The most important article in youthwork magazine was the one no one talked about. It asked whether the church and youth ministry is prepared to be empathetic to the struggle of racist oppression amongst young people in the UK, and the world.
One in which the sin of omission was mentioned in relation to the challenge of racism in the church, in youth ministry and how the church might respond to its own prejudices and also social campaigns such as #blacklivesmatter.
Dean Pusey the author of the piece, Diocesan youth Officer for St Albans wrote provocatively that:
The Sin of racial discrimination or bias, whether subtle or overt, needs addressing. Can the church be at the forefront of anti-discriminatroy practice, but because it is the right thing to do theologically, sociologically and practically? There cannot be opt outs or our mission is morally questionable at best, oppressive at worst.
Dean goes on to recount how since the Stephen Lawrence case and its repercussions in British society since the mid nineties, that systematic changes have been attempted in the British Justice system, in the criminal justice system, especially in relation to the treatment of Black teenagers, in the policies of Stop & Search that disproportionately discriminated. Yet as Dean argued:
Why is the church not at the forefront of speaking about these issues?
The church has been good at speaking about Poverty – in relation to Make poverty history in Africa, About Poverty in regard to Food (foodbanks), about financial poverty with campaigning groups like CAP. But where, as Dean argues, has there been a cry for Justice, for those discriminated against in society. It has campaigned against poverty without being poor, can it and its youth ministry campaign in terms of equality and against racism without being black? I neither want to forge a link between poverty and discrimination, as this neednt be the case – but systematic reduction of opportunity occurs in some areas, a cause of poverty, and this highly discriminatory, and often these lines are drawn ethnically. Has the church stood by- and why might this have been – did it ever think that this was its role?
and yet, for a moment i think about my own practice of youth work in the last 20 odd years;
It has to be said that up until 2004, and thinking through sociologically, theologically and practically about youth work and ministry – considering equality, anti-discriminatory practice was not even on the agenda. In the groups that i was involved in in churches, the areas that these occured, in Hartlepool mainly, were very ‘white’. I wouldnt say middle class – as Hartlepool it wasnt like that – but the working class white boys of the town struggled in the type of work that we tried to engage them with. Race wasnt the issue. Methods were.
When i reflect on developing Detached youthwork in Perth from 2008, this , if we enacted it appropriately, could be inclusive to all young people and yet, the streets of Perth were in the main dominated by young people who drank alcohol in large groups of ‘white’ working class young people again – and the same is the case in Durham now – without the alcohol. We did see some small groups of black young people in Perth, and we found it difficult to engage with them, they werent regular. It wasnt that we didnt want to – but the opportunities were difficult to emerge. The dominant groups dominated.
In a way this isnt the point of the article – Dean isnt asking for personal practice introspection – but in a way that is what he has caused me to do – to think – have i rejected being involved with a group of young people on the streets, or speak to groups in open club settings because of race, or prejudice? how have i been less inclusive than i could have been, or took a stand against racist language in conversations with young people on the streets? – i do remember we tried to engage a polish group and started to learn russian, but we never saw them again.
The question i reflect on further is that in my own practice – thinking about equality, anti-discrimination at a basic level only occured when at ICC, Glasgow we thought further about Power and Opportunities for young people, and thought about systems, social constructions of ‘youth’ and youthwork as a philosophy based upon community work and inclusive values. When id previously worked for churches as a volunteer – the thought of fairness or inclusion was barely a back thought, the only concern was teaching the young people about faith, whoever showed up. I wonder if voluntary youth ministry has changed much?
What Dean is asking for, is that the church has something even more imperative than ‘just’ youth & community work values to uphold its work (though its a helpful starting point) – it is that fundamentally God requires us to look on humanity with his eyes. To look at each other as humanity as neighbours, as brothers and friends, to share in this global world experience where neither rich, poor, slave or free is separated from the love of God. This imperative gives the church adequate reason to challenge systems that oppress because to be free is to flourish, and prophets of old challenged the systems. Yet i would hope that the church hasnt bought the narrative of fear of speaking up.
As i have suggested elsewhere, the church, and youth ministry has a call to be practical and prophetic. As Vanhoozer argues (2005), it has a responsibility to break down walls of separation between itself and the world, and to speak prophetically in it, and work at dismantling these structures, sometimes the structures of its own practice that discriminate. Heaven will not be white, and Praise God, we might need to get used to it now.
The Vitriol tolerated in the media that has been borderline, decidedly and explicitly anti-human, let alone Racist, in the lead up to and subsequent to Brexit, and the American election, is reason enough for thinking that church even more now has a role in the rebuilding of community, an alternative kingdom community reconciled.
When a leading youth pastor claimed in Youthwork magazine that youth workers were of less quality, much was responded to and written in anger, response and defence. We took our own position seriously and defended the profession, or agreed with him.
Deans article is deeply globally, socially, theologically and practically more significant.
This is about the way that the church responds to inequality, racism and prejudice and what appropriate responses are to structures in faith communities- and the community at large where there is discrimination. About youth work and ministry amongst young people that doesn’t discriminate, and adjusts its practice so that it is inclusive. It affects how we view our shared humans on and in this global world, it is about who Jesus would be fighting for the freedom of right now, and where liberation not further judgement is required.
The sin of ommission may have been also applied to Deans article. Theres an irony. so if you want to read it a copy is here: ywmag_nov2016-1 (permission granted by the author)