This reflection has been on the margins of my mind for some time since I first heard of Trayvon Martin. It is personal and offers a perspective that I am still processing… but for good reason. When I asked Brandon Winstead to offer a reflection on Trayvon, I thought it might indicate that I had nothing to say on the matter. So, in solidarity with Brandon, I offer my thoughts as well. My thanks to Brandon, who embodies the type of youth pastor we need more in this journey. I know his work with YouthFront and alongside NTS will make our seminar at NTS worthwhile. My thanks to organizations like YouthFront’s missional journeys and the Kansas City Urban Youth Center, who live out this ministry daily.
Reflections on Youth, Race, and Violence
I can think of four times where the intersecting themes of youth, race, and violence exploded into my life. The first time occurred when I was an adolescent in high school
during the death of Martin Luther King.
The tensions exploded that day into a large battle between young black and young white
men in a southern high school. Hardly a riot, but also a shattering moment in my life, where I had friends on both sides of the racial divide clash out of a sense of grief but also racism. A young black man and myself fled to the local bowling alley after school, where our common love for the pastime allowed us to share a moment of consternation and pain. I really did not understand everything (my life too sheltered by privilege), but I knew I did not want to lose a friendship based on the color of skin. I also realized I did not understand his world.
The second time occurred when a different type of violence surfaced as my father
threatened to remove me from college if I had a black roommate. Confronted with that issue the first day of college, I fled to the safety of another dorm room (with a white roommate I did not know). After my father left campus, blacks and whites alike befriended me; but I was also confronted with my own racist heritage and it haunted me that day… and to this day I feel the blatant shame of racing to fulfill my father’s wishes to avoid losing a college dream.
The third time was in California. I was in a class working with an African American woman and a Korean male…both youth pastors… designing a curriculum to help adolescents bridge their ethnic differences through narratives. We thought we might begin by deconstructing negative views of youth within their own culture and use those same tools to then help them see how they also construct racist views of other cultures. Once that work was complete we hoped to teach them how to listen well to the other ethnic group. During this class the very environment went through a sea change with the Rodney King verdict. While nestled in Claremont, just far enough away to avoid the direct devastation of the Rodney King “fires” (only whites called it a riot), we were shaken by the injustice felt within African American communities, the fear in Korean communities caught in close proximity, and the absent, sometimes judgmental, nature of Anglos in the suburban communities around Los Angeles. We were confronted by the superficiality of our plan, but also the desperate need to change the violent world we lived in. Again, my own privileged dropped into my life with earth shattering reality.
The fourth time was more subtle but truly painful. I remain amazed by my daughter and her friends. She is a child of a culture that embraces ethnicity in a way I could not have imagined in the Southeastern community where I grew up. Blonde, fair skinned, she has friends of every color and ethnic background. We were part of an all black girls basketball team; a summer travel team where my daughter brought us along on her ethnic journey. Sitting in the middle of a group of cheering, boisterous, African American adults I began to experience the subtle racism of the culture around us from a remarkable vantage point. The demeanor of Anglo adults from other teams, the reactions of referees to our complaints (compared to their response to others), even the subtle responses to the young men’s team that traveled with us proved truly disconcerting. I realized just how deeply my privilege could run and just how difficult other people lives might be just based on racial difference.
We have been fortunate to know several young black men who lived near us, and shared the basketball goal with our daughter in the cul de sac we live in. We have also known outstanding young black men in the church we attend. Yet, if they walked the street we share at night in a hoodie… how far would my privilege obscure my knowledge?
We still have work to do, I still have work to do.
Trayvon Martin serves as a symbol of my past but also our future. Last spring Brandon Winstead proposed a conference at NTS addressing race and youth that we will host this November 12th. We have excellent presenters coming, but we need not wait for that moment to begin the hard work we have to do. Trayvon reminds us that youth… live in a violent, racially difficult, world we have made. A world not that far from my own adolescence. We definitely have work to do, may God grant us grace to do it.