Hearing BIPOC Young People During Times of Crisis

An Interview with Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin:

Connect Journal: We’ve been living in a pandemic for over a year, accompanied by uprisings, protests, and heightened awareness of and actions against systemic racism. How do you think ministry leaders can be tuned into the ways COVID-19 is intertwined with the lives of BIPOC people?

Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin: The first thing about this question is to reframe our understanding of the pandemic. People have been talking about this year of pandemic as a new anomaly in our world, and as it related to the COVID-19 virus, that is true. But the reality is that there has been a pandemic upon pandemic upon pandemic through which BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) people have been existing for generations. The Poor People’s Campaign refers to the pandemics that we are currently living through as the pandemics of racism, militarism and environmental destruction. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the American Psychological Association made the “bold statement” that racism in this country is a pandemic. The pandemic of COVID-19 is an added layer to these already existing pandemics that have been brutalizing and through which communities of color have been existing for generations in this country. 

So as ministry leaders, I think it is vital to be sensitive to the ways we express our individual shock and horror in the presence of folks who have been enduring these multiple pandemics for so long. Pay attention to the generational relationships of our students. Young people who live in multi-generational homes are likely subject to higher levels of caution. Young people who are close to grandparents but don’t live with them, may be suffering a deep sense of loss of connection. Multi-ethnic families are managing complex dynamics of differing experiences within their home. The statistics will tell us that any BIPOC young people in your context are more likely to know and/or be related to someone with a critical COVID outcome. 

The best way to tune in is to listen, not just to your people, but to a broad array of news, culture and theological resources.

CJ: What insights can you share about how ministry leaders who are white can effectively support BIPOC children, youth, and families in their churches and communities?

PPA: It may sound simple, but the most important thing I feel that white leaders can do for BIPOC children, youth and families is to see them and believe them. It utterly breaks my heart when well-intentioned leaders who identify as white say things like, “I treat all my kids the same” or “we don’t see color here.” While the aspirational goal of measuring people by their character is lovely, not seeing the wholeness of an individual’s identity means that we also don’t see their struggles or joys. 

As an example, I was recently reminded that incidents like the mass shootings in Georgia are going to impact someone who is Asian and adopted into a family that identifies as white in a unique way, because the victims look like them, but the murderer looks like their family. If we insist that we don’t see their racial or ethnic identity, we will miss the trauma and pain that is presently being experienced. 

CJ: What message do you want to share with the BIPOC ministry leaders in the ELCA who are leading ministry with children, youth, and families?

PPA: You are loved. You are love. Your experience is true. I pray for you daily. For the most part, our church wants to do better. If I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t still be here. Know that your presence in the lives of young people is part of how we change the culture. It’s so important for all young people to see people like you in leadership and authority. We are better because you are here. AND you BIPOC leaders do not need to be the pedagogical tool for your church to learn about systemic racism. Take care of yourself. Find colleagues you can trust and volunteers who will partner with you. Know that God’s call for you is beautiful, wherever and however you serve.

CJ: You have found creative ways to include your own kids in your pastoral ministry. How have you seen children and youth involved in ministry during the last year?

PPA: The ministries I have seen thriving in this past year have been the ones in which children and youth have a tangible ownership stake: Peer Ministry, Youth led Sunday School (in my setting we call it Children’s Church), Youth Group gatherings where they set the agenda and the like. My kids were the loudest advocates for the continuation of Children’s Church in our congregation, largely because they are teachers and they missed “their kids.” As teachers for the youngest members of our congregation, they are keenly aware of how important regular interaction is to long term memory and relationship. They have no intention of being forgotten. 

CJ: How would you encourage ministry leaders to think of ways to include young people in ministry even though they still cannot gather in the usual ways?

PPA: Our young people are much smarter and more faithful than our congregations give them credit for. Be willing and ready for any and all of their suggestions. Set the table, open the space. If your youth are the ones building the connections, they will be deeper and longer lasting. The task of the youth leader is to unearth from the young people the ways that they connect. Some groups are driven by social connection, some are driven by fun or adventure, some are driven by mission, some are driven by a passion for justice. Nurturing their passion over your own is key. In the end, our role as ministry leaders is to see them as God’s beloved, to listen to and believe their stories, then point them in the direction of being the hands and feet of Christ, to each other and in the world.

Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin (she/her) is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, a congregation that takes seriously their calling to be a Sanctuary that is Open and Affirming of all per-sons of every gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability, age and status, while aspiring to be AntiRacist, knowing it’s a journey not a destination. As a mom of 3 amazing humans and in partnership with her spouse of 20+ years, she lives into her call to justice and love by serving on leadership teams for Diver-sity, Youth Ministry and the arts throughout the ELCA, as well as with regional ecumenical partners and within her children’s school.

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