Being A Brown Face Youth Worker In A White Church
This post is part of a feature series highlighting insights, encouragement, and inspiration from many of our speakers at this year’s National Youth Workers Convention in Tampa, FL. To join us, these speakers, and thousands of other youth workers, register today!
It was one of those rare Sundays that the youth pastor gets to preach (usually a holiday). I get off the stage sweaty, but I’m feeling good that I handled God’s Word in a way that honored Him and my zipper wasn’t down the entire time. It felt like a real win for everyone. This was the second time in my entire life that I got behind the big pulpit on a Sunday morning. I was fresh out of Bible college and grateful for these rare opportunities.
I headed to the lobby of the church where it was customary for the preaching pastor that day to shake people’s hands as they walked out. I got a lot of encouragement from people. They said my message was encouraging, challenging, and engaging. It was all going so well until a man about 15 years older than me came up to me and said, “Good sermon, but have you ever thought about shaving your beard?” I smiled and said, “Not really, I kinda like it.” As he was shaking my hand he pointed at my beard and said, “You should really consider shaving it. You look really Muslim with that beard. You won’t be able to do much in ministry with a beard like that.” I smiled and said, “Ha! I will think about it,” and then he walked away.
I laughed, not because I thought it was funny. I laughed because I was uncomfortable and felt like I couldn’t tell this man that this off-hand comment was racially insensitve. To insinuate that my longevity in ministry was contingent to not looking Muslim was insulting. However, I was 23 and I needed this job and this guy was a deacon of the church.
I wish I could say that was the only time I felt uncomfortable in church for being a person of color but sadly it is not. For as long as I have been saved, I have been in predominantly white churches, and for as long as I have been alive, I have not been white. Being a person of color in predominantly white churches has always kept me having, as W. E. B. Du Bois coined, a “double consciousness.” Meaning that I have my own awareness of who I am, but how I also consider how I am being perceived by my white colleagues and congregants.
As I have moved to a church that is intentionally and unapologetically multi-ethnic, I have been able to lower the double consciousness and be (no pun intended) a bit more comfortable in my own skin. However, occasionally, well- intentioned people will say something they don’t realize is subtly racist or post things on their social media that is racially insensitive towards others who look like me. I think as long as there’s sin in the world, this will be the struggle all ministers of color will deal with.
A youth worker asked me recently what I wish I knew going into ministry when it came to being a person of color in an all white church and this is what I said:
DON’T ALLOW PEOPLE TO TREAT YOU LIKE THE TOKEN
There are times when people of color are invited into certain spaces, not based on their skills or competency, but in an attempt to give the impression of diversity. They will bring people of color in to fill out certain roles that are forward facing to everyone. In other words, they are a token. My feelings have always been this: If I am brought in as a token minority on a stage, I will leave with you being impressed by my competency and hard work. That may be the enneagram 3 in me, but I refuse to only be allowed into certain spaces because I bring diversity. I want to be there because I have earned it. So take token lemons and turn it into lemonade. It is by grace alone that you are where you are. Make the most of any and every opportunity to flex God’s glory in those moments, even if someone is using it as a marketing scheme.
DON’T LET YOUR INSECURITIES CAUSE YOU TO OVERCOMPENSATE
There is this tension that people of color feel when they are in predominantly white churches to either fulfill the caricatures of their race or ethnicity. We will dress or talk a certain way and say little comments to make it very clear that we are not a part of the dominant race. We sometimes double down even if it isn’t really how we normally are. The other side sees people of color quietly strip themselves of the beauty of who God has made them racially, ethnically, and culturally. So, in an attempt to assimilate with the prominent culture, you may act a certain way during your work hours that you normally don’t act when your guard is down.
God in His sovereignty, wisdom, and creativity has made people with their unique story, context, and culture. God did not bring you to your church body so that you could be exactly like what is already there. God has placed you there to add your unique story to the beautiful story that is being woven together in that church. If a church has brought you on to serve, Lord willing, they should see the real you and not an overexaggerated version or a water-downed clone of you. God has already designed you exactly as you are for you to serve in your community.
FIND FRIENDS OUTSIDE YOUR CHURCH
This is true no matter what. Youth ministry is tough, regardless of the color of your skin. Being able to be candid about what is going on in your life and in your church is vital for the longevity of your ministry. I have found having community amongst other youth pastors is a unique brotherhood and sisterhood that can’t be found anywhere else. This is why I am excited about NYWC. Being around other youth workers who get what I am going through and that I don’t feel any sense of competition or needing something from me is what I need often.
In my experience, as I share some of the difficult experiences I am facing and needing to seek advice (or even vent) has been super helpful to keep my head up in youth ministry. I feel like even my white brothers and sisters in youth ministry have been supportive allies who get it and want to help and see me succeed even if they can’t empathize completely. Youth workers just get it sometimes even when no one else will. I can’t explain it.
Friends, hang in there. When it is tough, hang in there. When someone says something that offends you, hang in there. Your worth is not in the approval found in others,but it is found in Christ. Your consistency and grace will not return void. You are changing the lives of the next generation. Through the Lord’s help, as students come to Christ, their minds are being transformed and are paving a new path where this kind of racial tension can be slowly chipped away.
We are the body of Christ and we are better together. When people of every race, ethnicity, and story are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, we get a taste of what Heaven is going to be like.
My friend Karl Romeus and I will be at this year’s National Youth Workers Convention in Tampa, Florida. We’ll be doing a breakout on this topic that is for youth workers that are of color and that are not. We will be having a candid conversation about this and we want you there. We will be meeting at 2pm on Saturday. The conversations in our breakout will be helpful for everyone in youth ministry. I hope to see you there.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.