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How Young African Americans are Fusing Faith and Activism

And how the church can help nurture their desire to integrate spirituality and social justice in fresh ways.
How Young African Americans are Fusing Faith and Activism
Image: Scott Olson / Getty Images

In the course of her research into adolescent spiritual development, Almeda Wright has heard numerous stories and testimonies from young African Americans experimenting with new ways of relating spirituality to their protests against racial injustice. Her book, The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans, explores what this population can teach the wider body of believers about integrating faith and activism. Chicago-based writer Nilwona Nowlin spoke with Wright, assistant professor of religious education at Yale Divinity School, about how the church can better equip, engage, and embrace young African Americans in their faith journeys.

How would you sum up your work studying the spirituality of young African Americans?

I’m trying to give serious consideration to the voices and stories of young African Americans, who are facing all kinds of challenges. But in the midst of those challenges, they have something to teach Christians and the world at large: a way of being Christian that requires us to rethink some of the disconnects between our love of God and our love of justice, or our ability to talk about personal spirituality without also talking about social transformation.

For me, that’s the core. I use a lot of terms like “pushing them towards an integrated spirituality” or “pushing us to a vision of abundant life.” But at the core, without using that Christianese, I’m really saying that in order to walk with African American youth and young adults in more helpful ways, we need to bring these realms back together.

There’s often an assumption today that young African Americans involved in that “other” realm, as social justice activists, are not orthodox in their Christianity. What do you make of that assumption?

I’m trying to add complexity and nuance to our discussions of black Christian social witness or black-church activism. We all have a tendency to “re-narrate” our past. One of the ways we do this is by saying that the black church was all about civil rights when the reality is that it wasn’t. Certainly, some black churches were actively preparing young people to engage in the civil rights movement by providing theological frameworks for their work, but other churches were adamantly opposed to it. In some ways, we’re seeing continuations of that.

In this current generation of African American youth and young adults, we can’t assume that their activism is going to have any connection to the church. That’s not the majority, at least. In the book, I offer historical and contemporary models to these young activists who want to be Christian and activists.

In the book, you write about the issue of fragmented spirituality among young people. How new is this phenomenon? And is it only experienced by adolescents, or will it follow them into adulthood if not addressed?

Spiritual fragmentation is not necessarily a new concept. It’s discussed as early as 1903 by W. E. B. DuBois and 1909 by William James. DuBois’s idea of “double consciousness” is one example of this fragmentation. James talks about the “sick soul” and the “divided self,” which is another example.

I’m seeing these things among Euro American and Asian American youth in different ways, and I’m also seeing it among adults. The old adage says, “Adolescence begins in puberty and biology, but it ends in culture.” Because some of the cultural markers of adulthood are shifting, where adolescence ends is also shifting. So, some of the spiritual questions and crises you see among 12- and 13-year-olds are also present among 25- and 30-year-olds.

The hardest thing to hear about spirituality among young African Americans is that they’re getting exactly what we teach them. Fragmentation isn’t something that they’re inventing. In some ways, we’re modeling for them this kind of compartmentalized life.

How can seminaries prepare church leaders to better address the problem of spiritual fragmentation?

This is the million-dollar question! I see it on so many different levels. On the administrative side, we need to make space for youth workers in seminary. In terms of pedagogy and the classroom, I have always seen my classrooms as laboratories. That metaphor sounds a little strange, but I have a science background. I set up the room, the “lab,” with my greatest hits, in terms of who I think we should read. But I always leave four or five weeks in the semester where I have people tell me what they’re currently reading. So, for instance, what’s something you’re read that brought you to seminary? What was the pamphlet or handbook that someone gave you when you said you wanted to be a youth pastor? We put all that together.

People bring a rich set of resources to the classroom, and all we can really expect to do in seminaries is to enhance them. There is a level of deconstruction that happens in seminary, but there also has to be a place where we affirm where you’re coming from and help you build on that. In my class, we talk about the arc of practical theology. We start with the important practices, we do rigorous theological and biblical reflections on those practices, and we always push toward the goal of improved practice, improved community, and improved lives.

We need to teach seminarians that process. I think that’s where we’re sometimes failing youth workers and pastors. We’re often saying: Let me give you all this content and not actually give you a process for reflecting on it in light of your context, your practices, and what it is that you want to do.

You suggest that “the fragmented spirituality of African American youth is not simply a symptom of adolescent development or choice, but may be a byproduct of the educational resources presented in African American churches.” Have you seen any improvements in these educational resources?

It hasn’t been consistent, but I have seen some improvement. For example, Urban Ministries Inc., the African American publisher of the curriculum I analyzed for the book, has hired young seminarians who are thinking about what it means to be both a worker of justice and a faithful Christian. You can see the difference this makes. When it comes to core elements like attention to social justice, rigorous theological reflection, positive images of African Americans, and positive images of young people, I’ve seen improvements, but no one is knocking it out the park.

One of the things I teach in my religious education course is how to review curriculum. Of course, I remind my students that no curriculum will ever be perfect. The woman who runs our ministry resource center uses a cookbook metaphor. This is helpful, particularly for African Americans, because we don’t cook anything strictly by the recipe. We switch ingredients around, add our own spice, cook it a little differently, whatever we have to do.

How can African American youth help improve the educational resources being presented to them?

There are a couple of different roles that they can play. For example, they can share their thoughts with publishers and pastors, but it requires publishers and pastors to listen. The young people want to talk, but we don’t always listen. Black youth and young adults generally have something to say, but they often feel like what they say is not validated and affirmed by others.

I’ve actually seen African American youth stepping up. They are not waiting for someone to create something for them. They’re creating poetry, they’re doing music, and they’re articulating new understandings of spirituality. In other places, I write about the gifts that young people bring to the church in terms of really expanding what it means to live a life of faith. It’s not that they are creating new creeds or using new Scriptures, but they interact with these practices in ways that are amazing. This is what their version of testimony, witnessing, and evangelism looks like.

In the book, you spend some time “excavating the theology” embedded within spoken-word pieces written by young African Americans. How can creative arts aid in their spiritual growth?

I’m both surprised and encouraged by the extent to which young African Americans are doing creative art in community. I’ve noticed that the arts have become another source of communal life and spiritual formation that I think churches and even youth groups have lost. In a different generation, youth group or sports teams might have played that role. I remember listening to some of the kids talking about their writing groups and poetry troupes and saying, “If it wasn’t for this group, I don’t know if I would’ve survived.” That’s powerful and scary at the same time. They are searching for spiritual formation and communal belonging and finding them in places that church folks might consider unlikely.

How do we tap into that? How do we honor the creative arts and the ways they bring people together? It’s amazing to think about providing young people with the form of a lament or a prayer and then inviting them to create their own the way they do in poetry circles. Can we do this instead of expecting them to learn through rote memorization? For example, we show them what a psalm looks like and have them write their own. It may mean that they’ll write psalms that say, “God send a Mack truck to smite my enemies.” Do we have room for that? Because sometimes they do need to have room to pray, in essence, “I don’t get it. I don’t like it. This isn’t fair.” We have such a nice and clean Christianity, but I think some of the poetry and creative-arts groups create space for questions.

Creative arts are also essential just for wholeness and well-being, especially for people who historically have been marginalized and oppressed. They can function as catharsis and healing, and I see that with these young people and the poems they’re writing. It’s given me fresh insight into their theology.

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How Young African Americans are Fusing Faith and Activism