Cultivating Spaces That Are Safe From Racism in Youth Ministry

grieving girl

Join us for Rooted’s 2022 Conference in Kansas City, MO, and learn from Dr. Michelle Ami Reyes, author of The Race-Wise Family, in a workshop on equipping teenagers to address racism. Michelle will offer insight about gospel-centered responses, sharing how youth ministers can foster safe spaces for weary teenagers.

“Racism is exhausting.” Her voice crackled over the phone, heavy with grief.

It had been a year since the Atlanta Massacre. On March 16, 2021, a white male shooter claimed the lives of eight people, six of whom were Asian women. A young woman whom I knew mostly from online spaces had reached out, asking if we could process what was happening in the world.

We talked about the rising incidents of attacks against Asian elders, and the way these attacks pierced our very souls, reminding us of how our own mothers and grandmothers are vulnerable to similar treatment. We cried together, recounting our own painful experiences of racism, the ways we had been shamed as children for the color of our skin or shunned in the school cafeteria because of the ethnic food we ate.

Then, I asked her, “How are you caring for your soul during these difficult days?”

There was a pause, followed by a long “hmmmmm.”

For many of us, it is easy to talk about racism in our country, but we don’t all know how to cultivate safe spaces or care for our souls in the midst of this problem. The struggle lies in the fact that racism forces us into survival mode. The inundation of racist incidents on the news places us into a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze. We become hyper vigilant, fearful that racism is everywhere. Sometimes, we begin to see racism even in places where it doesn’t exist. That constant fear and grief chips away at our physical and mental health. Allowing ourselves to become overwhelmed by the state of the world impedes our ability to pursue healthy relationships, to be thoughtful in our speech and actions, and so much more.

It’s no easy task to shepherd and disciple youth in our racially broken society. Many of us, whether as youth ministers or parents, are still seeking wisdom and healing on some of the biggest racial issues of the day even as we try to encourage and equip the teenagers in our lives to do the same. It’s important for us to wade into the topic of racism slowly, with nuance and care for our souls, so that we can keep Christ at the center of all that we say and do. In the days after the Atlanta Massacre one-year commemoration, what I told my young friend on the phone was that we need to find ways to rest, heal, and cultivate resilience in the face of ongoing racism, for the sake of our own souls and for the sake of our ability to healthily build God’s Kingdom in the world around us.

Amid the brokenness of our world and the pervasiveness of evil, we can encourage ourselves and the youth we shepherd to prioritize laying our burdens at Christ’s feet and basking in his presence. Racism (anti-Black, anti-Latino, anti-Asian, anti-Native American, etc.) will be an ever-present reality. The question we need to ask is: How is God equipping the youth of today to live with resilience in the face of racism?

Disconnect from Social Media

In the midst of pervasive racism, sometimes the healthiest choice we can make is to get off of social media.

When we constantly scroll through feeds on social media, we are exposed to an onslaught of stories and breaking news about racialized experiences. Reading posts from friends or national leaders chronicling yet again another racist attack signals to our bodies that we are under attack and that we need to have a fight, flight, or freeze response.

Feeling anxious, struggling to sleep, becoming irritable, or scared, or consistently sad are all signs that the reality of racism has negatively impacted our physical and mental health.

A few months ago, I decided to delete social media apps from my phone. It was the best decision I ever made. Now I only check social media once every couple of days from my computer, and I’ve noticed a dramatic change in my anxiety levels. More than that, I’ve become more present, not just to my own family and work, but also to God’s presence in the world. I’m better able to stay disciplined to reading Scripture, to prayer, and to trusting in God’s faithfulness in the midst of hard days when I’m not distracted by social media.

I’ve even found that being offline has helped me cultivate more space to rest, to go to bed earlier at night, and even to eat well! If you notice teenagers feeling the physical and mental exasperation that comes from stories of racism, encourage them to take a week off from social media and see how they feel afterward.

Talk to Someone

Let me be the first to say—as an introvert—that it can be hard to share how we’re feeling. Research from the US Department of Education indicates that Asian American college students are less likely than students within other racial groups to seek out support services.

Many of us were taught growing up that talking about mental health and seeking therapy are admissions of weakness and/or failure. Perhaps you were told that if you ever had struggles of any kind, all you needed to do was pray more (and prayer is certainly important!). But because we don’t want to bring shame on ourselves or our families, we stay silent. We bottle up inside what we’re feeling and what’s happening with our bodies.

Processing how we’re doing with someone is important. In fact, it’s necessary. God created us for community, for carrying each other’s burdens. As youth ministers and parents, we can be the first to encourage our teens to consider seeking  out a counselor or therapist. Perhaps a teen needs to hear from you that it’s ok to take medication. These are God-given resources created for our good.

Even if they don’t go to a therapist, or can’t afford one, encourage your students to find a few trusted friends they can speak to; friends who understand them, who will listen to their pain, and journey with them. As a leader or parent, ask a trusted fellow believer if he or she can check in on you regularly, to see if you’ve eaten today, and to regularly ask, “How are you coping?”

I have a few friends who check in with me on a weekly basis (and vice versa) and, during the heavy onslaughts of racism, their consistent presence, prayer, and encouragement has helped me through some of the darkest days.

Cling to Jesus

One of my core Bible verses is Psalm 119:50, which states, “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” Clinging to Jesus and clinging to God’s word has literally preserved my life throughout the experiences of racism. In the midst of bearing the weight of so much pain, I’ve found that the greatest point of relief and healing has come from laying my pain at Jesus’ feet.

It’s so important for us to regularly step away from the threats and pains of this world and to pray, as it says in Psalm 147:3, for God to comfort our broken hearts and heal and bind up our wounds. Whether at church on a Sunday morning or during mid-week gatherings for youth group, consider creating time and space for your youth to have time alone with God. In your own daily rhythms, create a space for retreat—whether it’s your bedroom, your backyard, a special spot on a nature walk, a nook at your local library etc.—to spend time with Jesus.

Encourage your youth to spend time in prayer or journaling, being open and honest with God about how they’re doing. Have them ask themselves questions such as: What emotions are laying heavy on my heart? What thoughts keep running through my mind? How has the pain of racism impacted the choices I’ve made  in my daily life?

 It’s okay that this vulnerability might sting. God cares about what you’re going through; he cares about what your youth are going through. He doesn’t want you or them to carry the burdens caused by racism alone. Lay your cares at his feet and believe that when you pray, “Lord, heal me,” he will begin a process of healing within you. God has raised you as a leader for such a time as this, to lead teenagers into a place of healing and joy, even in the midst of racism, and it starts with simple intentional steps.

Michelle Reyes

Michelle Ami Reyes, PhD, is an author and activist. Her first book, Becoming All Things, is the recipient of the 2022 ECPA award. Michelle writes at the intersection of multiculturalism, faith, and justice. She and her family live in Austin, TX.

More From This Author