The gigantic, cream-colored fellowship hall at the old Methodist church was filled with tables and chairs made into a square, with a row of chairs behind them like an observation gallery. That’s where I sat. A few months earlier, I asked the pastor if I could join the church’s governing board. He said he’d ask a few people, then let me know the board was going to take up the issue.
The issue was that I was 16-years-old. A year earlier, I went on fire after reading a booklet called “Youth Involvement in the United Methodist Church,” or something to that effect. The year was 1990, and I had started working for our neighborhood nonprofit as a drama teacher. Reading this booklet, I decided joining the church’s governing board was a logical extension of the my newfound voice that would give me a chance to express my opinions, ideas and knowledge about what would be right for the church that I loved.
This was no ordinary church, whatever your idea of that might be, and I didn’t feel like any ordinary church youth. Instead, Pearl Memorial United Methodist Church in North Omaha, Nebraska, was a mission church established to serve a once suburban congregation that was struck hard by white flight, where the transitioning neighborhood around it looked more like tales from the 21st century Detroit than any sense of a bucolic Midwestern city pumped full of the American dream. The surrounding neighborhood was predominantly working class and low-income residents, and my family belonged there.
I struggled to belong in my neighborhood though. As a goofy white immigrant kid from rural Alberta, Canada, I wore cowboy boots and corduroy pants in a school where other kids were were Air Jordans and parachute pants. Pearl Church was filled with old white people who’d refused to move from the reverse-gentrified neighborhood, and survived off the energy of post-hippy young parents who wanted to live radical faith, and saw the church as a logical extension of their Christianity.
Not understanding their faith, I marched into that room full of church elders and made the case for why I should be allowed to join that board. My lack of knowledge about the Bible and the Christian faith didn’t hold me back; I was driven by determination and zeal. I made the case that since I was the senior patrol leader for the church’s scout troop; since I volunteered in many of the church’s ministries; and since I was young, I could provide a voice that was missing among the group, which was a voice of youth.
The church had never had a youth member on their governing board before. In this era, it was brash for a teen to ask to represent themselves or other people in these types of setting. To that effect, I distinctly remember Paul, one of the resident WWII veterans, immediately scoffing at the preposterous idea that a kid should be a leader in the church. After being dismissed from the group to so they could discuss the issue, I heard back later in the week that I wasn’t allowed to join the board.
Holding that United Methodist Church booklet in my hand, I wagged my finger and sighed in response. Soon, the pastor of the church invited me to get involved in worship services, and within the year I’d preached my first sermon. In addition to working with one of those radical post-hippies to start the church’s youth group and recruiting my friends to attend, I got involved in the district youth council which covered all of Omaha, and was invited to represent the district youth at the state conference. After that I was invited to annual regional youth gatherings for a few years, and when I was 18, I got to attend a national youth conference. All of these were honors that didn’t escape me.
However, that first sting of awareness that I was seen as less-than-worthy because I was young never left. The excuse given to me for my rejection was simply that I was too young. They didn’t say I didn’t know enough and they weren’t overtly rejecting my abilities or lack thereof. The reasoning was solely dependent on my age. This became part of the energy that fueled my decades-long quest to build youth power throughout our society.
These days I’m beginning to understand (again) how these experiences from my own youth inform my practice as a professional in this space. Not only did the overt discrimination drive me, but the implicit exceptionalism and adultcentrism hurt. From then on, when I ran youth programs I intentionally worked to engage youth in making decisions whenever possible. Calling out my peers and challenging authority, I demanded the presence of young people in rooms where decisions were made for them, and when I had no authority to do that the anger and frustration built in me against those situations.
I was hurt because I felt rejected, and because that rejection was made explicit. The sense of difference and separation stays with me today, and no matter what kind of setting I’m in I still struggle with not fitting in, not belonging and otherwise feeling not quite right in many situations.
However, I’ve also used all of those hurt feelings in positive, empowering ways. My written and visual art is emboldened by my experiences of difference. Emotional experiences with friends and family are made stronger because of my ability to find the sense of place and purpose I didn’t have when I was young. Ultimately, I have learned to belong wherever I want to, and that’s a powerful skill. That was definitely informed by my experiences at Pearl Church.
Just like organizations throughout our communities, churches and other places of worship have to do more, better in order to engage young people. And not just the convenient youth, either; instead, they need to engage every young person within their locus of control. Roles will emerge throughout the structure of churches that allow every young person to become meaningfully involved, including planning, teaching, evaluating, decision-making and advocacy. Children and youth in churches have been involved in the multiplicity of issues affecting Christianity and spirituality, too.
Until that time, young people will continue to evacuate faith communities en masse. Their experiences as young people will continue to inform their opinions, ideas and knowledge as adults, too, so expecting them to en masse have a change of heart as adults is asinine, at best.
How do your experiences as a youth inform your youth work, classroom or youth engagement practice today?