of the mess that we’ve picked up along the way and allows us to see each other and see the systems and the world around us that inform these outcomes.

Tara: I believe that students will use their voices whether we do or not. They’re growing up in a different time where they have had influence from a young age. Our people know how to advocate on social media. They have a different level of education than we had growing up. A supportive comment from their leaders goes a long way. We want to amplify their voices and let them know that when they speak—we listen!

How are you empowering your young people to take action?

Rose: We are inviting young people to put their anger, grief, and sadness to work by serving their community right now. North Minneapolis, where our congregation is located, has felt the current impacts of damaged, burned, and looted businesses and they see the pain of destruction around them. But even more so they’ve felt the deep systemic pain of racism in their own community much longer. We’ve invited our young people to serve their own community as a way to channel their big emotions in a constructive way, but also to give them a glimpse of the hope and resilience of their community and church.

This has been amazing to see them serve their neighbors every day in tangible acts of compassion and mercy by accepting donations of food and home supplies, distributing these goods to our neighbors, and then feeding our community at daily BBQs. We also want to help them see that protest is a spiritual practice. Protest is linked to our faith. But the beauty of making that connection is that we don’t need to convince our young people—instead they’ve been our best examples of connecting justice to the gospel. They are already empowered, and we have the chance to follow their lead.

Garrison: I’ve gone out to some of the demonstrations here in D.C., and they are widely peaceful. So I honestly have no reservations about encouraging students to demonstrate. We’ve seen that demonstrations really do have an impact. I am a protestant. Though it’s been done a little differently at different times, that’s a part of our ecclesial heritage, in a way. So I encourage that.

I really, really encourage us to educate ourselves. It may not feel like an action, but it really is. Parents and youth leaders need to know that there are resources. From W. E. B. DuBois to James Baldwin, to Michael Eric Dyson, to Ibram Kendi, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison … the bevy of authors and public intellectuals who have taken the time to clearly articulate issues of race and to make sure that the world has the necessary resources to process this in a responsible and corrective way—it’s out there. And I think our ministry leaders especially should invest time in learning and preparing yourself to have these conversations.

I think the assumption is that the next generation will somehow be better at this than the last generation. That just by the nature of being young, we are somehow less prone to discrimination and bigotry. And that just isn’t the case. If we are to make a difference, we can’t assume that things will change, we have to make sure that we are investing not only in learning, but also in teaching the next generation how to be better citizens to live for the kingdom of God.

Tweet: "We can’t assume that things will change. We have to make sure we’re teaching the next generation how to be better citizens to live for the kingdom of God." - Garrison Hayes

Phil: My worry for this generation is that they’ll speak about something that they don’t even know about. Right now my hope and my heart is that students will really lean into educating and bringing awareness to things, and allowing that to shape them before they use their voice to speak it out into the world.

Sam: We encourage young people to do life with people who don’t look like them, don’t think like them, don’t have the same opinions as them, and are raised differently than them. We are all created in the image of God. When we are in community with people who look different than us, we get to know more of the heart of God. When we’re in community with people who only look like us, we miss out on parts of God’s heart. The church should be a place where every student belongs and feels seen, known, loved and cared for.

What’s been helpful, and what’s been not helpful, as you process with young people?

Garrison: I did have one conversation in which some of my older youth ministry leaders were engaged. I think they wanted to tell students how to feel—things like, “It’s okay to be upset, but don’t be mad.” And it wasn’t well received at all. It felt a bit dismissive. Some of the students feel that “What’s happening is wrong. And I want to make my voice heard about this wrong thing.” And having some older leaders and parents discourage them from expressing honestly how they feel—that is not working.

I really have found success in providing a space to listen. Being clear with leaders that what’s said here is oftentimes going to be the first time your student is able to vocally express themselves. So it may not come out perfectly. It may not be all of the things that you perhaps want it to be. Recognize the legitimate need to express, and stay there rather than correcting the discourse.

Tara: With our students, we can't ignore what’s going on. These students are surrounded by protests and stricken with fear of fire. So what is not helpful for them is to see their leaders silent or not moving their mouths, hands, and feet to bring justice.

Sam: A lot of conversations have been happening on social media. On the one hand, social media has been helpful in that it has given people a platform to speak up against racial injustice. We’ve seen a lot of our young people posting to speak against racism for the first time. To them, social media is actually one the safest place for them to do that. However, we need posting and speaking against racism to go far beyond a social media trend. We need to bring advocacy and conversations to our friendships, neighborhoods, politicians and police officers. 

What’s one idea or suggestion you would give another youth leader who’s asking what they can do to encourage and empower their young people during this time?

Garrison: I was in a conversation yesterday where a leader shared that he grew up in a single-parent household, and in poverty, and that he got all of his clothes from Goodwill. He concluded that statement with, “So I know in some ways what it’s like to be Black.”

The reality is that none of those things is inherently Black. There’s nothing inherently Black about poverty. There’s nothing inherently Black about Goodwill, or growing up in a single-parent home. And his life actually confirms that fact. Those experiences, while they may bond you to another individual who has a similar experience to you, they do not serve as onramps to the Black experience. I say all of that to say that it’s really important that we understand: What are the onramps to the Black, or the Latinx, or the immigrant, or the Asian American experience?

In order to get to the onramp, I have to listen to the people. Racism and discrimination and bigotry will not go away until we start listening to the people who are experiencing those things. And not just listening, but believing them. And not just believing them, but doing what they’re asking us to do. For leaders, we come to a lot of conversations with a lot of assumptions. In order for me to learn anything from an interaction, especially from someone who has a different experience than me, is for me to acknowledge that I come with a lot of assumptions, whether they be political, cultural, or experiential, and to say, “I’m going to acknowledge that, and I’m going to do everything I can to just listen and receive you.”

One other thing to really remember is that for so many people of color, our lives have been politicized. Our existence is political. We don’t have the privilege of divorcing our very existence from political ramifications. Political decisions have very real ramifications for Black lives, for Latinx lives. Go into these conversations understanding that we can’t separate all of the implications and the interconnectedness of this conversation from our political realities.

Rose: Disciple your young people to be kingdom-builders and not status quo participants. One is active, one is passive. One is gospel-centered, one is worldly-centered. When we follow Jesus, striving to build God’s kingdom on earth, it might look or sound sideways at first to them if our young people have been enculturated in the status quo. We’ve likely learned that following Jesus is about obedience, niceness, and meekness. But following the authentic Jesus who craves justice for our world will actually look like disobedience to unjust power structures. Devotion to Jesus might not always look nice, and instead means speaking hard truth in the face of evil. And while we’re called to humble ourselves, we need to understand the power the Holy Spirit has given us and our young people to be empowered to spur a movement of justice that might reorient our society toward God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Phil: Know that it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. Sometimes we think the hardest part is the beginning, because it’s fresh, it’s new, it’s the thing to do because you see everyone else doing it. But I think 4-5 months down the line, what is the game plan going to be? How are you taking care of yourself? How are you engaging in those conversations? When nobody else is watching, how are you engaging in this work? I believe we have to pace ourselves and have grace for ourselves, and for each other, too.

Tweet: How can we help young people process, grieve, and take action against racial injustice? Five wise, diverse leaders share their thoughts.

Recommended resources:

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown
Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi (for teenagers, see the adaptation Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, with Jason Reynolds)
How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi


Tears We Cannot Stop, by Michael Eric Dyson

White Awake, by Daniel Hill
Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman
Dialogues on Race and Identity, a series of videos and audio produced by FULLER studio, with Willie Jennings, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, and more
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