As part of my role as Kaleidoscope Coordinator with BMC, on July 21st I joined 1200 youth and 600 advisors at the Church of the Brethren National Youth Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. BMC historically has not been granted entrance as an organization, but I was pleased to attend as one of the advisors for Common Spirit Grand Rapids Church of the Brethren, to which I extend the utmost gratitude. The following reflections are framed by my experience engaging with the conference as a small group leader as well as connecting with other advisors. Colouring my reflection is the fact that I was an outsider in both the Brethren context and more broadly Christian youth conferences.
I met a number of amazing advisors from SCN (Supportive Community Network) congregations who were visible by their rainbow lanyards and offered helpful support to both queer and straight youth. There were a number of workshops and presenters that were brilliant and opened up opportunities to discuss systemic oppression in concrete ways. It was clear that the conference was carefully organized, with much attention to detail that helped things to run smoothly.
I also met a large number of queer youth who voiced their gratitude at having BMC and SCN visibly present. That being said the visibility we had, in my opinion, was not enough. The quiet conversations, while important, were not enough. Queer and other marginalized youths’ needs should have had a more integrated and normalized presence that was woven into all aspects of NYC. Much of my reflections and critiques stem from needs I saw reflected in both substance and structure of NYC. Below are some of my main critiques:
Lack of a consistent connection between faith and action.
Many of the sermons had strong challenges to engage in the work of social justice. However, the accompanying music, skits, and scriptural reflections often did not support that message. This was true both within the worship services as well as within the curricular materials. This incongruity allowed for the challenges named, especially those about racial justice, to be either lost or minimized.
High levels of emotional manipulation throughout the week.
Emotion can be a powerful motivator, but it felt as though many of the worship services created paths towards shame, guilt, and sin-seeking redemption rather than strength-based empowerment.
Lack of resources to equip youth to engage with their home communities using the teachings from NYC.
Many of the sermons had calls for engagement and social justice. These messages culminated with Jarrod McKenna calling for radical justice work from the youth, a message that was well received. While I appreciated this message, I noted that there was a lack of resources during the conference to actually train and develop the skills that youth would need to be effective change makers. This makes it much more likely that the youth will fail at creating the change that excited them at NYC once they are home.
Although the white evangelical agenda of nationalism, Doctrine of Discovery, etc was not presented overtly, it was also not overtly challenged. This silence brings the danger of reinforcing some of these ideologies, and is particularly harmful to those groups most marginalized by them.
Lack of recognition of systemic oppression by NYC planners with respect to how safe space/positive space was constructed for LGBTQ participants.
Brian Flory provided to conference leaders a list of ‘LGBT inclusive adults’ who could be called upon for support by youth and advisors. But rather than have the list broadly available, which would have sent a strong message to all convention participants, the list was in the hands of only NYC organizers and counselors, who did little to draw attention to it. This conveyed a secretive discomfort that reinforces hiding, rather than normalizing strategies to support a minority group -- in this case LGBTQ participants.
The following recommendations come in no particular order, with some harder to achieve than others. Even if implementation is unlikely, I think that is important to practice individual and collective visioning so that we can challenge ourselves on what can be achieved within a church that celebrates queerness and blackness, one whose backbone is rooted in radical love and justice.
Limit number of adult advisors present in order to allow youth the space to engage with each other.
I was disturbed by the way that adults would dominate conversations and prohibit constructive conversations about race or gender among the youth. I experienced this mainly in my small group where advisors would take over conversations which limited youth in sharing diverse perspectives.
Think critically about the theology that is being explored both in sermon and music.
Prioritize inclusion and justice within the compelling vision process and open space for more youth engagement with that visioning.
Have clear goals in mind and strive for them. These goals should include but are not limited to:
Strong connection to radical biblical justice
Diverse and representative staff and NYC Cabinet.
Strong youth leadership for NYC
A culture that encourages exploration and strength and develops the tools and skills needed to make change happen.
Create avenues for youth to be able to challenge structural inequalities present within NYC. For example, there were no openly queer youth involved in any aspect of visible leadership.
Create trainings and resources so that the more radical calls to action of the speakers can be enacted on at the local context with church support.
Need for marginalized youth to be-able to vision what transformed future could look like.
I found hope in many of the speakers that were able to break the silence and talk about racial and social injustice. These message resonated with many youth to whom I spoke, primarily queer youth and youth of colour. It makes me grateful for the SCN congregations and youth that are visioning a church rooted in justice and inclusion, showing us what is possible. Ultimately NYC should reflect the collective visioning of youth, especially those on the margins.