4 Ways to Talk to Youth About Racism and Injustice

By Aaron Buttery, C4SO NextGen Leader, Anglican Church of North America

*This article was originally published on the Diocese of Churches for The Sake of Others Website and is being republished with permission from the author

Friends, I have spent the past few weeks praying and discerning about how to tackle the subject of injustice, racism, and unrest through this platform and my words have not been able to collectively come together. While I am still leaning in and learning, thankfully, Aaron Buttery’s words impacted me deeply and I think they will do the same for you. Aaron’s goal is to equip and help youth ministers’ talk with their students about these subjects; I love that he focuses on asking questions, leaning in to listen and learn, and praying first and foremost. We may be divided as the Church at large about how to respond “well” to these issues, but what I’m positive of is that Aaron’s suggestions do so with the fruits of the Spirit. May we mostly remember that the only thing that separates us from those we are likely to condemn is the very grace of Jesus Christ…. that He is the only hope that will save our world and that we must be biblically transformed from the inside-out, rather than societally transformed. Jesus is where we start and He is where we end.

-Sammie Gallo, Creator of Abundant Life: You Were Made for More


“They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

Jeremiah 6:14

My emails, letters and even text messages conclude with the word “peace.” It is part proclamation and part prayer for the situation I am writing about and for the person to whom I am writing. I began this practice, a small discipline, in September 2010. For 10 years I have consciously signed my name under the word peace, and for good reason. But it took a conversation with the Rev. Teesha Hadra, a friend and member of the C4SO NextGen Leadership Team, following the death of George Floyd to realize that I had been saying “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

As youth pastors, lay or ordained, we know and love the responsibility of raising up the next generation of disciples and godly leaders. We revel in seeing a young person say yes to Jesus. We delight to hear a student stand among friends and proclaim the gospel. We can be brought to tears hearing a youth pray aloud for the first time. The few years we have with a student may be their most formative and set the stage for their life of faith.

Sadly, many of us fail to broach the topic of racism with our students and engage it as a key formational opportunity. The most painful statement I have heard from church leaders is “I will wait for this to fizzle out before saying or doing anything.” This is a clear statement of disregard, fear and misunderstanding. Issues of race, injustice and social unrest are not meant to be a one-time topical study or series. These crucial conversations are intended to take place over the course of our ministry so young people know that racism and injustice have no place in the kingdom or in the lives of those who follow Jesus.

Here are 4 ways to talk about racism and injustice with the young people in your care.

1. Understand Catechesis Goes Beyond the Catechism.

Catechesis is not just the formal instruction from the catechism, but the ongoing formation experienced in liturgy, teaching, prayer and mission. Your willingness to address racism, injustice and social unrest will model for students how to address it as followers of Jesus. Do so with clarity, always naming when you are uncertain, need help and are learning. But do not let fear, based in uncertainty, keep you from catechizing your students.

A few questions to consider:

  • In what ways are you catechizing your students about racism or injustice—not generically, but directly?
  • How often, through teaching or the prayers, are you shaping students to see racism and injustice through the lens of the Kingdom? For instance, in the prayers of the people?
  • Have you helped your students see that mission encompasses health and justice? While mission can mean many things, how might you invite students to speak and act with gospel boldness during times of social unrest?
  • Is your student ministry raising mature Christians who can decry injustice without malice, fear or pride?

2. Build Community Connections.

Minority communities are living a daily liturgy of systemic racism while White majority communities only taste it a few times a year. Our lives take place in pockets—pockets of culture, community and country. Youth, like all of us, experience the world largely through the way their pocket experiences the world. People experience the accumulation of racial injustices, but we often experience them in ways that are influenced by the proximity and regularity of the injustice. How can we help our students realize and awaken to minorities’ experienced reality of regular and proximate injustice?

A few questions to consider:

  • How often do your students get to hear the lived experiences of those in their same geographic area who have vastly different lives?
  • When was the last time you gave the lectern, stage or mic to a person with a different skin color than you or the majority of your students?
  • How can you help your students navigate the news cycle in ways that are both local and national? Can you share from multiple news sources?
  • How does your ministry communicate the difference and intersection between social justice and Kingdom justice?

3. Invite Youth to Move Toward Empathy.

Most of us respond to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbrey (and the list continues) on a spectrum of apathy, sympathy and empathy. Some people—for lack of awareness, active catechesis, or by choice—remain spiritually or emotionally untouched by injustice. Others feel deeply for those connected or close to the experiences of racism and respond with prayers and messages of support. Still others, despite being distant from the events or reality of racial injustice, experience it with those directly and regularly impacted.

Jesus did not remain untouched (apathy) by the oppression experience by others. Jesus did not simply feel for (sympathy) those in pain and poverty. Jesus became incarnate, came close, and experienced injustice with (empathy), even if he did not experience it directly. If we are inviting young people to follow Jesus so that we may continually become more like him, how are we inviting them on a path from apathy or sympathy into empathy?

A few questions to consider:

  • Do your students pray that the Holy Spirit would awaken them and move them into holy love?
  • Do your youth recognize the difference between apathy, sympathy and empathy, as it relates to how they see others?
  • How are your students growing in their orientation to those who feel like an “other”? Similar to the way that you help bring in a new or socially separated youth, how do you help your students see those who feel like an “other”?

4. Embrace “Thick Peace.”

I am so grateful for my friend Teesha. As she walked me through the events of the last few weeks, she said, “We need to adopt a less anemic understanding of peace—that peace is thick.” This simple phrase has massive implications for me, our ministries and our students.

First, when Jesus breathes his peace onto the disciples or speaks peace to his followers, it is for people, and boldly received as for us. It is not a peace given to societies, organizations or legal systems. We are welcomed to be people of peace in a world that remains in need of peace.

Second, peace is an action. It will not be experienced outside of the animation of the Holy Spirit within each follower of Jesus.

Third, peace has a cost. It requires the humility to take an honest and healthy inventory of how each of us may promote or propagate injustice and racism. At the cost of self-promotion, peace means promoting Jesus and those who are crying out for peace.

Lastly, it is harmful to proclaim peace over a people living in injustice. It establishes a divided society. However, we can be a people of peace, praying for peace, and acting for peace.

A few questions to consider:

  • How are we teaching students to be people of peace, rather than simply passing it?
  • Have your students been exposed to peaceful activism, such as Letter from a Birmingham Jail?
  • How are you training students to know and practice the cost of peace, promoting it instead of their own self-interests?
  • How might your students love their neighbor and their God as people of peace?

My prayer is that as student ministers, we will uphold, tend, befriend and strengthen all those who experience injustice and oppression. And I pray that we will raise the next generation of spiritual leaders to begin living “thick peace” right now.

The Rev. Aaron Buttery leads and facilitates C4SO’s NextGen Leadership team and serves as Director of Student Ministry, Next Generation Leadership, ACNA. As a 20+ year NextGen ministry leader, a two-time church planter, and leadership coach with Spiritual Leadership, Inc., he is the primary contact in C4SO for questions, ideas, and excitement about young people and growing young leaders. Contact him at aaron@c4so.org.