“The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people, and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.” Genesis 12:1 (NIV)
As a recent migrant to the United States, adjusting to life here was challenging. From learning to speak a new language to being unable to pick up on the jokes at school, interpreting reality in a culture and language that was not my own was exhausting. While I tried to make friends at school and understand their pop culture references, I often got home too tired to do anything but go straight to sleep.
Sundays were the exception. I grew up in a Latina immigrant church that nullified whatever narratives of exclusion I’d internalized during the week. At church, I knew the songs. I knew the language. I got the jokes. I was embraced, loved, and storied.
Sunday nights were often gatherings of songs and storytelling. Week after week, I’d hear stories of how God was at work in the lives of our community. These stories shared the frustrations and graces of being migrants. They featured scripture woven together with my community’s lived experiences.
The first time I heard the story of Ruth and Naomi was from an abuela narrating how much she understood Naomi's pain and desires. Those who crossed the border through deserts and swam up roaring rivers introduced the story of the Exodus to me. Like Moses and the Israelites, my community had experienced unjust systems of oppression and knew what it was like to be faithful to God’s invitation, even if it meant leaving all we’ve known in search of safety and community.
My community’s stories stories remind me that even in the worst of moves and times, God is still with us. Our origin stories are a part of who we are and who God has created us to be.
Teaching teenagers to find their stories in God’s story
Your students all have origin stories too. Like me, some of your students might be immigrants. Others may have experience with migrating from one city or state to another. Still others know what it’s like to experience marginalization in some way. Most teenagers understand how exhausting it is to try and fit in someplace.
Regardless of what they include, origin stories significantly shape young people’s answers to the question, “Who am I?” Our research at FYI has shown that this is one of the three big questions every young person asks. At FYI, we believe God calls us to find our identity in Jesus without washing away what makes us unique—our ethnicities, cultures, genders, spiritual gifts, personalities, local communities, and faith traditions.
God calls us to unity, not uniformity—something that the immigrant church has much to teach about. As I reflect on the practices my Latina immigrant church embodied, here are two I’d like you to consider:
Tell communal stories
Growing up, there was not one gathering in which storytelling was not a core part of fellowship. Whether or not storytelling was scheduled, the mic was always open to share and witness how God was showing up—or ask God to show up. To this day, whenever I’m tempted to believe the myth of uniformity, waves of stories come over me and remind me how God shows up in our lives.
In the same way, you can use storytelling to remind young people in your ministry how God shows up. To do this, consider your answers to these three questions:
- How often does honest storytelling show up in your gatherings?
- How can you hold space for people to share their stories when you’re together?
- How can you lead by example and share stories that have shaped your experience of God?
Preach braided stories
Growing up, sermons were always a collection of the stories of the people of God found in scripture and the stories of the people of God gathered. No sermon left out the realities of our migrant experiences; on the contrary, migration was a lens by which we exegeted scripture and preached. Even now, knowing the movement stories in scripture enables me to be attune to God’s work in today’s migration stories.
Because of my experience in the immigrant church, I view pulpits as spaces that center the story of God and braid in our own experiences so that we are strengthened to be living witnesses of God’s inclusive and redemptive love.
You can also use your space to braid together the story of God with stories from your community’s experiences that illustrate God’s redemptive love. To decide which of your community’s stories to braid together with God’s story, consider these questions:
- Who is experiencing oppression in your faith community? Who is oppressing others?
- How is your community experiencing marginalization (or advocating for those who are)?
- Where and how are you migrating (or interacting with those who are)?
Invite students to share stories that illustrate these themes (and others) and then overtly connect their stories to scripture. As you do, help them narrate God’s presence in their circumstances, particularly during painful seasons. Doing so honors the diverse origin stories of the students in your ministry and affirms their identity as beloved children of God.
As young people share their stories, celebrate joyful moments and lament those that are gut-wrenching.
Building community through story
As I reflect on my own origin story, I continue to lament the unjust systems of oppression that have, throughout history, pushed people out of our home countries. Today, I lament how immigrants and refugees around the world and in our neighborhoods are not always received and welcomed with God’s love. I also rejoice that I was surrounded by a community of faith whose stories helped me to understand how God views me and others.
Stories can help teenagers in your ministry do just that—develop empathy towards one another and towards strangers experiencing similar circumstances. They can help them see their worth and value and remind them that they are God’s beloved children.
Our prayer is that your ministry will be a space in which young people’s stories—whatever they are—are seen as a gift; that by embracing God’s call to unity, not conformity, teenagers will know who they are (and who God has created them to be) and that they will be confident that they can bring their whole selves to your ministry.
Tweet this: Use your space to braid together the story of God with stories from your community’s experiences that illustrate God’s redemptive love.
Your students. Their stories. Seen in Scripture.
Help your students explore how their origin stories form identity through our interactive 6-week high school curriculum, Who Do You Say I Am?
With teaching guides that explore how God speaks to their identities from Old Testament to New, along with story-telling prompts to help them braid their story with that of Scripture, you’ll walk with young people as they understand who Jesus is and who they are in Christ.
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