When you spend time with youth, their parents, and your volunteers – wherever you are in your community – be alert. Are you hearing put-downs and slurs? Pay attention to tension between the different groups of students you are working with. There are early warning signs that there is racially driven tension among adolescents. Left alone or ignored, these attitudes and behaviors can create the perfect storm for larger problems.
Safety is of the utmost importance. Are direct threats being made? Are there imminent threats? These situations required an immediate and well thought out response. More direct behaviors indicate that there might be a problem with your church’s climate. Is this the type of ministry you want? Is this the type of ministry your students, parents, and volunteers want? Ask them and listen closely to how they respond.
Make sure your students, staff, and volunteers know the proper reporting system if and when they hear problems. Make this an expectation and set up an efficient reporting system, like an anonymous comment box, text or email, or a specific staff member. After those problem are reported, there must be proper follow-up.
Here’s a list from the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) of things to consider when present in your ministry, church, or community:
- Casual Pejoratives: Do you hear certain words used regularly in a derogatory manner? That’s so gay. That’s retarded. Are the words “bit**” or “ho” casually used to label female students? Challenge the use of these slurs and work to establish and maintain a climate where casual slurs are uncommon.
- Skits and Plays: Skits and costumes can convey bigoted and stereotypical messages: the “day-laboring Mexican,” students dressed as “rednecks,” “gangbanger/thugs,” people in blackface. Holiday plays and skits are often steeped in stereotypes and bigotry. Set expectations beforehand about appropriate costumes and cultural sensitivity. Discuss the inappropriateness of caricatures or disturbing representations that are rooted in bias and bigotry.
- Marginalized Students: Engage students who appear to be left out of group activities, during game time and group discussions or in other ministry settings. Watch for changes in social clustering and ways in which students align. Check for signs of hostility, depression or a marked change in behavior. Reach out to the student’s parents or guardians as appropriate. Alienated students – either as individuals or in groups – are more susceptible to bias-based bullying.
- Student Recognition: How does your church recognize student achievements? What do those achievements say about your church’s values? What messages are sent to students who don’t receive recognition? Overemphasis on achievement can lead to a sense of entitlement while reinforcing the dominant culture as well as contribute to feelings of frustration or inadequacy in others. Who is spotlighted and who is ignored? Athletes are often at the top of the food chain in many settings.
- Staff Discussions: How are staff/volunteers/adults talking among themselves when outside of ministry settings? Are the adults making negative comments about the “kids from the trailer park”? Are they telling casually bigoted jokes? Do they define their students by a label, such as; the gay kid, the nerd, the gamer, the black kid, etc.?
- Your Own Perceptions: Pay attention to the comments or complaints you automatically dismiss or discount. Also pay attention to your automatic thoughts about particular students. Often, your first thought is a reflection of unconscious biases. Explore those thoughts with an open mind and willingness to become more self aware and learn from others.
- Don’t Forget Other Spaces: You will find yourself wherever students gather, such as; schools, gyms, parks, etc. Follow the general rule, “If you see something, say something”.
Every person in your church – from the worship leader to the incoming 6th graders to teenagers on social media – should understand the climate you are trying to cultivate in your spaces. These ideas are not about politically correct but are our best attempt to create spaces where everyone can belong to the community of God’s people and participate equally in kingdom service.
I leave you with this Benediction from Bishop Woodie White:
And now, may the Lord torment you.
May the Lord keep before you the faces of the hungry, the lonely, the rejected and the despised.
May the Lord afflict you with pain for the hurt, the wounded, the oppressed, the abused, the victims of violence.
May God grace you with agony, a burning thirst for justice and righteousness.
May the Lord give you courage and strength and compassion to make ours a better world, to make your community a better community, to make your church a better church.
And may you do your best to make it so, and after you have done your best, may the Lord give you peace.