It’s time to talk with youth in the church about racism

Guest Outpost blog by Emily Heitzman

Last October, I returned home to Chicago after marching with hundreds of other clergy and community members in Ferguson, Missouri, and sat down with my youth (who are mostly youth of color) to discuss what was going on in Ferguson and around the country.

Toward the end of the discussion, I asked if any of them had experienced racial profiling or knew someone who had. Whether it was a story about how a family member gets pulled over in his car even when he isn’t speeding, how a neighbor was stopped and frisked while she walked to the soccer field, or how a mom begs her son not to wear a hoodie on his head when he leaves the house – almost every youth of color in the group had something to say.

While it was difficult to listen as they shared their experiences and fears, these stories are not new to me. As a youth pastor in Chicago, I’ve heard many like them throughout the past several years.

“My friends and I were riding our bikes through the alley in our neighborhood in order to take a shortcut to our friend’s house,” Malesh, a black youth, explained to me a few years ago. “Cops stopped us and started searching us. We didn’t have any weapons or drugs on us, and when we asked why we were being searched, they said we were acting suspicious. I get nervous whenever I see a cop now.”

And Will, a black youth, told me: “When I was going back to school to meet with a teacher, a cop came up to me out of nowhere, pointed a gun at my head, started yelling at me, and then searched me. In that moment, I feared for my life, and now I feel scared and unsafe around police because people who look like me get shot and killed by police all the time.”

What is most difficult to grasp as I hear what my youth of color go through every day is that as a white woman, my experiences are extremely different from theirs. Those blue uniforms that had always represented my protection and security are the very same uniforms that represent trouble, fear and the potential of arrest or even death to my youth of color.

As a white woman, I have the privilege of driving through the same neighborhoods as the families of my black and brown youth without getting “randomly” pulled over when I am not doing anything illegal. I have the privilege of biking through an alley or walking in front of the local public school at any time of night without getting stopped and frisked because I “look suspicious.”

What is also difficult for me to swallow is how I – as a white woman – have the privilege of never experiencing the extreme pain and shame that some of my youth of color experience because of stereotyping and racial slurs, which are both symptoms of a pervasive racism problem. I will never know what it was like for one of my black youth to be the only person with his color of skin sitting in a Dunkin Donuts as a woman yellled the N-word. I will never know what it was like for one of my Hispanic youth to hear a guy yell out his window to my youth’s parents that they should go back to the country they came from and belong in.

Since there is not a deep-rooted history of people dehumanizing and terrorizing others with my color of skin, I have the privilege of turning off the news every night and living in my own comfortable bubble without fear or having to acknowledge prevailing racism.

Because this is the easy way.

However, as a follower of Jesus, I cannot hold tight to this privilege. Because this is not Jesus’ way.

After the horrific shooting that took place on June 17th at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I was shocked to learn that the shooter had grown up and was an active member in the church.

Emily and some of her youth

As a pastor who works with children and youth, I am reminded that we – as the body of Christ – are forming and shaping our children and youth into the people they will be when they walk out of our church doors. Of course, we cannot control every decision they make or action they take. However, we do have the responsibility to do whatever we can to direct and guide them toward the way of Jesus, our God who came in the flesh as a poor, brown-skinned, refugee from the back-skirts of Galilee to bring good news to those who are poor, to release those who have been imprisoned, to open the eyes of those who have been blind, to let the oppressed go free. We – as people of faith – have the responsibility to point our children and youth toward a way that proclaims that ALL people are created good and are loved by God.

Yes, the sin of racism is alive in our country, and we need to show our children and youth of all races how to confess it, denounce it and repent of it.

However, in doing so, those of us who are white must first allow God to open our eyes to see how we – even unknowingly – participate in and benefit from the unjust systems that marginalize and cause great suffering upon our black and brown brothers and sisters. We must look with open hearts at the sins of our heritage and name them for what they are. We must confess, denounce and repent of them… over and over and over again. We need to continue to educate ourselves on the historic racist systems of our country and how they continue to play out in our country today. We need to listen to the voices, the stories and the cries of our black and brown brothers and sisters… and not shut them down the minute they make us feel uncomfortable.

And in the meantime, we need to talk to all of the youth of the church about systemic racism and provide safe spaces for our children and youth of color to share their experiences and to express their anger and pain without being invalidated.

Let’s do book studies with our youth of all backgrounds on “Disunity in Christ” by Christina Cleveland; “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander; “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Howard Thurman; “Jesus Was A Migrant” by Deirdre Cornell; or “Our God is Undocumented” by Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell. During Sunday school and youth group, let’s ask our youth to research and talk about the problem of racism. Let’s provide our children and youth with resources and articles that address recent headlines. Let’s point our youth to people of color to follow on social media and model for our youth how we can use media, the pulpit and other platforms to work for racial justice. Let’s help our youth grieve, confess, denounce and repent our heritage and our privilege. Let’s help them write confessions and litanies and ask them to lead our adults in worship and discussions. Let’s teach our youth how to shut down all stereotypes and racist jokes they hear from others. And let’s show our youth how to take our theology out into the streets and march in the light of God.

We need to talk with all of our children and youth about systemic racism. And we need to do it now.

Because silence speaks louder than words. It tells our white children and youth that what is happening around us doesn’t matter.

It tells our black and brown children and youth that they don’t matter. To us. Or to God.

Now is the time to speak and act. Now is the time to choose to be on the right side of history.

Emily with some of her youth EMILY HEITZMAN is a PC(USA) pastor serving as the shared pastor with youth and households for three ELCA congregations in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. She loves hiking in the mountains, attending indie and bluegrass concerts, biking along Lake Michigan and singing opera and musical theatre. She has a heart for youth, justice, and the Huskers, and can often been seen with coffee or a Guinness. You can find more of her reflections, sermons, and youth ministry ideas on her blog.