Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Racism, Youth Ministry, and Cultural Intelligence


I was recently at a high school weekend retreat, spending the weekend at a beautiful camp in eastern Oregon with a variety of other churches from around the Pacific northwest. At a climactic moment in the evening session, a youth pastor introduced a group of teens performing a drama illustrating the gospel. The group of teens piled onto the stage, all dressed in black apart from the singular figure of a young man in a white shirt. The group performed the Lifehouse "Everything" skit, a pantomime drama set to music where the figure of Jesus (the young man in white) protects and saves a young woman who has been attacked by an increasingly-violent onslaught of diabolical figures.

The young man portraying Jesus was Caucasian, as was the teen girl in the central role. What drew my attention and alarm were the supporting characters, the black figures on the side. They were not only dressed in dark clothes; at least three of the eight teens were minorities, black and Asian. When I watched the YouTube video of the "Everything" skit, I noticed the same thing: the man portraying Jesus was white, the young woman was white, and most of the devilish figures were minorities.

I wondered how the black, Asian, and Latino teens were feeling watching the drama unfold before them. If I was new to Christianity and watching this skit, I might think that the gospel message involved a white Jesus saving me from the sinful clutches of people with brown skin. Y'know, Jesus will rescue you from the hell of ever having to date a black man or hang out with an Asian girl. Is this the best way to communicate the gospel to young people?

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When I was a youth pastor in the suburbs of British Columbia, I spent a significant amount of time on the campus of one of the largest high schools in the Vancouver area. I would walk the halls during lunch time, saying hi to the teens in my youth group and making new relational connections through the community youth workers who were devoted to serving the campus. The school was a vast maze of hallways, with scores of young people lining the passages in social clusters, eating their lunch and filling the air with laughter and chatter.

The greater Vancouver area is a multi-cultural mosaic. Many of the cities have a larger primarily Asian or Indian population than white/Caucasian, and the Hispanic population is rapidly increasing. As I walked around the high school hallways, I noticed the plethora of cultures and languages represented. Yet our large suburban youth group remained primarily white. (We did have one Asian adult volunteer and a high schooler from Honduras, both who were often mistaken as Mexican.) I wondered what a multicultural church would truly look like, and if our church demographic was in alignment with our surrounding neighborhood and culture. How does the church embrace and embody its surrounding racial diversity?

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A friend from Uganda told me a story about how a group of Americans on a short-term mission trip handed out color gospel bracelets to the children in his village. The bracelets are an evangelism tool commonly used in evangelical circles in order to cross cultural boundaries in order to share the gospel.

The black bead stands for sin, the red bead represents Christ's blood, the white bead is forgiveness and salvation, the blue bead is baptism, the green is growth in Christ, and the yellow is the golden roads of Heaven. My Ugandan friend told me that the Africans accepted the bracelets from the Americans with propriety, though they weren't really that interested in having a cheap bracelet with such few colors.

After the Americans left, the Ugandans talked about how the Americans said black represented sin and death, and how white represented salvation. Black is sinful and wrong; white is Christlike and holy. They wondered aloud about the Christian gospel message. Where was any good news in this?
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This past summer, I took a month-long job teaching English literature to incoming Latino freshman at a high school in Gresham, OR. (Read more about that experience here.) The program was aimed primarily at helping Latino students grow academically and mature in their understanding of Latino culture and heritage. One of my students had moved from Mexico only a few weeks prior to the course and was adjusting to life in a new country. Another student, a charismatic Cuban young man, was still learning to speak English; he read the Y.A. novel I assigned in a Spanish translation.

The students were very willing to share their stories, opinions, and experiences with me, especially around the subject of race in America. They had all sorts of perspectives on Donald Trump's campaign, El Chapo's prison escape, immigration policies, fighting Russian gangs, growing up as a Latino in Portland, and soccer players they liked (they loved soccer). They'd often shift into speaking Spanish around me, unaware of my ability to understand much of what they were saying. They talked about their school experiences with teachers who treated them differently than other races, and seemed more comfortable in this environment where they could be fully themselves. They were the majority; I was the minority. A few students shared about their relatives who were undocumented immigrants. I wondered how many of the teens before me worried about deportation, racial profiling, or systemic racism. What would good news look like for Latino teens in east Portland?

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I once read a helpful book called Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, by Soong-Chan Rah, a professor in the Chicago area. Rah describes the need for cultural intelligence as vital for the church's gospel presence in our ever-diversifying culture, where white folks will be the minority in America by 2050. Cultural intelligence is the capacity to understand, empathize, and work with people across a variety of cultures. It is fostering a cultural awareness, noticing the differences between people and cultures, and recognizing one's own biases and racial missteps.

I imagine the youth pastor who introduced the Lifehouse skit wouldn't consider himself a racist, but the drama on the stage showed a lack of cultural intelligence when it placed minorities in those positions. What would it look like if a black or Asian or Latino or Middle Eastern teenager was in the role of Jesus next time? How might that better communicate the gospel to others?

I imagine the Americans sharing beaded bracelets in Uganda weren't intending to offend or send a message of racial superiority or remind Ugandans of Western colonialism. But, they did. Good intentions don't always equal loving actions. How can we teach young people to be on mission with cultural awareness and a sense of humility?

I imagine the few Asian, black, and Hispanic teenagers that dot the populations of mostly-white suburban youth groups across North America are very self-aware of their race, and quietly do their best to fit in with the rest of the group. I also imagine many of the mostly-white youth workers and teens in these contexts are unaware of any racial issues. This is the nature of racial privilege--it means we don't even have to be aware of or worry about racial tension or cultural intelligence, because we're the majority ethnicity in the room. What would it look like if youth workers were on the front lines of the racial divides and actively pursuing creating the multi-cultural kingdom environments we see in places like Isaiah 60 and Revelation 22?

I'm asking myself: How can I be aware and sensitive of my own whiteness as I disciple a diverse population of young people in the name of Jesus?

In youth ministry and the American evangelical church, we need to be aware of unintentional cultural messages we may be sending which are antithetical to the gospel we hope to communicate, lest we dilute the good news of Jesus with bad news of racial and cultural ignorance.

Photo Credit: Frerieke (Creative Commons)

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