By: Dietrich Kirk and Dr. Andrew Zirschky
In the wake of Charlottesville and all that has occurred since, we join many Americans who find themselves disoriented and speechless, including other youth workers who are left wondering how to lead teenagers to process what has—and is—happening. We adamantly claim that white supremacy and racism have no place in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And we also believe that the theological reflection method we share in this article can help youth leaders in some contexts into a discussion of racism and bigotry.
However, we must state from the outset that we come at this from a particular vantage point: We’re white youth workers working in predominantly white contexts, where discussions of racism are all too rare (something that must change). We reacted to the events of Charlottesville in outrage and shock. However, in conversation with our African American brothers and sisters in Christ, we have become increasingly aware that their response to Charlottesville is not one of shock. Charlottesville feels like confirmation and reinforcement of what they have always known and experienced. One youth minister shared that his youth are not asking how the events of Charlottesville could happen. “That is a white context question,” he told us. His African-American youth are saying, “Why don’t they like us?” or “I told you so,” and “Stay woke.” He went on to say, “My youth are in a place of experience rather than shock. The outcry of ‘let my people go’ continues to be our common language.”
While many minority youth were not surprised by Charlottesville, the theological reflection method that we’ve formulated in this article begins in a place of shock. It’s likely not going to be helpful for primarily minority youth ministries, rather it’s intended to be used in places where race and racism are not explored and discussed nearly enough — primarily white congregations. Usually we’d argue that these contexts don’t need any more youth ministry resourcing, but when it comes to the subject of racism, that’s not the case. We’ve been woefully silent with our young people for too long.
Travis Garner, pastor of The Village in Nashville (a predominantly white congregation) wrote what we believe to be an inspired post in the aftermath of Charlottesville titled, “I’m not being Political, I’m being Theological.” Garner says, “When I became a follower of Jesus, I pledged to follow a leader whose love and grace transcend the borders of nationality, race, gender, ethnicity, and any other human category. When I became a follower of Jesus, I gave up my ‘freedom of speech,’ and I made a vow instead to speak life, truth, grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness, even when it’s difficult, even when it doesn’t serve my own interests.” If you’re serving in a predominantly white context, you might be tempted to brush past Charlottesville or other recent events; why undertake such a tough topic when it can be ignored? Precisely because of what Garner points out. Our calling is to speak life and truth even when it’s difficult—and not just speak it, but lead young people into reflection, thinking and action.
Our first step as youth workers is to proclaim truth. It is appropriate for us as Christian youth workers to unequivocally state to those involved in our ministries that racism and bigotry are sins in any and all forms. We cannot shrink back from making such statements of truth.
Nevertheless, proclamation is not enough. We need to go further and engage young people in dialogue, helping them to see with the eyes of Christ, think with the mind of Christ, and act with their lives in accordance with Christ. In predominately white contexts, simply speaking out or naming the horror does little to help youth unpack their own disorienting moments and the dismay, anger, and confusion they may be experiencing. We need to go further and walk with teenagers through their reactions so that they may understand and articulate how their theology and Christian beliefs should guide their thoughts and actions.
What we call the Practical Theological Reflection Method (PTRM) can help us. The PTRM involves posing a series of questions in five steps that lead a group through the four moments of practical theology. (For more on practical theology, go here: http://cymt.org/practical-theology-as-the-foundation-of-youth-ministry/.) Skilled leaders will not ask every question but will hone in on dialoguing with teenagers around the questions that are most pertinent to the matter at hand. Frankly, deciding which questions to ask (and which to avoid) takes practice. But ultimately asking the right questions is less important than avoiding another pitfall: The tendency to provide all the answers. Your role as a facilitator in theological reflection is not to provide all the answers, but to prod youth to think and reflect for themselves. In doing this they will grow in their understanding of the matter at hand, but also in their ability to articulate their beliefs, use theological language, and respond by living differently.
Be aware, the PTRM can be messy along the way because you’re asking teenagers to engage in thinking, reflecting, and listening to others amidst a disorienting dilemma. In light of Charlottesville, the conversation will most certainly be messy in predominately white congregations where we have ignored this topic for too long. The mess is worth it because engaging in theological reflection can be incredibly formative for teenagers.
STEP 1: TELLING THE STORY
1) Give time for each participant to write down their story and experience of learning about the events in Charlottesville: What was the conversation, incident or person that you encountered that was meaningful, shocking, and sobering that you can’t get out of your mind? You might consider showing a news clip to help youth re-immerse themselves into the feelings and emotions of the events. (Here is a suggested video).
2) Have someone(s) in the group share their story of the events they witnessed.
3) What would you say are the core elements of the Charlottesville event?
STEP 2: WHY THAT MOMENT
Start this step by focusing on the core element or moment that students have identified as the significant moment in the story. It’s very likely that something about that particular moment or aspect of the story either challenged or confirmed their (and their peers’) beliefs, opinions, or assumptions. The purpose of this step is to draw that out. Here are some questions we might use to explore that:
1) What, if anything, surprised you? What beliefs about our world, or opinions about people, made you surprised?
2) What emotions did that moment make you feel? Why do you think you felt that way?
3) What beliefs did you have about white supremacists, the KKK, Neo-Nazis, Black Lives Matter leaders, and the counter-protestors in the story before Charlottesville? How about after?
4) What’s wrong,/right, fair/unfair, destructive/healing about the lives of people in the story?
You’re ready to move on from this step when students are able to articulate what about the story surprised, challenged or disoriented them.
STEP 3: WHAT CULTURE SAYS
What might the “average Joe” on the street (or your friends or people you know) say about:
1) . . . the people involved?
2) . . . the situation that happened?
3) . . . the reason “this part of the world” is the way it is?
4) . . . the reason that “these people” are the way they are?
5) . . . what should be done about situations & people like this?
6) . . . about you and your actions as they relate to the story?
You’re ready to move on from this step when students start to recognize how their experiences compare and contrast to what our culture expects — and what they might have expected before their wow moment.
STEP 4: God’s View
For each of these questions, state WHY you believe this might be God’s perspective. . .
Look to scripture for truth of how God would view the people and their actions from the events in Charlottesville. Here are a few possibilities:
You might read together Travis Garner’s “I’m not being Political, I’m being Theological” to help students articulate their own understanding of God’s view.
You’re ready to move on from this step when students start to recognize how God’s view on the situation compares and contrasts with that of the culture — and your students before events of Charlottesville.
STEP 5: ALIGNING WITH GOD
Now that students have a better understanding of how God might view the events in Charlottesville, take time to consider how the group should revise and rethink its actions in the future:
Our prayers go out to all those who have experienced loss in these tragic moments. May we cross the racial divide in this country and see the image of God in each other. May God’s Kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven.
Our youth want to be engaged and challenged with race and justice issues. And, we need to provide them a theological framework and opportunities to do so. Here are some resources that have come to our attention we recommend as you explore these conversations with your youth, families, and congregations:
Racism in America is a tragic reality. It’s part of our history and unfortunately, it’s still evident in today’s world. One of the things we can do as faithful Christians to fight racism is to grow in our own knowledge and understanding of those with different experiences than our own. To help get you started, check out these resources...
The Center for Youth Ministry Training joins the millions of people around the country and the world crying out for justice. We are praying for the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, for all impacted by racial injustice, and for all who are experiencing anger, fear, sorrow, and pain from these horrific incidents. We are concerned about how these killings and the deep divisions of our country are impacting all young people.