What happens when we let young people lead? Members of Calvary Episcopal Church are not new to being led by our youth: we’ve hosted events to raise money for Heifer Fair, served meals at Tender Mercies (a local ministry), and educated parishioners about the positive effects of the drip irrigation systems that their African Team Ministries purchase supports. But for the first time in my 18 years as a parishioner, the youth group hosted two adult forums: one on the topic of racism in the United States and one on Black History. Both forums had a tremendous impact on all who attended. Here’s how we did it.
Forum One: Racism in the United States
We’d been following the Way of Love in Youth Group for two years when the pandemic moved our meetings from the youth room at church to a Zoom room. A month before, I’d purchased a new book called This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell. After reading it, I went to place an order for my youth group, and it was already in its second printing. That’s how excellent this resource is. Each member got a copy, and we used it in the fall of 2020 for five weeks. Because I did not want the youth to feel like this book was extra homework, I summarized the chapters in our meetings, and we did several of the activities as a group.
There are other books about race and racism for kids, but I highly recommend this book. My youth appreciated the straightforward approach to challenging topics and history and first-person stories from Tiffany Jewell, who identifies as black biracial.
Our youth group has ranged in size from 8-10 to 4-6 active members. Due to a rector transition, we have many young children and tweens, but not many high-schoolers. Four active youth who engaged with this book over the course of several weeks led both forums.
If you lead or parent teenagers, you understand the pandemic was particularly difficult for them. For that reason, while I assigned weekly reading and activities, nothing was mandatory. However, each person found the areas that interested them most. For example, Audrey shared her experience of creating an identity map: “I’d never had to think about my whiteness before. I always thought I was normal. Now I realize that my whiteness is a cultural norm and not everyone’s experience.”
At our staff meetings, I shared snippets of the conversations we had with my colleagues. They were intrigued and impressed with the maturity and depth of the discussions from the little I shared, and our rector Allison English invited us to present what we’d learned in an adult forum. The four youth who’d been active in these meetings each chose an area they wanted to share from the book, and I filled in the gaps.
- Moss shared their thoughts on Why should we accept everyone as equal but diverse as Christians?
- Audrey presented the Waking Up section, sharing her experience of mapping her social identities and exploring concepts of race and ethnicity.
- I shared the section Making Sense of Our World, which contains historical information folks don’t always learn in school, including history from other countries.
- My daughter Jaiya presented the Choosing My Path: Taking Action and Responding to Racism section and focused on calling in and calling out. Calling in is taking someone aside for a personal talk about a public comment, while calling out is confronting racism at the moment, with others around.
- Maggie covered Holding the Door Open: Working in Solidarity Against Racism and talked about spending your privilege and allyship.
The forum lasted one hour, and we provided opportunities for questions as we went.
Response To The First Forum
Those who attended were astonished at how articulate, challenging, and thoughtful the youth were. These adults watched all of these youth grow up from babies to teenagers and had never heard them speak about these issues or any issues before this forum. I’m so thankful to our rector, the Rev. Allison English for giving our youth this platform to demonstrate their excellent teaching skills as well as for her willingness to delve into these issues, including the history of our parish.
One attendee sent me this note: “Thank you for all the work you do with the youth group at Calvary. Those are some thoughtful, insightful, and articulate teens. They make me want to be a better person.“
Several other people offered similar comments at our virtual coffee hour the following Sunday. The youth felt great about what they had done – they felt seen and heard. I shared all the feedback I received with them.
Forum Two: Black History
A year after the publication of This Book Is Anti-Racist came the publication of This Book Is Anti-Racist Journal. When I told the youth about it, they cheered. I pre-ordered copies for each of them and delivered them to their homes the day I received them. In January, the youth shared that they wanted to learn more about Black History. I invited them to narrow their focus to their contexts and interests.
- Maggie, a classical musician, wanted to know more about the influence of black composers.
- Audrey wanted to learn more about black influences in fashion and style.
- Jaiya wanted to learn about African impacts on contemporary black music.
- Moss was interested in the truth about slavery.
Based on these interests, I showed them The 1619 Project and encouraged them to read articles that pertained to the topics they were interested in. I’m confident that the passion and urgency they felt to study Black History wouldn’t have happened without the learning they experienced from our book study of This Book Is Anti-Racist.
We did not wait for an invitation this time, but asked if we could present what we learned to the congregation in February. Rather than an evening forum like we’d done in December 2020, Allison offered to have us present during our virtual coffee hour right after church. We had a larger audience for this forum, and we used the same presentation style we used before: each person presented on the topic they chose.
In our first presentation, we had a google slide deck. As the pandemic wore on, even that was too much for some students, and I did not want to create any barriers to participation. They each showed up prepared to speak from their minds and hearts. Once again, those who attended were amazed when the same four youth who presented in December educated all of us with their knowledge, excitement, and desire to learn more. Their energy was infectious.
The Road Behind, The Road Ahead
It’s clear that we have a long road behind us and ahead of us in the work of racial reconciliation. Our congregation is uncovering our history, including that our church was unintentionally built with its back to Avondale, the black community that lives down the hill behind our church, and facing the wealthy community we embrace in the name we choose to call ourselves, Calvary Clifton. Our youth led the way in teaching our congregation that change is possible. Furthermore, this experience empowered our youth. As Jaiya noted, “It was a cool and new experience being the one to teach adults and people older than me about something that I had experienced firsthand.“
I’m most excited that our youth will go into their adult lives with a different consciousness. Spencer, who graduated in 2020 and is now a counselor at our diocesan camp, stayed in touch and visited the youth group a couple of times from college. He also attended the first forum and shared this story with me last week:
“Ms. Miriam, I have to tell you about what happened at camp this week. We were wrapping up an activity, and I’d made space for everyone to contribute. Even though it was time to go, I had to say one more thing. I talked about calling out and calling in. I’ll never forget that forum. I learned so much, and it was so amazing. I know what I learned that day will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
There’s no other way to do this work than to do this work. It isn’t easy. It’s painful. And it’s necessary. It requires us to be, as Dr. Catherine Meeks says, a shade braver. Jesus tells us again and again, do not be afraid. There’s nothing better about doing the work of learning about racism than to do it with people of faith. We have God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and each other to hold us.