This weekend, I got to spend a few hours with a bunch of United Methodists between the ages of 13 and 18 along with various mentors, youth leaders, event planners and pastors. The event is called Youth Strike for Christ, and I was asked to lead a session titled “My Name is Justice.”
I have been reading and watching a lot of amazing things recently involving young people: an interview with Malala Yousafzai, a speech by Madison Kimry, a response to a culture of meanness and bullying by Jeremiah Anthony of West High School in Iowa City, and an amazing project by Katie Meyler whose foundation, More Than Me, is taking on child prostitution in Liberia. Like John Stewart, I am left with an idea of “I don’t know where you come from, but I am glad you are here.”
So I decided not to spend time telling my groups about injustice, unfairness, and the United Methodist Social Principles. Instead, I invited them to speak from their own hearts and experience; to start imagining ways to respond, and to name the things that may be holding them back. Because the power to make change does not reside in the hands of others. It lives inside each and every one of us, and when we invite the Holy to inspire us, we can rely on that change to be good.
Issues they see in their schools, towns, churches and world: racial discrimination, judging attitudes, terminal illnesses among young people, a lack of respect for the gifts we have (taking abundance for granted and disregarding the cries of those who go without), loneliness and a lack of meaningful work and community building for young people, hunger, poverty, inadequate education opportunities, inability to dress for success, lack of clean, running water, war, lack of respect, rudeness, illicit drug use, alcoholism, misuse of aid offered in good faith, unprotected and premature sex, pregnancy among peers, drug dogs and security cameras at schools, cynicism about people (hard to have faith in others); strong pressure to participate in behaviors which are not good for us (social drinking, drug use, mean-spirited relationships), depression, suicide, potential violence (bomb threats and hit lists: wars and rumors of wars).
Some strategies they proposed: find friends to stand with you; take it one step at a time (don’t try to fix the entire situation); collect “nice” suits and shoes to offer to people who may need them for an interview, etc.; talk to everybody; don’t avoid personal interactions with people who say mean or judgmental things about you-directly address their behavior as it relates to you; overcome your own F.E.A.R. (False Expectations Appear Real); go to the Bible and see what is said there; grow deeper in your own faith so that you have hope, courage, and endurance for the “bad” stuff around you; use the lens of faith and the example of Christ to look for the positive transformations that are happening, rather than focusing on the “few bad people.”
Some costs to doing any of these things that they named: it is hard work and there are other things we may rather be doing; you may lose your friends; you may lose your life like Martin Luther King, Jr. did; you may have to give up family; by crossing the line and spending time with people [who are doing drugs], you might be pressured to behave like them, or teachers/parents/others might start distrusting you-think you are doing “bad stuff” even when you aren’t, what you try might not work
Some reasons why you would do something to change “the whole mindset” of a school, town, or church: you will be respected; you will have respect for yourself; you will reflect God out to the world; you will lose your fear; you wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore; people who are struggling wouldn’t have to work so hard; people could have dignity, people could have more choice
Some of the gifts I witnessed: respect, caring, engagement with one another, willingness to make room for strangers, giggles, awareness of people who are weaker, poorer, hungrier than they are, supportive and positive interpersonal actions, desire to be of benefit to their community, diversity (of perspective, socio-economic class, and background), leadership, gentleness, shyness, patience, grace, energy, earnestness, confidence, knowledge of the Bible, personal relationship with Jesus, depth of commitment to their community and a desire to meet that commitment through their youth groups/church, readiness to participate in hands-on mission and service, knowledge of Imagine No Malaria, sophisticated opinions regarding economic and political realities, empathy, self-discipline, strong work ethic, positive and supportive family structures and connections, strong self identities, sweet dispositions, sense of set-apartness (Christian identity as a special identity they have in common)