For a decade, my serving “station” was within the walls of a church in a neighborhood of Cambridge, MA. When I say neighborhood, I mean you had to turn off the main street to find the yellow two story building that was planted in between rows of the triple decker homes around it. This church was my station, and the neighborhood of Riverside in Cambridge, MA was my life’s service ground.
In this neighborhood, my husband, Curtis, and I served primarily black youth. Every Friday night Curtis and I would go to the church building for “youth night.” We could always expect a solid crew of teens from the neighborhood. They showed up for Jesus, the pizza, the fellowship, and sometimes just the pizza. You would often find me sitting among them at a table playing a fiercely competitive match of UNO. On the occasion that a new parent would come into the youth space, I would stand up to meet them, only to be met with a “Oh my goodness- I thought you were one of the kids!” It made sense, given that kids would take delight in towering over me by the time they were around 11 years-old. Yet, many of them who are now grown will tell you, “Don’t mess with that little 5’1″ Spanish..errr… Really Light Skinned… but not White…. She’s Asian…Oh Yeah…Filipina Girl!”
The name of our group was Refuge Youth because it was considered a safe place for youth to come and bring their friends. Refuge was safe in every form of the word including physically, spiritually, and emotionally. The nature of the time and space demanded respect for each other as family. The oldest high school seniors became big brothers and sisters to the youngest pre-teens. Everyone had a role to play in both encouraging and correcting each other, like family.
I have no children of my own so I do not know the true feelings of raising someone born of my own flesh. Yet, I have been called, “Mom.” It’s a humbling name, implying not only a level of care, but also of responsibility. In incarnational youth ministry, you naturally acquire some unwritten habitual responsibilities such as holding children in your arms, wiping away tears, praying for wounds of the heart, and celebrating accomplishments over parties and meals. When you move from not only teaching the Gospel to living life with and among the kids you serve, you are not only a youth leader; you are family.
For Curtis and I, our familial roles would be in constant flux depending on relationship and circumstance with the youth. For retreats where we played Capture the Flag in the middle of the night, we felt like big brothers and sisters. When talking about the latest crushes or the heartbreaks of teenage love, we became the wise auntie and uncle. For a few of the kids going through some of the most difficult seasons of their lives, we got the tiniest taste of what it meant to be a mother and father. For these kids, we called them our spiritual sons and daughters.
I write this to you today, in light of my family, particularly my spiritual kids. I write this to you not only as a youth minister of the Gospel, but as a spiritual mother of many black teens and young adults.
Loving the kids of Cambridge will be one of the most treasured decades of my life. My wallet wouldn’t allow me to live in Cambridge (available apartments were expensive, and largely populated by students from Harvard and MIT). I lived in Codman Square, a predominantly black section of Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston. I would walk half a mile from our apartment to the Shawmut Train stop, ride about half an hour on the subway line to the Central Square Train stop in Cambridge, and walk half a mile through the very diverse neighborhood of Riverside to our church building. My favorite part of the journey was the brief moment on the train when I could look out the window over the Charles River. The train track ran over a bridge between the Charles MGH and Kendall Square stops. There was a good minute where I could get the best view of the Boston skyline along with the tops of the MIT buildings of Cambridge. I would always breathe in the moments of beauty as I traveled in between the world of the home I could afford in Boston, and my second home where I played lots of UNO with my spiritual kids in Cambridge.
Like the Red Line on the MBTA subway connecting Boston and Cambridge, I have always lived between different worlds. I grew up in a multi-ethnic family, stationed in a predominantly white conservative Christian Evangelical world in California. I have always been familiar with being one of the only people of color in any given room. When I graduated from college, I drove 3000 miles across the country for my seminary studies in Boston. Upon moving to the East Coast, I was thrust into seeing all the world (The Greater Boston area has many locals, but also a high population of immigrants from around the world) with all its ways of thinking, living, eating, walking, talking, and existing within the ten mile radius of Boston and Cambridge, a world racially and culturally divided by neighborhoods, bus and train stops.
When the whole world is bustling outside, walking through the doors of the church in Cambridge felt like a refuge. The peace of the Holy Spirit rested there. Our kids felt this it, even if they couldn’t identify it. And in times like today, where the darkness of racial injustice rears its head in the media once again, there were times when Refuge Youth was forced to have the conversations for which my largely white conservative Evangelical upbringing did not prepare me. I’ll always remember one of the first conversations…
Our kids were sitting with their pizza around the circle tables in the Fellowship Hall. The room was more somber than normal in light of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Florida.
“How do you feel?”
The question was asked. One by one they began to tell us.
“I don’t get it.”
“I hate the police.”
“What are we supposed to do? How can we stay safe if they can just shoot us for being black?”
My soul cried as I heard my students…my kids…my family… tell me words I had never had to consider for myself. That night, I sat back and listened as my husband along with our youth pastor and other Black leaders guided our family table talk.
“Here is what you are supposed to do…”
Our kids genuinely felt the need to know how to respond to a police officer. Our leaders showed them how in a role playing format. They told them their rights, but also how to respond respectfully and most safely.
“Show your hands and say that you are unarmed.”
“Speak slowly, clearly, politely. Make sure they can hear you.”
“When you are stopped, ask permission before reaching anywhere.”
“Do not be afraid.”
I listened to my husband along with every other black male leader share their own stories about getting pulled over by the police, and how they had learned to respond. As they spoke I couldn’t help but think, “Out of all my training, education, and experience, no one and nothing has ever trained me for this. And here we are teaching this to children! I’m trained to teach the Gospel, and somehow in this unjust world, here I am watching this generation be trained how to protect themselves from injustice.”
Yes, the Gospel was still in our conversation. We talked about prayer, and the protection and power of God. However we did not shy away from telling the truth that the face of sin is evil. And like any other youth ministry lesson, we showed how to wisely apply prayer and practice to a terrifying and unjust situation.
Not too long after that family conversation, I attended a National Youth Workers’ conference. I love attending these conferences as it feels like a family reunion for youth workers. For the first time in the conference’s history, our youth worker family participated in general sessions about race. We were also given the opportunity to attend available workshops about the intersection of race and youth ministry. I was enriched and found many of the workshops extremely applicable not just to my own context, but to the Church as a whole regarding racial reconciliation. I was overjoyed that this difficult reality of racial reconciliation was being presented in ways that were challenging, yet kind and full of the love of God. I was thankful for the leaders who took the time to make this topic available and accessible to the youth leader family.
During one of our workshop hours, I decided to attend a workshop about how to lead effective small groups (unrelated to the workshops regarding race). I sat down next to a fellow youth worker. He was a white man dressed in a red plaid shirt, aimlessly resting his gaze straight ahead, waiting for the workshop to begin.
Acknowledging my presence as I began to sit, while still not looking directly at me, he lets out a sigh, and without thinking says, “I’m so glad there are other workshops to go to other than all those ones about race.”
I think he heard the heaviness of my silence as I stared back at him, dumbfounded at the words that poured so easily out of his mouth. I think he had assumed I would be someone like him, someone overwhelmed by the conversation of race, and someone so relieved to have an escape from a topic that was not relevant to my ministry context.
Like him, I was overwhelmed by the conversation of race, but so thankful that it was even an option for conversation. I was someone who rejoiced that the leaders of the conference cared about what was indeed necessary and relevant to my ministry context.
Responding to my silence, Mr. Red Plaid turns, his eyes widening. He begins to sit up straight upon seeing the look and perhaps the color of my face. I heard his sigh turn into a quick gasp as he looked at me with shame in his eyes. He quickly muttered a, “Uh- I’m sorry. It’s just uh-”
“-I know.” I interrupted him. And said nothing else. I gave him no solace, or sympathy. I trusted the Lord would deal with his thoughts in that moment, and hopefully many moments after.
The workshop began before we could converse further.
This moment has disturbed me for years after because this was an interaction with one of my brothers in Christ. I considered the world I had come from, full of many others like him. There are many who would rather ignore and escape the reality of what’s going on in the Body of Christ simply because it makes them uncomfortable, rubs too close to their political centeredness, or perhaps they don’t believe the issues to be as big as others make them out to be. There are those who can’t believe something to be true unless they experience it with their own eyes.
Well, isn’t faith based on what we haven’t seen?
Or is it that we don’t want to see the reality of how sin affects those we serve? Because that would require too much of us? Because we haven’t been trained in that way? Because we can’t talk about something we don’t fully understand? Well…that’s what those “workshops about race” were for, Mr. Red Plaid. Listening to others speak about things we don’t understand helps us understand the things we didn’t previously understand.
I didn’t have the time to respond to Mr. Red Plaid after our workshop. He promptly scooted out before its close. But his words remained in my spirit. The following are the words I’ve contemplated that I would say in response to him, as well as to others like him in the youth ministry field.
“I came from a world where I too may not have seen the need to attend ‘all those workshops about race.’ But now, I’ve sat in more workshops about race both as listener and presenter more times than I can count because they matter to the lives of the students in my care. And as I participate in them, the one thing I think to myself is not, ‘Wow I gained so much.’ What I think is, ‘I wish faith leaders of my upbringing were here. I wish more white people were here. I wish more people would care. Where are they? Why do they think they are exempt? Without the participation of white people, these workshops are merely a mourning and outlet of expression over the issues people of color experience on a daily basis. You, Mr. Red Plaid, and others like you-we need you. And your lack of participation is part of the problem…”
“…I wish you would believe us when we say that our kids are afraid. I wish you would partner with us. I wish you would stand with us. I wish you would get out of your youth ministry bubbles of board games and pizza to show your kids how to be in relationship with others who are different from them. I wish my kids weren’t your kids’ summer missions project. I wish my kids and your kids were friends. I wish my kids could go to your church and not wonder if we serve the same Jesus. I wish you would see that we are not of different worlds, but rather the same world, and we are simply waiting for you to show up in our neighborhood.”
John 1:4-5 says, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
I am thankful for a God that saw the world in its darkness and chose to step into it. Jesus left the perfect Heavenly neighborhood to come into ours’. He didn’t have a penthouse suite or a temporary mansion in the suburbs, taking the train into the city to visit us for a mission trip. He boarded the journey to humanity and when he reached his destination, his life and light stayed with us.
Like the incarnational God, teacher, and friend he was, Jesus rode in the boat with us when we were afraid. He wept at our death. He let us come to him as children. He met us at the well despite racial division. He turned tables over the wrongful actions of spiritual leaders. He ate with us when every other Holy person dismissed us. He had compassion on us. He fed us. He grabbed us out of the waters of our own fear. He protected us from being stoned by our accusers. He died an unjust death so that we might be justified.
Jesus came to our neighborhood, lived in it, redeemed it, and commissioned His disciples to bring it to Kingdom standards.
This post is an invitation for you, fellow faith leader, to step into my neighborhood, though not a neighborhood of homes and buildings. By neighborhood, I refer to my neighbors…my ministry…my kids…my children…my family. My family is your family under the blood of Jesus. I implore you to acknowledge, take a seat of learning, start talking, and participate in the very spiritual and fatal war of racial injustice. My dear friend, more than ever it’s not only Jesus calling you to my neighborhood, but my neighborhood is actually calling out to you. And some of the darkness in our neighborhood has been created because some of you will not shine here. Darkness remains because a large part of the body of Christ will not step here. Do not withhold your light.
For where there is light, darkness must flee. Teaching the youth in my ministry how to survive interactions with the police must come to an end. My children’s fears must bow down to faith. As prophesied, the mourning of a generation must burst into joyous dancing. Reconciliation must conquer injustice.
If you are wary or weary of this war, have no fear or hesitation. For the good news is this, that victory is guaranteed by the reconciling blood of Jesus.
You have nothing to lose. So do not allow your light to rest on the sidelines, casting a shadow into my neighborhood. Do not extend the temporary reign of darkness with your absence. Please, come now. Bring this earth to kingdom standards. Will you diminish and cancel the darkness? Will you be a light? Will you step into the neighborhood? Will you begin the work of bringing racial injustice under the reconciling power of Jesus?
Because your family is waiting…