(From a black youth pastor)
I’m a black youth pastor at Restore Community Church, in Kansas City MO. The month of May 2020 has been especially tragic for the African American community. Beginning with Ahmaud Arbery’s killing at the hand of two white citizens, the Coronavirus disproportionately affecting the African American community, and most recently George Floyd’s death at the hand of white police officers. Many of my white friends have been asking, “What can I do?”
They say something needs to change, but what can they do? I continue to see this frustration from my white brothers and sisters in Christ every time these things happen. Their only options seem to be outrage on social media or remaining silent for fear of saying the wrong thing about these often complex and multifaceted issues.
I’ve pulled together a few very simple action points. You can do all of them or none of them. Many of them will require time and effort on your part. Four of these action points were things I learned from the book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. If you’d like to learn more, please pick up the book! It’s a book I read this month and believe every Christian American should read to better understand the context we find ourselves in today. The other four are just my own thoughts from experience.
- Lament. Grieve publicly and privately over the racial inequality that is present with us due to a lack of understanding and even acknowledging the historical events that have led us here. We cannot only grieve the things that affect us directly. We must learn to grieve the things that affect other people groups. Especially when the injustice has been happening for 400 years in ever-evolving forms. The book White Awake is phenomenal at teaching this from a white pastor’s perspective. I read this with our church staff (mostly white) and it was a deep and meaningful experience/discussion. It was very healing for my own soul. It is important for your students to see you grieving over racial injustice. As our society continues to move toward more isolation and egocentrism, let’s do as Jesus taught and weep with those who weep.
- If a person of color ever comes to you mentioning some injustice they felt, believe us and don’t try to explain away what happened immediately. People of color are often questioned and dismissed when we bring up stories of discrimination. The event they are sharing has had a serious impact on your friend or student of color, and Jesus says to weep with those who weep. Don’t try to minimize what they experienced in an effort to make them feel better. It likely took a lot of courage to share such events with our white friends or white pastors. Minimizing or explaining away what happened will only validate their fear of not being heard yet again.
- Continue to educate yourself. Many people know racism and slavery were things that happened a “long time ago”. But history is much closer than most think. And each generation’s actions affected the next to this day. To fully understand what’s happening today, some historical context is required. We need to know the historical context where scripture took place to accurately apply it to today, and the same is true for race in America. The book I recommended above is a good starting point, though there are many options out there!
- Learn about the black experience. Seek out black authors, podcasters, bloggers, etc. Big events like this come up in the news every few months thanks to the prevalence of everyone having a video camera in their pocket. But racial injustice happens regularly and it is not confined to the south. As you investigate different sources, you’ll find some will have level heads and solid commentary. Some will be angry. Some will be cynical. All add a piece to the picture of the black experience in America. None should be completely dismissed. We can’t help solve the problem if we are ignoring certain voices. A fantastic Podcast worth listening to is Serial – Season 3.
- Keep speaking to your own kids and students once you have some basic understanding. It can’t be a once-every-few-years conversation. They will value what you value. We talk about what we value. We wouldn’t have a single conversation with our students about sex and dating then close our eyes, look the other way, and hope they got it! The same goes for race in our country. Lots of races interacted in scripture. Most interesting was how Jesus broke so many stereotypes with the woman at the well (John 4) and the parable of the good Samaritan. As a youth pastor, your voice matters. Your voice to your church matters. Your voice to parents matters. You are the trendsetter. Set the trend.
- Talk to your white friends about it. When opportunities present themselves, speak up and start a conversation. Many of my white friends who have done this have told me how surprised they were when their white friends also wanted to talk about it. You have the ability to empower more conversation about how God created all of us in His image, but there are some historical injustices that we’ve never fully dealt with which are stopping us from moving forward. We need to drag some things into the light before healing can take place. As you continue to understand the black experience, you’ll be able to better help your white friends understand what they haven’t seen or read for themselves yet.
- Get on the mailing list of and consider supporting an organization that advocates for social justice, racial equality, etc. Those organizations can give you a window into all the things that don’t make it on prime time news. After some time, if you like their tone and what they are about, consider funding them or supporting them in other ways. It could take a more specific form such as homelessness, (which disproportionately affects people of color). Prison incarceration (which disproportionately affects people of color), poverty (which… you get the idea).
- Don’t demonize people who do racially charged things. Sadly, in the age of the internet and mob mentality, someone who does something wrong (by mistake or intentionally) — regardless of the severity — has their life ruined. Take the woman in NY who called 911, lying about the black man threatening her life. Yes, that was wrong and reveals soooo much about her mindset of weaponizing the police. Yes, action should be taken against her. But it’s also an opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation. I think some white people are nervous about the topic of race because they’ve seen how quickly a person’s life can be upended if they say or do the wrong thing. What she did was absolutely wrong, horrifying even. She was falsely accusing someone which could have resulted in serious injustice for him — even death. I don’t know if justice has been served for her yet. But that woman has apologized, admitted her wrongdoing. And even the man she wronged has requested that people back off from her as she receives death threats. I hope she has really learned from her mistake. I don’t think she should be blacklisted from society. Justice and mercy can coexist. Imagine if the black community showed her love and forgiveness! Imagine if she became an advocate helping the white community understand the subtle ways we can display racial bias. Imagine if the of the black community rallied around her. That would be a radical Jesus love. That would be a love that would grab the attention of those who don’t know our Jesus. I know some in the black community are slow to give this because it seems so rare that justice happens. It seems like letting white people off the hook far quicker than people of color are let off the hook. It’s not fair. But the cycle of hate and shame must stop somewhere. If it can start with me, I forgive her (as much as I, a black man who was not the direct one who was wronged, can forgive her.) An opportunity for learning and reconciliation…
Those are some initial things you could do this week. I’m not an expert on this topic. I’m just like you — a Youth Pastor trying to navigate this world and helping my teens do the same. I don’t speak for all black people everywhere. Some would adamantly oppose my last point. However, I haven’t seen any other helpful suggestions for my white friends yet, so here is a starting point.
I do hope anyone who reads this knows my heart for Jesus and my love for all people. Race is a sensitive thing to discuss — especially digitally as it leaves no immediate opportunity for a quick back and forth to clarify something that may have been received poorly. If something I said rubs you the wrong way, please let me know so we can start a conversation. It may just be a misunderstanding, or it may be a genuine conflict. Either way, let’s chat! I hope this is helpful to some and empowers you to speak more freely whatever your race. We are all made in the image of God.
Theo Davis serves as the Multi-Site Youth Pastor at Restore Community Church in Kansas City, Missouri. He has worked in youth ministry for 15 years in a variety of settings which include church plants, rural churches, and mega-churches on the East Coast and now Midwest. He received his degree in Youth Ministry from Eastern University in 2008 and has continued to leverage his education with real-world experience. He and his wife Malia are huge gamers and named their kids after video game characters — Zelda & Shepherd (from The Legend of Zelda and the Mass Effect Series). Theo also loves action figures and spends his spare time developing his musical and visual art talents. Follow him on Instagram @theo_davis