Guest commentary by Rebecca Cummings
Youth conferences tend to use themes that deal with breaking down boundaries and this year’s Presbyterian Youth Triennium was no different.
Our main theme was “Go.” Daily themes were:
- Go and see;
- Go and do likewise;
- Teach me the way I should go;
- Let my people go
- The great go-mission.
But going isn’t possible where walls divide.
In small groups we discussed stereotypes, prayer and our calls to advocacy. Triennium participants took part in an “advocacy walk” that was comprised of stations staffed with volunteers knowledgeable and ready to discuss specific issues in our world, such as mental health and race. All of these experiences were meaningful, but there was one recreation activity that caught my eye and has stuck with me.
The walls of hate.
The recreation team took pallets and spray painted words of hate on these pallets that were then set up in the middle of the Memorial Mall, a field where recreation activities took place. Different words were painted across a wall that divided the field: worthless, retard, idiot, racist, stupid, segregation, supremacy.
The activity was to transform this wall from a wall of hate into a wall of love. Nails were placed in the pallets in the shape of a heart. Fabric strips were provided to write messages of love to hang on the nails to form hearts to cover and transform a symbol of hate into a symbol of a love.
This wall was an important symbolic aspect of the conference. It was a literal wall that divided the field. It was a wall that represented how we distance ourselves from others who are not like us. This wall tied together the themes we discussed in small groups. It tied together our theme of stereotypes and how we see beyond them and what it means to be an advocate in our world.
This wall also tied us back to the world we live where real walls exist to keep some people in and other people out. We live in a world where metaphorical walls divide those who may be different from us. We live in a world full of physical and imagined walls of hate that we must step forward and transform into walls of love.
The need for this transformation was evident in our small groups as we discussed stereotypes. We named what stereotypes exist, how we may be stereotyped as individuals and how we can break down those false assumptions.
It wasn’t all serious, however. Sometimes there was even laughter. A youth from Wyoming said that he has been asked more than once if he has ever used a microwave before because he is from Wyoming. Another said that everybody assumes he drives dogsleds because he is from Alaska.
The conversation also was serious and deep. Some said that others think they’re lazy because they’re teenagers or that they’re dumb or stupid. Some even said they’re disregarded by adults because “kids think they know it all.” They talked about the stereotypes of gamers, jocks and nerds.
Our small groups were given a question: How do we see past stereotypes? The youth in my group said, “We talk to people one on one.” Or, “We build relationships with the people we don’t understand.” They said, “Some stereotypes are true, but it doesn’t mean that it is true for everybody.” The wisdom of these youth made me smile. These youth got it. They see the world in ways many adults can’t. They talked about the real ways they’re breaking down the walls that divide them. They brought up the wildly popular game Pokemon Go! They made the point that it is a game where no single stereotype is involved. It is a game where all people, all ages, all kinds of individuals can play and come together as a community.
I am excited for where these youth will head in their lives. I am excited to see what will go home with them from this conference, what will stick. I am excited for the profound ways that these youth will grow, mature and become socially-aware, faith-based young adults. I am excited to see how they will transform, breach and tear down walls of hate as they create bonds of love.
REBECCA CUMMINGS is a third year student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond who will graduate in May. She enjoys conferences of all kinds, traveling, playing ultimate Frisbee, being outdoors and playing Pokemon Go!