Today would have been the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 89th birthday.  On this day, as we approach the 50th year since he was assassinated, we celebrate the radical life and legacy of Dr. King – along with others who have and continue to work to dismantle systemic racism and fight for civil rights and justice.  And yet, as we celebrate how far we have come, we must acknowledge how much farther we have to go.

Just last week, on the eve before MLK weekend began, in a meeting with lawmakers discussing immigration reform, the President of the United States called El Salvador, Haiti, and other African countries “sh*tholes” and questioned why the U.S. needed more people from these countries rather than from places like Norway.

Let’s just be clear: it is downright racist for anyone to say and believe these things.  And it is inexcusable and incredibly dangerous for our country’s president to be the one to do so and for other national and religious leaders to remain silent or to downplay his beliefs and behaviors.

God created ALL humankind good and in God’s image. God created ALL nations good. There are no sh*thole countries.  And the United States is lucky to be made up of people from El Salvador, Haiti, and other countries in Africa, who have made this country a better place.

When we wonder if anything or anyone good can come out of that “sh*thole” continent, country, city, neighborhood, school, or whatever other place we label as inferior, let us just remember who Nathanael encountered after he said “Can anything good come out of (that sh*thole) Nazareth?” (John 1:43-51)

(I think it’s no coincidence that this just so happened to be yesterday’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading.)

Yet, Philip responded to Nathanael by extending him an invitation to open his eyes and his heart and to “come and see” for himself.  Building relationships with and learning about people and places that are different from us and from what we know help us begin to break down stereotypes and other barriers that cause misunderstanding, division, and hate.  As we see with Nathanael, once he started to build a relationship with Jesus, he began his journey toward his own transformation.

As youth ministers and youth workers, we have an opportunity to invite our youth to open their eyes and hearts and to “come and see.”

And as leaders in the church who work with youth, as Christians, and as members of the human race, we have a responsibility to call out racist stereotypes, words, actions, and beliefs for what they are and to denounce them… even and especially if they are carried out by our national leaders.  When we do so, we begin to model for our youth how they – too – can and should call out and shut down stereotypes and racist remarks and actions, no matter whom the person is that is behaving in such a manner.

This is not a partisan issue.  This is not about a political party or a particular politician.  This is about the evil and harmful sins of racism and white supremacy.  And they must be shut down.

Because to be silent about these statements and beliefs is to be complicit.  To ignore such statements and actions sends several strong messages to our youth and their families.

Our silences tells our youth and families that the racist statements and beliefs of the President are normal, are true, and thus can be continued.

Our silence tells our youth of color and their families that not only are they not valued by their country and many of their country’s leaders, but that they are also not valued by us, by the Church, or even by God.

Our silence tells all of our youth and families that some people – based on skin color and/or country of origin – are superior to others.  It says that God does not actually care about the “least of these” and that people of faith should just ignore God’s call (which we hear throughout the scriptures) to welcome and care for the immigrant and refugee, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim God’s good news of justice and peace to the world.

So how can we – as youth ministers and youth workers – break our silence?  

There are many ways, but we can start by:

  • Publicly calling out all forms of racism (individual and systemic, overt and covert) on social media, in church newsletters, in our sermons, and in our worship liturgy (prayers, calls to confession, music, etc).
  • Continuously educating ourselves on racism and immigration issues and actively working to become anti-racists. (For those of us who maintain white privilege: we must listen and learn about our own racism and how we benefit from and contribute to systemic racism.  This is a life-long journey.)
  • Leading youth group discussions about what scripture has to say about racial justice and immigration and teaching youth about immigration history in the U.S. and current issues related to immigration justice.
  • Leading youth group antiracism discussions, book studies, and workshops on how youth can identify, call out, and shut down racist comments and actions.
  • Helping youth learn about and from people and places that are different from them and from what they know.  (Teach youth about the history and current contexts of other countries, cities, and neighborhoods.  Take them on trips; share stories and videos; partner with other congregations; bring in speakers from immigration/refugee resettlement organizations, etc.)
  • Empowering youth to work for immigration and racial justice.  (Help them write and call their elected officials, asking them to publicly condemn racist statements and actions and to pass just policies.  Take them to town meetings, marches, teach-ins, and rallies that call for racial, economic, and immigration justice.)

Rev. Emily Heitzman is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor serving as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households at three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago: Unity Lutheran, Ebenezer Lutheran, and Immanuel Lutheran.  She runs a collaborative, multicultural youth group that consists of youth from the three congregations as well as youth from the neighborhood. Emily loves hiking in the mountains, attending indie and bluegrass concerts, biking along Lake Michigan, and singing opera and musical theatre. She has a heart for youth, justice, and the Huskers, and can often been seen with coffee or a Guinness. Emily is one of the writers for The Pastoral Is Political feature on HTTPS://REVGALBLOGPALS.ORG. You can find more of her reflections, sermons, and youth ministry ideas on her blog at HTTP://MUSINGSFROMABRICOLAGE.WORDPRESS.COM and connect with her on twitter at @PASTOREMILYH.