Video: Youth Ministry & Racial Justice

This past fall, Brandon Winstead gave this presentation, titled Youth Ministry and Racial Justice, at the annual Youth Ministry Academy conference in Orlando, Florida. This event was presented in conjunction by the Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and was sponsored by Kindred Youth Ministry. We are so excited to be able to share with you some of the fantastic presentations from this Youth Ministry Academy event.

Below the video you can find the transcription, if you prefer to read Brandon’s content, as well as images from the presentation.


[Brandon Winstead]: In my 15 plus years of working in Youth Ministry, there is one factor that I have seen shape the identity of anglo youth all across this country, race. Just as much as neurology or biology or any other psychosocial factors that we want to contribute to shaping the self-identity in Jesus Christ of young people; so too has race in all monolithic communities where they often live, reside and worship.

Youth Ministry & Racial Justice - Brandon Winstead

Now for some us that may sound like a very strong statement, but let’s just take a look at the make-up of our countries racial demographic and then look at some of the examples from the broad scope of evangelical churches where many of our youth ministries reside.

According to the 2010 US census bureau, there were roughly 50 million Hispanic-Americans, 40 million African-Americans, 3 million Native Americans and almost 15 million Asian-Americans. In that same year there are roughly 309 million US residents in the United States, so what that translates to, is that roughly one out of every 3 persons in the United States was classified as nonwhite.

In a recent research however done by the Pew forum on religion in public life, they discovered that 81% of Evangelical Churches were classified, predominantly as Anglo-American and in the recent study done my life way research in September of 2013, they discovered that there were roughly 85% of Evangelical-minded pastors that confess that their church should indeed be racially diverse, however, 13% of those polled confess that indeed their churches were racially diverse.

In my 15 plus years of working in Youth Ministry, there is one factor that I have seen shape the identity of anglo youth all across this country, race.

What these numbers point to, or such, what they hint to is what I would like to suggest to you. Namely that race had become a major over-arching factor shaping the lives of young people in our congregations and that we as youth pastors and workers need to find ways and which we empower them to discover the ways that it has shaped them and then empower them to find ways to love the so-called ‘other’ with an identity that is resonant with a God, who loves all people of a multi-racial country.

A recent example from the last place where I served highlights this. I was leading our youth leadership team on an urban wall, to learn about the history African-American life in Leon County. We started at a downtown park in Tallahassee where we read historical markers, where we learn first amongst many other things that in the antebellum era in Tallahassee, 2/3rds of Tallahassee’s population were African-Americans, enslaved African-Americans.

Then we proceeded on our walk and we read more about the protest of the early 1960’s of the bus boycott in the 60’s and the sit-ins at the counters in downtown Tallahassee, that’s was on the verge of  young African-American trying to create fishers in the power structure and to create more civil rights and economic opportunities for African-Americans in the city of Tallahassee.

When we left there we continue our walk and we went to historical neighborhood, we have encountered historical black churches, businesses, institutions, houses and a few anglo folks walking around. We did not discuss that experience, instead we got into our cars and we proceeded north to have lunch to a prominently white section of the city where many of them lived, went to school participated in extracurricular activities and went to church.

Over lunch, I asked them if any of them would be willing to share what they had learned from what that had read, and to share some of the experiences that they gleaned as they started downtown and went northward. One of the young men agreed, one of our younger leaders, he was a freshman in a local area high schools and he first spoke up and said ‘you know, from when I was reading and walking, it seemed to me that over the years that white Tallahasseeans got to enjoy a lot more that black folks did in this part of the city.’

He went on to say ‘and you know, as we proceeded northward the neighborhoods got bigger and cleaner and larger and whiter. And then he said ‘you know I lived in those places and the locations that we went through today, I don’t often go there because my family has the money to live and go where we choose.’’ And I’m not kidding you in that same moment he said ‘so maybe it is true or at least it seems so, that I’ve got to enjoy ’cause I’ve grown up here in this city a lot more than other folks have simply because I’m white.’

Now in that moment I made it very clear that neither I was going to condone or condemn what he said, and I saw others around the circles that nod in subtle agreement in what he said and I express to him my thanks for sharing what he had shared with me that moment, but tomorrow we will process that experience a bit more during Sunday school as we looked at story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman in Samaria at the Samaritan Well in John 4:1-28.

So the next day during our study, we discovered that unlike Jesus’ bold move to go across the racial and ethnic divide of his own day and error, to tell a God’s love, redemption, and salvation, we had failed to go to the wells of our own backyard. And yet in that moment we realized that it wasn’t all our fault.

See, much like the social situation that existed between Jews and Samaritans and the ancient firsts’ history, we realized that there were a historical forces keeping us apart from learning, growing, from those who do not share our own skin tone.

We went on to discuss that what it would mean to overcome those obstacles to follow Jesus’s example and to reach out in love and taste of God’s salvation, redemption, and unity. We stated that ‘you know it’ll probably be difficult, but it was necessary, if we wanted to recover a fullness of identity, rooted in the Jesus of John chapter 4. It was necessary if we are going to possess an identity, that was rooted and more in tune with the Jesus of the Jewish Messiah who reached out in love at the well.

Now, of course, this could be criticized as simply one example in one location amongst one particular group of people and one part of the country littered with historical examples of whites mistreating blacks and creating racial wells that they abandoned years ago. But I have seen how this hidden whiteness has existed in so many predominantly white congregations across this nation and how it has created barriers for young people to see that race does shape their Christian identity in profound ways.

From the suburbs of Nashville and Kansas City to the neighborhoods of Long Beach and Phoenix to the rural areas of Quincy, Illinois. So many young people have thought it was absurd the first time I mentioned to them that if they needed to go to their own wells, if they wanted to recover the fullness of their identity in Christ and be able to love across the racial barriers of their own world, and why wouldn’t they?

For so many years so many of them have swam in this sea that has kept them from understanding the ways which race has shaped them, their neighborhoods, their schools, their businesses, their sports leagues and civic institutions, and churches that often massively ignore the ways in which race shapes their identity. So as a result, many are shaped and molded every day to not think critically and faithfully about how local racial history is in dynamics shape their faith identity. Without opportunities to do this – you know it’s as if racial injustice becomes birthed, ingrained, and then hidden into their psychological and spiritual DNA. See in other words, many of the institutions that allies aren’t discussing these realities in constructive ways and as a result they are not preparing them and providing them the necessary tools to develop compassion, empathy, and care with the so called ‘other’.

As a result, what we get is they often assume that race or racism doesn’t exist, simply something that only not white youth talk about in order to get attention or to make excuses for so called bad behavior and they go about their days, often indifferent to how patterns of race negatively shape them and other people’s lives in their communities.

Now, hear me. I don’t want to assume that this is normative to everybody’s experiences in youth ministry, particularly those of us who have worked for years and currently working with those in predominantly white churches. But I think as youth workers, on the whole, if we are honest, we would agree that what I have stated here is largely true. Namely that in the US, race is a massive, massive social factor shaping the faith formation of young people all across this country, including anglo youth. And that we need to begin the process of youth leaders to find ways to help young people go to the racial wells of their own communities, to find healing and identity that is consistent with the Jesus of John chapter 4.

We need to begin the process of youth leaders to find ways to help young people go to the racial wells of their own communities, to find healing and identity that is consistent with the Jesus of John chapter 4.

The beginning movements of these wells, to these wells and around these wells. I believe our expressions of living out the incarnational message of Jesus in general in John 4 in particular. I mean, c’mon y’all, don’t we spend a whole a lot of time telling young people that Christ’s ministry was incarnational? That it came in John Chapter 4 a reached across boundaries to bring about redemption and every part of people’s lives in the first century and real space and time? It was a historical we tell them. It slept, it moved, it breathed, it wept, and it crossed racial boundaries and since it crossed racial boundaries it continues to do so today at the wells of our own world telling young people of God’s salvation, restoration in unity for everyone.

And when it comes to the ways concrete racial history has and continues to shape young people’s Christian identities, that incarnational message, I believe, must not remain silent even if the institutions of their lives want to remain it hidden. In other words I believe our incarnational theology and approaches to youth ministry that focus on meeting young people on their turf, at their schools, in their homes, and  in our programs, those turfs, we need to help them discover the ways that regardless of the racial background to go to their wells; to go to their wells to recover the fullness of identity in Christ, to listen from the so-called other and work towards the racial repair amongst divided youth.

And that reality, even if we don’t see it or feel it every day, isn’t it enough? Isn’t it enough? I mean, if that is the only thing that we are comfortable with condoning here this morning isn’t that enough? I mean don’t we claim that Christ continues to enter time in history to prepare all that is broken in the lives of young people? And if race has helped to create this division and brokenness amongst youth across the landscape of the United States shouldn’t we be working on developing incarnational models and theologies of ministry that help guide them to Christ authentic redemption in this area of their lives?

Or are we going to continue to go about believing that race is not a critical factor in the conversations about what it means to analyze the ways in which we have been kept from understanding how it is, of not understanding the ways our local racial realities have kept us from loving the other in our own backyard?

I believe that we, with these approaches, that will discuss a little more later in my seminar, as we will discuss more about how we move to approach these wells and to begin to understand the ways which race has shaped anglo youth and how we can begin the process of moving forward. I believe that those acts and approaches are movements and mimic the redemption that’s evident in John, Chapter 4 with Jesus encounter with the woman at the Samaritan well.

I believe that we can do that. And I hope we can help them recover that redemption and hope and, in turn, follow Christ to tell others, of God’s love, salvation, and redemption at the wells in their own backyard. Thanks.