An Open Letter to Youth Ministers – Eric D. Barreto

Eric D. Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary writes to youth ministers.

DRAFT—Please do not circulate without author’s permission.

Dear Colleagues in Ministry,

We have a problem. This problem has a public face. This problem becomes evident when we reject refugees fleeing from horrors we can barely imagine, when fellow Christians look at these neighbors with fear and a mindset of scarcity. This problem becomes evident when we worry that letting “them” into this country will mean there won’t be enough for “us.” This problem becomes evident when we note the disproportionate ways people of color encounter the police and justice system, when too many Christians simply refuse to believe the witness of our black neighbors unless there is video evidence. And even if there is video evidence, too many still wonder, “What if he had just followed directions?” This problem becomes evident when immigrants are labeled not as people but as rapists, murderers, animals.

We have a problem. That problem has a public, political face. But that’s not where I want to focus in this letter. That would let us, ministers of the gospel, off too easily. Because though this problem has a public, political face, it also has a theological, ecclesial face. Behind that public, political face are purportedly theological, supposedly biblical interpretations of who God is and who we are as children of God. A false theology of scarcity permeates our politics. A false theology of difference has misshapen us and our politics. A false theology of the shape of welcome has led us astray. A false theology of belonging has constricted the bounds of who “we” are and who “they” are. A false theology of joy has instructed us to guard my people, my stuff, my identity against perceived threats all around. A rising tide of cynicism and mistrust has created a God who looks less like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and more like a God of vengeance or wrath or resentment. This problem has a theological face.

We have a problem. And the problem is this: even as our communities, our neighborhoods, our nations are being transformed by demographic change, our theology and our reading of Scripture have lagged behind. We have not spoken with theological and biblical force into the ever diversifying places in which most of now live our lives. We can speak politically or ideologically about our differences … sometimes. We can lift up the value of tolerance or political correctness. But we have failed to speak and preach theologically and biblically about our differences far too often. And in this theological and biblical aphasia, we have neglected to attend to the joys of belonging, the shape of identity, and the ways both interlace in the lives of young people in particular. In a nation and world increasingly marked by quotidian encounters with racial and ethnic differences as well the complexity of racial and ethnic identities spurred by young people embodying multiple ethnic identities, the traumas of exile and migration, the constant negotiation and construction of identity performed in digital spaces, a vibrant biblical and theological imagination around difference, belonging, and, yes, joy proves utterly necessary.

I remember a colleague wondering what faithfulness around race and racial equity looks like today. His children in a major metropolitan area were nearly always in diverse spaces: at school, at soccer practice, running around the neighborhood, at the grocery store. The one space, the only space where his children faced racial and ethnic homogeneity was Sunday mornings at church. He wondered what the faithful thing would be. Was it to remove his children from these vibrantly diverse spaces so they can learn the faith, worship God in a community that, yes, loves his children, but simply does not reflect the world God is crafting today?

So, here’s the basic argument I want to make: our differences are not a curse that afflict us, a punishment God has meted out. Our differences are not a problem to solve despite the many times church conversations about our changing neighborhoods suggest otherwise. How can we get these new people to come to our church?, we ask. We wonder why they won’t worship us. We tend to treat our diverse neighbors as a puzzle or problem to solve. What if instead we saw the diversity of the emerging generation of youth as a gift God has brought us? What if they are the very people who will help us see how our churches need to transform in order to lean into God’s future? What if the future of God’s church is not convincing them to come to us but in daring to hope that God is already birthing a new church in their precious stories?

Our differences are no curse. Our differences are locales of joys, mediators of joy, multipliers of joy. Our differences are a precious gift from God, a gift we have tended to corrupt, yes, in our lives, in our reading of Scripture, in our ministry. But let me be clear. Difference is no affliction. Difference is no problem. Difference is no curse. Difference is the playground of God’s gracious creativity. Difference is a widening aperture for human imagination. Difference is possibility and hope and a future laid out before us. Difference, in short, is a gift from God.

1. Race shapes all kinds of ministry

On August 9, 2014, a young man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. I heard about this shooting that very weekend because African American friends and folks I follow on Twitter were sharing their reactions of anger, fear, resignation, protest. I went to church that next day in a predominantly white congregation. Not a word was spoken about Michael Brown, about Ferguson because the story was not yet national news. CNN wasn’t on the scene just yet. The eyes of the nation hadn’t turned to Ferguson. Not a word was whispered about Michael Brown that Sunday morning at that church because folks just didn’t know the story. In contrast, there were many churches in this country where Michael Brown’s name was spoken like a lament, an unrequited prayer. This is the theological face of this problem. In some churches, it was another Sunday. In other churches, it was more like Good Friday.

Race shapes to whose stories and to whose experiences we pay attention. Race shapes what we feel compelled as ministers to share with our communities. Of course, this is not entirely lamentable; ministry is a deeply contextual matter. What is lamentable are the yawning gaps in experiences between various kinds of communities. How might youth ministry help shape young people of faith who have an ear to the ground in their own communities but also in diverse communities too? How can we help nurture a curiosity about the joys and plights of diverse neighbors as a spiritual practice of followers of Jesus?

One important step may be for us to interrogate our book shelves, our favorite ministry websites, the conference speakers to which we turn for wisdom. We ought to interrogate our social networks and our pastors groups. We ought to interrogate our media consumption. In all these cases, whose stories, whose worries receive the privilege of our closest attention? How might a broadening and diversifying of our resources help shape the kind of youth ministry that will equip faithful people who yearn for, seek after relationships that cut across racial differences.

One word of caution in this work: be careful not merely to collect other people’s stories. We don’t collect the stories of people we love. We don’t merely display our awareness of other stories so that we can demonstrate how “#woke” we are. Instead, we treasure such tenderly, hold them tenderly because they are so very precious and powerful.

2. Race shapes how we read Scripture. We need others to read with us.

The truth is that we never read the Bible by ourselves. As Michael Chan and I have written,

No matter where you are, you are not reading the Bible by yourself because we always carry with us traditions and cultures and relationships and experiences that have shaped us. Some of that shaping we can recognize easily and understand. We are aware of some of the biases we carry, some of the prejudices that shape our reading of these ancient texts, even if we would prefer not to admit them. However, much of our molding as people and readers happens more subtly, entering our reading of the Bible in ways that might not be visible to us. There are assumptions we bear that we cannot identify, fear identifying, or incorrectly deem an advantage instead of an obstacle. To use biblical language, we always read as part of a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) who accompany us at every turn of the page.

And furthermore,

Knowing who we are when we read the Bible is not just a matter of protecting ourselves from our worst biases. This acknowledgment of our locatedness, of the limitations of our particular perspectives, is also good news. Sometimes, even many times, our cultural location means we miss certain parts of the text or interpret it in ways that oppress others, but it is also true that our communities and our perspectives are vibrant locations of the Spirit’s moving.

Our vision of Scripture may be narrow, even destructive, but it can also be rich and fruitful and liberating. You and your communities will see things that others will miss, and in that way your perspective can be a gift to your neighbor, revealing what was previously obscured to them and demonstrating new paths for following God’s call.

That is, what if the presence of diverse readings of Scripture are not a problem we need to resolve in order to reach the one correct reading of Scripture? What if different ways to read the same text are not a bug of the interpretation of the Bible but a characteristic that reflects the divine creativity God established in creating and multiplying languages and cultures and peoples?

3. Racism has misshaped our assumptions, our theology.

Notice I have written “race” before and “racism” now. The difference is important. Racial and ethnic particularity, language and culture are gifts of God’s creative and multifold creation. The imago dei is multicultural, multilingual, multiracial. Our differences are a gift, but we have tended to take this gift and turned it upside down and inside out. Instead of treasuring our differences as glimpses into God’s grace, we have misused them as cyphers for inclusions, ways to exclude.

In our theologies around race and ethnicity, we have been fed with colonial imagination. Colonial imagination assumes ownership of the world, its resources, its peoples. Colonial imagination even imagines ownership over Scripture and its interpretation. Colonial imagination assumes there is mainstream way to read these complex, biblical texts and then variations on it we label Latinx or feminist or womanist. Colonial imagination assumes there is “theology” and variations from “theology” that require adjectives like Black, liberation, queer but never white or male or Western. Colonial imagination dominates lands, peoples, conversations. Colonial imagination draws on fear to lead us to imagine that there is not enough to go around, that welcoming them means rejecting us. Colonial imagination sees life as a zero sum game, where some will be always be winners and other losers.

Such a colonial imagination has fed us a lie. We own the table to which we invite others. We are perpetual hosts; others are perpetual guests. Hospitality is something we give, rarely something we receive. Simply put, a colonialist imagination forgets what it means to love. But Jesus wants to free us from this colonial imagination, liberate us from its narrow constraints, its binding chains. Jesus wants to set a new table before us. A table where the food never runs out. A table where this is always one more chair. A table where I am ever a guest to others, ever a host to the same.

4. The Bible can give us a renewed imagination for difference, an imagination that can fund ministry among young people that see difference as a gift, not a curse.

In Acts 2, the Spirit empowers the disciples to proclaim the gospel in all the languages of the world. Every person gathered in Jerusalem heard the good news of Jesus in that language of their hearts, in those words their mothers had whispered in their ears as babies. Notice that God did not ask them to learn a new language in order to hear and heed the gospel. God learned each and everyone of their strange, difficult, complex languages. At Pentecost, God makes a decision to meet us exactly where we are. All of us. No matter what language you speak, God speaks to you. No matter what culture shaped you, God meets you there. No matter who you are, God looks into your eyes and speaks words you can understand.

A new language is a hard thing to learn, so notice again what God does at Pentecost for your and for me. God does not ask us to learn a new language. God does not create a new, perfect language that everyone can understand. God does not make us learn God’s language.

Instead, God learns and speaks in the many languages of the world. God learns and speaks in all the complexities of our languages. God learns and speaks the languages that will most touch our souls, that will most clearly communicate to you and to me and to everyone else the wonders of a God whose love knows no end.

If Acts is a blueprint for the church, then we are stuck with a problem. I certainly cannot speak all the languages of the world. Perhaps no church can speak as directly to a multitude of people as God did at Pentecost. But what if God does do something even more extraordinary, even more miraculous at Pentecost? What if God does not create a precise model for church together? Instead, what if God sparks an imagination in you and in me? An imagination that wonders in what ways God is speaking the good news to neighbors that are different than me. What is God expressing to them something that I cannot learn on my own, in my own language? What will these diverse neighbors teach me about God that I could never know on my own?

Here’s the point. Difference is a gift from God for us. Difference is a gift when we hear new stories from our neighbors. Difference is a gift when we realize the world is bigger, more complex than my neighborhood, my state, my country. Difference is a gift when we read the Bible with neighbors who see the world very differently than we do. Different readings of the Bible are a gift. That is, when faithful people read the Bible together and differently, the Spirit shows up in a mighty way. What if the Bible can mean many things to many people? What if reading the Bible is not about finding the one right reading of the Bible? What if reading the Bible is about delighting in the many and often surprising ways God has been faithful to our diverse neighbors? What if reading the Bible is not about getting the right answer but about what happens when we share life and Scripture with one another?

Pentecost suggests to me that we need diverse neighbors in order to read the Bible in all its fullness. We need diverse neighbors in order to lean into the faithfulness God is calling us to embody. So, what does this mean for you and for me? It means that when we look around at our neighborhoods, our nation, our world and see more and more diversity, we should not worry. These are not burdens. We should not see diversity as an obstacle on the way to becoming the church God wants us to be. In fact, God calls us to be different and to love our diverse neighbors.

It means noticing that difference is not a problem that we need to solve but the very place where God acts most powerfully. The problems we face today are not because we are different, because we are of different races and genders and orientations. The problem we face is that sinful and dangerous proposition that our differences are a way to figure who belongs and who doesn’t, that our differences are a way to tell some people “Welcome” and others “You have no place here.” This is what we call sin. Taking a gift God gave us and turning it inside out and upside down. Our differences are a gift from God, ways in which we can see God’s mighty acts of grace. And we have turned them into ways to exclude instead of love. We have taken the gift of our differences and distorted this precious gift. Our differences are meant to drive us toward one another in love and curiosity and hope. Instead, we have made our differences into divisions marked by fear and apprehension and hopelessness.

Scripture can give us a different imagination for our lives together, especially how we live and love along lines of racial and ethnic difference. What imagination for difference might youth ministry help energize? We may notice the large chorus of biblical texts who are already contending that faithfulness, difference, migration are inextricably woven. Experiences of exile and a search for identity are part of the grammar of the stories of God’s faithfulness in the Hebrew Scripture and New Testament alike. And for those reasons, the call to welcome the stranger, the other is consistent if not unanimous in the Scriptures. There is a narrative coherence to Israel’s welcoming of strangers and others, for Israel too wandered the wilderness, Israel too was enslaved, Israel too tasted the bitter hope that sustains a people in exile.

The Bible will not provide a simple answer to the complex questions about race and difference in its intersections with joy we face today. Yet it does provide an imaginative key: a welcoming God embraced all kinds of people from all kinds of place. That God did not just tolerate the stranger but made the stranger kin. Think for instance of the way tables and food are not just places and sources of nourishments for Luke’s Jesus but sites to imagine God’s wide embrace of all kinds of people. Think about the dinner with Simon the Pharisee the woman who is called a sinner woman crashed. Think about the feeding of the 5000. Think about Jesus’s bold self-invitation to Zacchaeus’s house. Think about the road to Emmaus when two followers of Jesus did not recognize his face or his voice or his teaching but only saw Jesus when he did the most Jesus thing he does in all of the Gospel of Luke: he broke bread and shared it with his friends. In Lukan grammar, we might say that the reign of God is like the tables Jesus joined and then transformed. These are tables of abundance and generosity and welcome. There is always more food. There is always one more chair. And the dinner guests? Well, they are a motley crew of sinner and righteous, stranger and kin. I’ve recently seen on social media a church sign reading, “When you have more than you need, don’t build a higher fence, build a bigger table.” At that table, God’s embrace of me and my neighbor is clear. If that’s the table God has set before us, then how should we welcome others into the tables God has given us. Better yet, what does it look like for people in dominant cultures to be included in the tables other have set? Again, Luke does not give simple instructions for such lives lived together. But he does spark an imagination of what could be because, in Jesus, God has already made it so.

We have a problem, my friends. That problem is not our differences. That problem is not our diversity. That problem is a lack of theological imagination, an unwillingness to see the world the way God sees it. Help your youth, help us, help me see the world just a bit differently.

Blessings in your ministries,
Eric Barreto