Footprints: How Jesus Uses Youth to Carry Us from Division to Unity (an Interview with Isaiah Brooms)

February is Black History Month. At Rooted, we’ve started asking ourselves an important question: How can we equip parents and other leaders of youth to help their teens foster authentic interracial relationships, as part of God’s design for his kingdom? We thought we’d begin this journey by taking the posture, first and foremost, of listening. For the next three days, we’re thrilled to share with you a conversational interview between our editor-in-chief, Charlotte Getz, and African American Rooted contributor, Isaiah Brooms.

Isaiah is the Director of Youth Ministry at Restoration Anglican Church in Arlington, VA.

CHARLOTTE: Isaiah, I’m so excited to be having this conversation with you. And honestly, I want to take a minute to invite each of us not to tiptoe around things.

ISAIAH:  You’re right — this is hard to talk about! Race is deeply a part of American identity and faith. The church body as a whole has created and perpetuated racial division throughout our history as a country. We have walked away from easy opportunities to connect to others, and instead have built internal systems that mirror the separate but not equal sentiments of the past.

CHARLOTTE: Thank goodness we’re having this long overdue conversation! I know you grew up in inner-city Chicago — Cabrini Green — which you’ve said used to be known as one of the worst places to live in America. Can you describe your church there?

ISAIAH: My church was an all-black Pentecostal congregation, St. Luke’s Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I.C.). The makeup of the congregation was split more in regards to financial demographics than anything else. The people who lived in my neighborhood were financially struggling and comprised about 75% of the congregation. Then you had people who would drive in from the “suburbs” of Chicago, more affluent neighborhoods. Those individuals were clearly in a more stable financial situation than the rest of the congregation. They also tended to be members of the clergy and/or held “official” positions at the church.

Those financial demographics, though stark, played very little in the way of worship and faith. There was a lot of common ground that seemed to impact everyone’s faith journey the same way. I think that’s where race came into play. The most obvious similarity we all had was our race. Chicago has always been a polarized city in regards to racial diversity. It has been called a melting pot, but it’s probably more like a salad. Races don’t generally mix that well; instead they wall off in their own communities, interact well with others, but don’t mix the way a soup would. My church was positioned “uniquely” in downtown Chicago, in the wealthiest part called the “Magnificent Mile.” We were also two blocks from Moody Bible Institute. Regardless of that, we as a church didn’t seem too concerned with reaching out to those who lived in the Magnificent Mile or those who attended Moody (mostly white people). Perhaps the church thought outreach like this would stretch us beyond our abilities to comfortably serve the spiritual needs we were familiar and comfortable with. Or perhaps it was a race thing on both sides. It is hard to truly say.

CHARLOTTE: Looking back, would you have wanted to engage the white/privileged/Miracle Mile/Moody folks at all? It’s totally okay and understandable if that answer is no.

ISAIAH: Yes, as a kid I wanted to engage the people on the Magnificent Mile very much.  Even though they were only a few blocks away, it troubled me that our worlds seemed light years apart. I really wanted to get to know the people at Moody Bible better as well, since they were Christians and some of our clergy were taking classes there.

CHARLOTTE: If you were the youth pastor at your old church now, how would you try to cross that divide, practically? And why is it important?

ISAIAH: This is a hard question to answer because there was not, and I’m sure there still is not a “youth pastor” role at the church I grew up in as a child. The closest thing to a youth pastor would have been the Director of the teen choir. I think a better way to put the question might be to ask, if you were the person with a great deal of spiritual influence and direction over the youth at that church, what would you do to bridge the divide?

The easiest way to do that would be to start with taking our youth to visit other churches located in the area we were hoping to meet new people. One of the great things about being a Christian is that, theoretically, everywhere you go on the face of the planet, you should be able to walk into a Christian church and be on common ground with everyone there, regardless of race or method of worshiping. For example, if I were the Director of the teen choir, one of the requirements would be that we would spend one rehearsal a month going to a church vastly different than ours to worship with them and sing praises to God with them. That exposure alone would start to tear down walls that both stereotypes and the media have built up. From that point, we would try to make some connections with members of the choirs at those churches and see if there were opportunities that made sense for us to connect more deeply. Perhaps we would invite them to come hear us sing, or we would invite them to come and sing for our church one Sunday.

The point being, once the walls come down, you can see very clearly the avenues and roads that lead to authentic connection.

CHARLOTTE: What was your “youth group” like, without a youth minister?

ISAIAH: I went to two different “youth groups” when I was younger (k-8th). One was at my church in inner-city Chicago, and the other was at an after-school program called C.Y.C.L.E. (Creative Youth Center for Learning and Education).

The Youth Group at my church was led by members of the clergy and volunteers, but wasn’t what most people would brand “youth ministry” today. It was comprised mostly of Sunday School lessons, VBS in the summer, and our version of the Boys Scouts, which we called, “The Sanctified Scouts.” The other youth group I attended was called “Sunshine Band” (which met at C.Y.C.L.E.). I think it was either led by students from Moody Bible Institute or members of “The Jesus People” movement. Sunshine Band was my first time truly worshipping with Christian people who weren’t black. We learned the same stories as I did at church, but instead of a tambourine they played a guitar, and instead of singing the songs the way I knew them, they sang them with a different tone and rhythm. It was a tad confusing, and as a kid I wrote it off as the people not knowing how to sing the songs the “right way.” Little did I know it portended a deeper separation within the church, one that went all the way to the way we sang lyrics. However, what was cool for me was that the stories of the Bible were all still exactly the same, even though the faces of the people and the way the story was told changed.

CHARLOTTE: Was being a part of the Sanctified Scouts a positive experience?

ISAIAH: I thought the Sanctified Scouts was a fun twist on the Boys Scouts, but it also sent the message that either we weren’t going to be allowed in the Boy Scouts, or we just chose to be separate from that organization. Regardless of the political feelings that were happening, the message I received as a kid was that something was either wrong with the Boys Scouts or something was wrong with me and the other Sanctified Scouts. Since the Boys Scouts are heavily dominated by white people, it was easy to infer that race was the deeper issue and not theology or doctrine.

CHARLOTTE: Do you feel like there were some missed opportunities among these different programs?

ISAIAH: Yes, the missed opportunities for my church’s youth group and Sunshine Band to connect are so obvious to me as an adult. I imagine the adults at the time were aware of it too. I am so saddened that Sunshine Band was held at an after-school center and not at my church. That hurts me deeper than the Boys Scouts issue. My church knew that C.Y.C.L.E. existed because most of the kids attended the program after school, and the distance between the two were no more than five blocks. My guess is that they would also have known that a group of white Christians were teaching us there. What a great chance to connect with one another and find a way to work together! It was a missed opportunity and I cannot say it was all because of race. There were certainly other factors at play as well, mainly classism and fear; two issues that transcend race. What was clear is that even though we spoke the same kingdom language, Christ did not seem a strong enough common ground for differing religious organizations to meet and find unity. That makes me saddest of all.

CHARLOTTE: What was the mission of Sunshine Band? Did you make friends of other races in this context? What were the challenges there? Do you blame your church or The Sunshine Band for that disconnect?

ISAIAH: As an adult, I actually ran into one of the people who ran Sunshine band and he commented that the aim of the group was to reach out to my community specifically. I personally didn’t make any new friends of different races during my time there. Sunshine Band did not facilitate that well. Again, if they had combined with my church instead of the community center, they might have been successful. I think the community center had a vibe of being almost the extension of a resource, not a place to find deep community. I actually hold both my church and the Sunshine Band at fault for the lack of communication. At some level, Christian organizations working in the same neighborhood must be aware of what the other is doing and seek ways in which the Holy Spirit may be prompting them to come alongside one another in that work. That simply didn’t happen in this instance. Again, this is another story of a missed opportunity to form relationships on the common ground of Christ’s life impacting and transforming the lives of the children in Cabrini Green.

When it comes to building real relationships with kids of other races, the experience that was the most impactful for me was when I spent my first summer at a camp in Wisconsin. This camp, Camp Highlands, was run by an amazing Christian couple and was tucked away in Sayner, Wisconsin. The winter before I went, someone at my school in Chicago asked me if I’d be interested in a Summer Opportunity of A Lifetime (SOAL) and of course I said yes. Before I knew it, I was on a bus to Wisconsin and I literally didn’t see another black person until I came back home three months later.

When Scott Sauls spoke at the Rooted Conference about his new book, I loved how he expanded on the idea of why it is important to know people who are not the same race as you. This experience at camp taught me that “common ground” is everywhere with everyone. Sometimes what has to happen is going to a place where no one looks like you. You have to find common ground in a place like that, where you have no place to retreat back into the cultural norms you are accustomed. At this camp, we met on the common ground that we were all boys, we all wanted to have a good time, and we were all sleeping in cabins in the woods. The same mosquitos were devouring us, we ate the same food, wore the same camp clothing, sang the same songs, and experienced the same challenges. There was no outside culture and no familiar neighborhood to retreat to, only the experience of what lay before us and who was next to us. My experience at Camp Highlands was an authentic one, and as a result it was deeply impactful to me. Speaking only for the experience of my family and my friends, Sunshine Band didn’t get “rooted” in the community enough to have the kind of impact that resulted in lifelong friendships. They seemed to just come in, do their thing, and then they left.

CHARLOTTE: I may be totally off-base here, but it seems like many of the all-black churches I know of don’t tend to have a typical youth ministry. In my mind, this is because they do intergenerational ministry really well. But can you speak to this? Am I wrong? What are the benefits and/or draw-backs of not having a ministry specifically geared toward youth?

ISAIAH: My experience growing up in inner-city Chicago informs my answer to this question. I in no way at all speak for the state of African American church families everywhere. I wish there were youth ministries happening at a high level in all-black churches. I wish that role was one that churches saw as important enough to make an official staff position, and to pay someone to step up to the challenge. The problem is that the challenge a person in this role would have to face is immense.

In 2017 America began to wake up to some social issues that were specific to the African American experience: racial profiling, mass incarceration, questionable execution of justice, the school to prison pipeline, etc. Those experiences have ravaged the African American family structure and resulted in most of the children of fathers incarcerated to be raised by mothers, grandparents, or the streets. The kids who live under those systems also face a psychological and spiritual battle that almost strips them of the opportunity to truly just be kids. So, on one level, a traditional youth group probably would not be attractive to someone who was forced to grow up early because, at a young age, the world was already treating them as an adult, incarcerating them as an adult and expecting them to behave as an adult.

I was raised by a very pious mother and two incredibly strong and God-fearing Godmothers. They would take me to the intergenerational meetings (I liken them to small groups) where people would sit around and talk about the things they struggled with, sing songs, talk about what they were thankful for, do Bible lessons, and then create ways to step into the community to help with needs. Those intergenerational meetings followed a pattern you could liken to the structure of some youth groups (without all the games, sugar, and pizza). As an eleven-year-old, I identified at a deep level with the conversation 40-50-year-olds were having because their stories were, for better or worse, my story as well. Sometimes I even had very relevant things to add to the conversation, and they would affirm and encourage my comments.

If youth ministry is going to work in the kind of African American experience I grew up in, the youth have to be completely unplugged from the community and taken to a summer camp so that they could receive a gift: the gift of their senses being shocked by an experience they probably have never had before, safety. The kind of safety that allows a middle or high school student to be exactly what they are, a kid.

During that period of time at the camp, the Youth Pastor would then have a great opportunity to do a lot of things that looked like a traditional youth group. In that scenario, it would work really well. The problem is that when the camp ended and the students began their drive back home, the armor would reappear, and the childhood and youthful curiosity about God would fade and be replaced with the reality of their circumstances. What would be ideal, but expensive, would be for this camp experience to be something that happened three-four times a year. It would also be a great opportunity to integrate races in a safe and authentic way.

A youth pastor in that scenario would have to realize that one of the last vestiges of the innocence and freedom that is being denied their student is able to be expressed and captured through art. This is why I think we see a lot of dance ministry at black churches, strong gospel choirs, and strong musicians. It is why I believe Directors of teen gospel Choirs are, on an unofficial level, Youth Pastors at heart.

Visit tomorrow, for the next installment of this remarkable conversation with Isaiah Brooms.

Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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