Earlier this month, the North Carolina Conference hosted its annual Pilgrimage event, a time when several thousand middle and high school students come together for a weekend to hear from speakers, worship together, and enjoy fellowship. This year a group of young Latino students from a church that has hosted one of our clergy breakfasts also attended. During that event, people from varying perspectives were intimidated and made uncomfortable. As we have seen repeatedly throughout our country post-election, people on both sides were made to feel unwelcome due to the color of their skin and their varying beliefs about immigration policies. While Pilgrimage should be an event focused on the transforming love of Jesus Christ, many of the attendees (both white and brown) felt unwelcome and some made the choice to leave the event. While I lament that this became a bad experience for many of the youth, I hope that it can be a teachable event for all of our churches and a catalyst for change.
The church is called to stand on the side of justice and amplify the voices of the marginalized. While some see these events as being blown out of proportion, the church must be a voice for the voiceless. In the midst of the confusion and anger following the election, Christians are called to treat one another, even those who don’t agree with us, with love, kindness, and respect. And to do this we must consider how our actions affect others. The church should be a safe space for everyone and creating safe spaces means considering diversity and inclusion. We need to acknowledge and thank those who are different from us and welcome those who are in the minority. Immigrants are not a threat to the church. They bring a wealth of gifts, knowledge, and experiences to our sacred spaces. While becoming a more multicultural church can be difficult, it is essential for the vitality of our faith communities. To increase diversity, we need to work on building relationships and telling our stories. The North Carolina Council of Churches continues to provide tools and resources to help build those relationships across differences and to provide platforms where people can tell their stories and have their voices amplified.
This experience highlights that we have yet to overcome racism in our church. I am well aware of this because I see it in the work that I do at the Council (usually subtly but occasionally overtly as well). For white people, it can be especially difficult to talk about racism; for people of color, it’s unavoidable. Confronting privileges and questioning the way that larger systems (economic, educational, judicial, and yes, religious) were created to serve white people while oppressing people of color is difficult and uncomfortable. However, we have to do it, now more than ever. The church needs to be having these difficult conversations with people of all ages. We need programming (both in youth conferences and other events) that trains people to think about racial justice and equality. We need worship services that do not alienate certain groups or merely celebrate other cultures on specific Sundays. We need to come together in Christian unity to regularly honor the traditions, stories, and histories of diverse worship styles in order to make our church stronger. Because if we aren’t able to have these conversations in our churches, we will not be able to have them outside church walls.
In an effort to begin having these conversations about immigration and immigrants, we are working on a new edition of our Bible study curriculum: Becoming the Church Together, specifically for middle and high school youth. We hope to have that digitally available in the coming months. If there is enough interest, we are also able to print hard copies of these. Pre-order your hard copies here (and adult versions can always be ordered here). We hope that this educational curriculum can help youth groups across North Carolina begin discussing racism and xenophobia within a non-threatening, secure environment.