Faith in Action: A Pastoral Response to Racial Injustice 

By Cassandra Ogbevire

According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z is the most racially, ethnically diverse, and progressive generation. Gen Z has witnessed many historical and cultural moments that I believe have shaped their social awareness such as the election of former U.S. President Barack Obama, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the shifting of gender norms and identities, and always-wired connectivity (via social media). 

Despite Gen Z’s justice-oriented collective worldview, their adolescent years have been marked with unique challenges that have significantly impacted their mental health. Gen Zs are currently navigating a global pandemic, experiencing traumatic events such as mass school shootings and gun violence, and are developing uncertainty about the future due to drastic climate change and social injustices. In 2022, nearly half of Gen Z (47%) told Springtide they were moderately or extremely depressed, 55% reported being moderately or extremely stressed, and 45% said they were lonely. For Gen Z BIPOC, their mental health crisis is exacerbated by the above-listed traumatic events and daily experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination. Springtide data reveal that one salient protective factor for Gen Z BIPOC’s mental health is their faith (over half of BIPOC youth said their faith has supported their mental health, 58%). 

A new report from Springtide Research Institute entitled Navigating Injustice: A Closer Look at Race, Faith, & Mental Health is the culmination of a year of research and explores why and how faith matters for Gen Z BIPOC’s mental health and what faith leaders can do to help.

One major key finding from Navigating Injustice is that young BIPOC wish their faith leaders would address racial injustice from a pastoral perspective. Springtide data reveal that Gen Z BIPOC are slightly more trusting of organized religion, with 33% saying they trust organized religion a lot or completely, compared to 29% of White young people. This finding suggests that faith leaders play a significant role in the lives of Gen Z BIPOC and they should leverage their influence to support Gen Z BIPOC especially as they search for answers to make sense of their existence and their agency to make the world a better place.

Now more than ever, young people of color have an expectation of their faith leaders to not only acknowledge social and racial injustices but also share ways their faith can serve as a transformative tool of change.

In one of the study’s interviews, Lauren, who is 15 years old and Asian American, explained the importance of faith communities speaking about social injustices that impact her generation: “If you’re trying to follow a faith that doesn’t speak about things [such as racial and social injustices] that could affect you personally and probably a lot of the other people within that faith, [that’s] something that I believe should be talked about.”

Brigette Nelson, Filipina and age 22, told Springtide that during the protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020, 

I remember being appalled by the lack of empathy that church leaders had regarding my racial identity and faith identity. In conversation I would hear statements like, “We’re a family of believers; that’s what matters more than skin color,” or “I hear you but I think that people with darker skin colors have it worse.” These statements felt tone deaf and dehumanizing. At the time, I felt that my experience and internalized angst was invalidated and deemed unworthy for basic compassion. 

I now know that some of the faith leaders that I worked with didn’t understand my racial and faith identity were intertwined together. To invalidate my racial experience was to also invalidate everything that I was (physically, spiritually, and emotionally). It prompted my own questions of, “If my racial identity (how I look, upbringing, traditions) is meaningless to God, then why is it so ingrained in everything that I do? I know that my faith leaders were well-meaning but I felt like a wall came up between us after that encounter.

As Christian leaders who work with Gen Z BIPOC, we should strive to teach this generation Jesus’s teachings about justice but also how to live faithfully as Christians who seek justice through their faith. Jesus sets a high standard for social justice by challenging the status quo and cultural norms that isolated individuals by ministering, healing, and fellowshipping with individuals society viewed as social outcasts.

For many young people of color, their heart for justice is intertwined with their own experiences facing injustice on account of their race or ethnicity. They are hoping they can process these experiences in faith communities, but they need faith leaders to help set the table. One way that faith leaders can do this is by engaging in practices that ask young people, not just young BIPOC, to reflect on how their important identity or identities create meaning and purpose in their lives. The conversation should include reflection questions like:

  • What are some experiences or identities that are central to who you are? 
  • Can you think of a time when those experiences or identities were acknowledged? 
  • Can you think of a time when those experiences or identities were celebrated? How did you feel?

These conversations should seek to empower young people, help them claim their identities with dignity and pride, and see these identities as one part of the wholeness of their personhood.

Though Gen Z endured a unique set of challenging circumstances while they came of age, they need not be defined by these struggles. Dr. Sarah Farmer, associate director at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, wrote in Navigating Injustice that while faith communities can and must acknowledge these challenges, they are also capable of providing hope-filled narratives of BIPOC forebears who were faith-filled agents of change:

The stories of faith leaders model what it’s like to be unashamed of one’s ethnic or racial identity and unapologetic about one’s faith. These stories model struggle, lament, and resilience by people who look like our young BIPOC. These narratives help restore the historical memory of our young people in a framework that demonstrates a mutual faithfulness— the faithfulness of our forebears to hold the torch in challenging times as well as God’s faithfulness to provide the necessary courage to persevere.

Young BIPOC recognize the power of faith to sustain them through pain, rejection, and loss. The question that now remains is whether faith leaders will provide a space for them to tell their stories and continue the journey.

Cassandra Ogbevire is the 2022-2023 BIPOC Research Fellow at Springtide Research Institute, working closely with Associate Researcher Nabil Tueme to understand social phenomena that impact Gen Z’s transition into adulthood and how they make sense of their identities. Cassandra is a graduate of Spelman College and is currently earning her master’s degree in divinity at United Lutheran Seminary.

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