(EDITOR’S NOTE: I led this conversation with Jeffrey Wallace and Brent Crowe several years ago, but it’s more pertinent now than ever. Racial tensions, like embers in a forest, have been whipped into a flames by controversial (and deadly) confrontations between white police officers and young black men. Racial distrust and misunderstanding now define our contemporary culture in profound and far-reaching ways. We need an ongoing, courageous conversation to break the tension…)
More than any time since the ’60s, today’s tensions over racial distrust and anger over racial injustice have fueled the national conversation. And what does this have to do with youth ministry? Well, this cultural environment is forming students, and the way we engage them about issues of race and reconciliation will determine how they live out their relationship with Jesus in the real world.
GROUP Magazine’s Rick Lawrence moderated an open conversation about the role of youth ministry in the journey toward racial reconciliation—a topic that has resurfaced as a major fault-line in Western culture. Participants included Jeff Wallace, a Georgia pastor and co-founder of Frontline Urban Resources, and Brent Crowe, vice president of Student Leadership University.
Jeff and Brent have respected each other for a long time, and knew each other in a casual way—until Brent reached out to Jeff in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict in an attempt to more deeply understand the perspective and heart of the black community. Their conversations have led to a deeper friendship and a shared, passionate commitment to laying a foundation for racial reconciliation in youth ministry. (At the end of the article, you can watch a video to see the full interview.)
Rick Lawrence: Youth ministry has many priorities—why should racial reconciliation be one of them?
Jeff Wallace: One, we’re training the leaders of tomorrow, and we have to be intentional about what we’re doing. Two, we live in a time driven by the trending topic—what happened to Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown has pushed the issue of race into classroom conversations. If we’re going to be authentic youth leaders committed to investing in the real lives of our students, we have to pull our heads out from under the pillow and really begin to engage in the conversations these kids are having. They need a place that’s safe to express what they’re feeling. But they also need somebody to navigate them toward a godly response to these issues.
Brent Crowe: Youth ministry should be a laboratory for having ongoing conversations about issues that are impacting our culture. During the time of the Reformation, church leaders viewed “calling” as plural—we are called to the church, family, vocation, and citizenship. Citizenship has to do with our influence on our culture. Racial reconciliation is a non-negotiable for youth workers, because it’s directly tied to preparing students to be godly citizens in our culture—salt and light. It’s my responsibility to prepare them to engage their culture with a sense of calling.
Rick: How can youth workers address issues of racial reconciliation when most ministries are not racially diverse?
Brent: Our target audience should not be a skin color—our target audience should be whatever population is represented on school campuses in my county, city, and region. I have to assess what’s outside my doors. So if there is a lot of diversity right outside of my doors, then my ministry should reflect that. But there are some ministries that reflect a homogenous demographic because their surrounding culture is primarily African-American or Hispanic or Caucasian. Race has to do with genetics, when it is properly understood and defined. There really is just one race, and that is the human race, but there are a multiplicity of cultures within the human race. With that understanding, we’ve tried to join communities that are multi-cultured, whether or not they’re multi-colored.
Jeff: The reality is that the landscape of our culture is changing. The communities surrounding traditional churches are changing. If the church is going to continue to be healthy, balanced, and missional, we have to be willing to engage the people that are right outside our doors. We have to ask ourselves if we want to represent God’s kingdom on earth, even as we strive to represent the Kingdom of God in heaven.
Rick: How do we help students break out of typical connections into a broader scope of relationship?
Jeff: When I was going to the 8th grade, I wanted to go to the neighborhood school where all of my friends were. But my mother told me: “The world isn’t black. If I send you to a neighborhood school, I’m afraid you’ll have a single-story perspective on what the world really looks like.” Well, I had my own biases and prejudices and perspectives of what I thought all whites were. I was one of five blacks in the entire school. And as God helped me journey through high school, I began to see the heart of people. And God really opened my eyes to my mother’s words—”the world is not black.” As I did life with my friends, God positioned me strategically to be a bridge between both perspectives. I began to tell my black friends that not all white people are like the stereotypes. And my white friends began to admit that all black people weren’t thugs or baby daddies—there are articulate, educated African-Americans. God put me right smack in the middle of both cultures and gave me a heart for both. If we are really going to be the church that God intends us to be, we have to have understanding, clarity, and a better perspective.
Rick: What does each “side” in the current racial divide not understand about the other?
Brent: Growing up, there was not prejudice in our home or my little country town, but there were some very ignorant assumptions. I never would’ve thought of myself as racist, but I did harbor certain prejudices that were rooted in the assumptions prevalent in my environment. I’ll give you one example: In our high school, if you were a Caucasian young lady and you dated a Black young man, you were marked for the rest of your high school career. That environmental reality produced a subtly sinful belief in me: “I don’t have anything against black people, but they’re not beautiful.” Beauty was reserved for a color—that’s a sinful, ungodly, depraved assumption. Fast-forward to my life today as a ministry leader and a dad—we have sought actively to combat that wrong way of thinking in our kids. The other day I took my 5-year-old girl Mercy to see the film Annie—and later that night she announced she was intending to become black. I asked her why, and she said, “Because Annie is black.” In her mind, she’s saying, Annie is beautiful. That’s a sign of healthy development, because she’s not growing up around the assumptions that I grew up around.
Jeff: The reality is that African-Americans have similar prejudices and assumptions—for example, “All whites are racist” and “They don’t really ever understand our struggle.” There is so much pain and hurt rooted in the history of our country—it fuels this feeling that we’ll never be able to understand one another, and we’ll never be able to come together. These divisive assumptions are underscored by media propaganda; we see racist white people holding signs and thuggish black kids committing violent acts. This propaganda creates images that are forever embedded in our minds. When race intrudes into our everyday life, those images and the ideology automatically take us to a place of judgment and assumption. So the first thing we have to do as leaders is stand up and say, “We’re going to have unifying conversations that really begin to break down some of the myths that are out there.” We have to have intentional conversations that deal with the ugliness and the tensions that are out there.
The reality is, my generation and above may not ever get it. That’s why the focus has to be on youth and young adults who are living in a very diverse world. But we have to have leaders who are comfortable being uncomfortable—I think that’s what’s missing in the church. No one wants to sit in a room and talk about racial tensions. We want to talk about how we can have a sexy youth room or the latest curriculum or how to deal with discipleship and worship. All these things are important, but we’re not putting our youth leaders in a position to engage in these crucial conversations.
The problem is really for us to confront, more than it is for youth and young adults. We subtly promote the racially divisive issues in our culture, because we have prejudices and biases. So we have to be open and honest about our issues, be transparent as leaders, and then have hard conversations with our church leaders.
Brent: We didn’t create this mess overnight—it took hundreds of years. But in the social-media age in which we live, there’s a subconscious arrogance that we can solve these types of problems quickly. As leaders of student ministries we need to recognize we’re starting a conversation that’s going to last for years. We’re not going to solve this with a webinar. It’s too loaded of a conversation. We have an attention span of a gnat—we haven’t shown the ability to wrestle with these things over the long haul. And this is going to be a long-term conversation.
Jeff: I think the gospel and social-justice and civil-rights issues have to really marry one another. The gospel is the one equalizer that can help us address all issues of culture and tension and reconciliation. As Brent said, if it took 40 years to get out of the wilderness, it may take us a little longer to deal with this issue. In this culture, social justice is often divorced from an intimate relationship with Jesus. It’s compartmentalized. How do we embed efforts to move toward racial reconciliation within the context of the gospel?
Brent: You can’t have common grace if you don’t understand gospel grace. The only reason it’s a good thing to go serve in a community is because there’s something that’s already determined what good and evil is. So common grace, such as humanitarian acts, can’t even be defined apart from the gospel.
Jeff: In churches, when we’re exposed to visuals about foreign missions, we’re often seeing people of color who are living in poverty-stricken areas. So here in the States, when you see a person of color, you’re hard-wired to have a missional mindset. They’re a kind of charity case—and for a lot of African-Americans, that comes across as very disingenuous. We feel pity for the little black girl or boy because I’ve primarily seen them from a particular perspective. Just because I’m an African-American does not mean that person you saw in Johannesburg is my cousin!
Brent: It’s also how we define terms—for example, we don’t use the term minority. If you’re a social scientist, you can use the term minority because it is a quantitative term to you. But for the rest of us who aren’t social scientists, the term minority means lesser-than. We’ve got to continue to redefine the ways we refer to one another—the lazy terms that have become a part of our ordinary, daily conversations.
Rick: What are some very pragmatic things that an average youth worker can do to begin to integrate this way of thinking and engaging in their everyday youth ministry?
Jeff: I think it would be really cool if student leaders were more intentional about connecting with other youth leaders in settings that are different from theirs. There’s nothing more authentic than great times of fellowship—mixing our groups and going to the movies or paint-balling. Or maybe you can have a youth leader from another group come and speak at one of your Bible studies or your main gathering. Use that time to encourage your students to really engage—to see the heart of the person, so they can look past the color of the person.
Brent: I’ll give you four ideas. First, I think that we need to have unity at a leadership level. It would be beautiful if cities had citywide staff meetings, with churches from all over the city gathering together. We all have the gospel of Jesus Christ as our central message, and the redemption of mankind as the objective of the mission of God, to the glory of God. Second, we have to identify and tackle assumptions. There are some fun ways we can do this—watch the show, Blackish, for example. They’ve built an entire comedic show about assumptions, and it’s always turning the assumption on its head. Third, we have to redefine terms such as urban and, as I said before, minority. And the list could go on and on and on. Fourth, we have to remember and honor and celebrate history. Martin Luther King Day has turned into a joke—people use the long weekend for events that we normally schedule during the summertime. I’ve rarely heard Dr. King mentioned at any of the conferences I’ve been at on Martin Luther King Day. We have examples in Scripture where the people of God create memorials—the purpose is to help us remember the event. The purpose of MLK weekend is to help us remember the life, the leadership, the legacy, and the sacrifice of this great Civil Rights leader. We need to intentionally remember significant events and characters in our history.