White Supremacy and Youth Recruitment

September 20th, 2017

About two weeks ago this banner was placed above an overpass in the small city where I live and work.  A friend of mine posted the picture on Facebook on their way home from worship on Sunday morning. They were so shocked that they pulled over to capture an image of the folks on the overpass. The individuals on the overpass were only too happy to have their photo taken and to snap one back in return. I’ll get to why this matters to a youth worker in just a second.

If you read the banner carefully it says, “Bolshevik Jews perpetrated the Holodomor.” When I first glanced at it, I thought it said “The Holocaust.”  The Holodomor was the Ukranian Famine of 1932-33 carried out by Communist Russia against ethnic Ukrainians. It killed between 10-12 million people. What is so troubling about this is the fact that Vancouver, Wa. (where I live) has a huge Ukrainian population.  Many of the Ukranians are Pentecostal and evangelical Christians that came here seeking greater religious freedoms and economic opportunities. This banner was a bald attempt, albeit a small one, by folks with white supremacist views to convince white Ukranians in my community that the suffering of their ancestors was in fact done at the hands of Jews. It is blatant hate and anti-Semitism and I doubt the hatred of these individuals extends only to Jews.

This moment was the first time it really occurred to me that as a youth worker I might need to be concerned that there may be folks in my community attempting to recruit white teens in my community to ideas of hate.

I think many youth workers have seen the headlines about youth recruitment from ISIS and various terror cells in disenfranchised immigrant neighborhoods in Belgium and Southern France and wondered how someone could do that to a teenager. It seems unfathomable to those of us that love teenagers and work/serve them every day.  And of course we know why it works.

Many of the Muslim youth in those enclaves I mentioned feel disenfranchised and caught in an economic dead end. They are societal outsiders. They are vulnerable to messages that make them feel powerful and in control, messages that make it seem like their life has deep transcendent meaning and power. Some of us have rightly recognized these dangers at our own camps and conferences when we have criticized or poked fun at camping experience where kids function on minimal sleep, amazing amounts of group think, and high sugar intake and then are asked to make a serious religious commitment somewhere between Thursday and Saturday. They are different animals to be sure, but if we are honest they have some common DNA.

The point of this is that I was struck by the fact that I could very easily see some of my teens that I have worked with being susceptible to this kind of racist/bigoted thinking or at least lesser versions of it. It might be surprising to see them some day at a rally with torches, but if I am honest I cannot rule it out.  I have often been pleased and surprised with who the teens that I have temporarily stewarded have turned out to be, but there have been a number of times that I have been horrified that a student who was so regularly exposed to the love of Jesus and his teachings in the gospel could turn out so violent and hateful and have at least found temporary connection with our fellowship. At the very least it feels incongruous and like a failing on the church’s part.

It was only a couple of days after seeing this banner that I came across two articles featuring efforts to recruit youth to violent action.   One featured a group with Antifa ties and the other ties to Right Wing violence. The side of the aisle doesn’t matter all that much in this case though I do not regard these groups as mirror images of one another. What matters is that we need to consider within the scope of our teaching as youth workers that there are people actively trying to get students in our communities to hate and perhaps incite them to overt and subtle acts of violence.

But, in a time of increased polarization, we don’t just need to consider people recruiting students in terms of terror or terrorism. There are also all sorts of more benign ideologies that are encouraging teens to think in myopic and insular ways that exclude the rule of love and demonize their neighbor.  I think as youth workers we have some obligation to teach and disciple in ways that overtly oppose these kinds of efforts. Some of those efforts are happening within the church universal.

So how do we do that?

1. We need to tend to the outcast.

More often than not students that are recruited to ideologies that are harmful and destructive are students that feel like outcasts. We need to provide responsible communities of meaning that give students identity, relationships with healthy adults and empowerment in ways that are healthy.

2. We need to teach students nuanced truth.

It’s time for American teachers and preachers to remember that we serve a God who often gives us the truth in ways that are filled with dynamic tensions. Jesus is both God and Man. We are to be sly as foxes AND innocent as doves. Most of Jesus’ teachings are not very rule specific. Yet our culture, whether secular or religious, seems remarkably puritanical in its thoughts and arguments. I am continually frustrated online with our intellectual inability to see and own the holes in our arguments. Everything seems to take an us and them attitude. How will we teach our students to stand for what they pray and perceive to be truth in a way that seeks out where their neighbor (who is not their enemy!) is right also? Have we lost the ability to see the eventual absurdity of even our best lines of reasoning? Are we so sure that we have it all nailed down?

3. We need to preach love and live love.

I don’t even want to qualify this. We need to teach our students about love, but also practical techniques related to prayer and reflection on how to be more compassionate and loving. We also need to regularly ask whether our community models this love in tangible action on an individual level.

4. We need to offer economic hope.

This one might seem crazy, but one of the key factors in recruiting teenagers is finding those that are economically vulnerable. I think the church needs to figure out how to reach better into economically vulnerable communities. If we want to bring good news and be good news we will need to help people economically. This is not a new idea in Christianity. Some have suggested that one of the hallmarks of Charles Wesley’s ministry was that he quite accidentally helped England avoid violent social change through gospel-based economic uplift. We are trying on for size a youth ministry that engages the larger economy in our community. We need to remember that poverty is a breeding ground for vulnerability when it comes to things like ideological recruitment and human trafficking. And if we are honest most of our youth groups are more geared toward upper-middle-class white kids. How will we actually reach into the places where vulnerable students live?

5. We need to encourage adults to be in relationships with teens.

When I was in college I was a fairly intelligent student with a good amount of wherewithal. And yet, I would acknowledge that even in that situation, I was pretty vulnerable to some of the appeals to emotion that were all too regular at my campus ministries. Teens have trouble seeing past the veneer of things because they just haven’t lived enough life yet. We need healthy adults who can help them sort through what is real and what is an attempt to recruit into unhealthy modes of thinking or even hateful one.

Matthmatthew overtonew Overton is a full-time youth pastor and a youth ministry innovator. Check out his organization YOUTH MINISTRY INNOVATORS for more information.


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