Losing Our Trayvons: Black Teens and the Church

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 Born Sinners & Criminal Suspects

The year was 1973. The setting was a kindergarten class in a southern public school. The teacher introduced a middle-aged white police officer who was there on behalf of the police department’s community relations campaign- “Officer Friendly”. Officer Friendly’s task was to acquaint children with law enforcement and to help kids see them as protectors, defenders, and servants of the community. With a kind and unthreatening demeanor Officer Friendly learned student’s names, shared his story about why he became a police officer, and passed out coloring books. Eventually he got to the point of his presentation where he would demonstrate what it was like to be handcuffed. He requested no volunteers for the demonstration. He would hand pick and select his own “actor” based on who fit the “character” best.  The officer scanned the classroom looking from row-to-row and desk-to-desk to find the perfect candidate in a classroom almost completely full of white students. Finally, his gaze turned towards the ONE and ONLY black male in the class. Unbeknownst to the officer, the teacher, or the student himself; this kid would grow up to be a solid Christ follower, a husband, a father of 5, an owner of an engineering firm, an extremely generous philanthropist, and a public school board member in the very same city. The officer signaled for the boy to come up front. As he took out his handcuffs and began handcuffing this 5-year old child he warned the class that “this is the fate of those who choose to break the laws of the land”.  Whether choosing the one and only African-American male in the class was consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously done is debatable. But if you understand the history of our country and its 4 century long campaign to “criminalize” black bodies it’s hard to shake the hunch that it was intentional.

A Rainy Night in February 

Fast forward to this very day 2 years ago. A black teenage male named Trayvon Martin was walking home in the rain through the gated community that his father lived in. A neighborhood watch coordinator named George Zimmerman spotted Trayvon. Zimmerman suspected that he “was up to no good” and began pursuing him while calling the police. George Zimmerman had made dozens of calls to police since becoming the neighborhood watch coordinator. Generally speaking, his calls were about suspicious looking black males of various ages; including one call he made to police about a 5 to 6 year old black boy. Though the exact details are in question, we all know the outcome of that fateful night. The life of this image-of-God bearing young man was cut short by a bullet fired by George Zimmerman. Adding injury to insult, Trayvon lied their as a “dead suspect” while Zimmerman was released from custody. It took nation wide protests to even get an arrest and trial.

Many of us remember the night we heard word that Zimmerman had been acquitted. As I said in a message I delivered a week or so after the verdict, “I am not a defense attorney and neither am I prosecuting attorney. I am simply a prophetic witness of the mercy & justice of Christ”. My goal with this blog is not to “re-try” Zimmerman. My aim is to nudge the Body of Christ to think deeply about its call to love, serve, and reach all people-specifically BLACK TEENS. Tragedy is tragedy. It was and is painful to all those involved. Their loss is permanent. I don’t want to minimize this event with Christian clichés, but I am 100% certain that God desires to use this event to awaken the American church to something that has been on His heart.

 Who Cared?

There are dear brothers and sisters in Jesus who have brushed this off as none of their concern and an exercise in futility. It’s been well documented that the conscious of our nation was fractured and divided by this tragedy along “racial lines”.  In a previous blog I pondered on the “phenomenon that causes the pigmentation of our skin to create and color the lens that we view the world through?” The truth is that we all have a story that shapes how we evaluate other stories. I get that. It’s natural and not all together a bad thing. The problem is that we as Christians often fail to wrestle with the transcendent story of Jesus in a way that helps us see the stories of our time from His perspective. Thankfully, in spite of those who shrugged it off, there were folks that were deeply affected by the Trayvon Martin Tragedy. Many of these people used it as a catalyst to do some really deep soul-searching. I’ve read blogs, seen tweets, Facebook posts, watched sermons, had conversations, and watched interviews of Christians wrestling with its implications. The whole time I was waiting for a particular strand of thoughts to enter the discussion. To my great pain, I didn’t see it addressed much. I heard discussions taking place on very important issues like the stand your ground law, racial profiling, the criminal injustice system, and the demonization of blackness but I never heard a deep sustained conversation on what the American Church could and should do to welcome, accept, and empower the Trayvon’s within our communities. I didn’t hear much “self-critique”. Yes, we needed and still need prophetic voices speaking truth to power. But we also need the Body of Jesus to think thru its role and how we could in some way be participating in what’s been called “the war against black teens”.

 Sagging Pants VS Sagging Institutions 

What happens when the “Trayvons” of your community come to your church service, your youth group, your outreach event? Have we taken on the “spirit of Zimmerman” in our congregations. Do we view black teens who have not assimilated to our church cultural traditions as threats. Are we preoccupied with walking them down and making them pull up their sagging pants. Are we trying to get on their level to relate with them versus just firing at them with didactic rebukes about how their tattoos, hair styles, musical preferences, social media habits are demonic. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending sagging pants or anything else that is clearly in opposition to biblical commands. (emphasis on biblical commands) But it seems to me that we should be far more concerned about sagging character, sagging school systems, sagging family units, and sagging hope than we are about jeans. This goes for historically black churches, white churches, or multi-ethnic churches. What signal are we sending them? Are they wanted? Seriously, if 40 “Trayvons” show up Sunday morning or Wednesday night what emotion does that create in your spirit? Is it one of panic and concern for the safety of the “normal kids” or one of compassion and desire to engage them in the context of a genuine relationship. Black men who desire to be socially acceptable have to constantly go out of their way to prove that they are not a “threat” or a “thug”. The things we do on a day-to-day basis are taxing and often demoralizing. These teens want and need to be loved and welcomed into spaces that they are not viewed by societal labels. They need people who will not assume the worst about them. In public schools, black teens are far more likely to be expelled, suspended, or disciplined for the same exact infractions as there white counterparts. In the prison system it is no different. A white person is far more likely not to do time for the same exact drug offense as a black or brown counterpart. Studies have shown that white teens use drugs at higher rates than black students. But the prisons, the youth detentions centers, the expulsions, and drop-outs would make you believe something different. I smell injustice.

 Standing Our Ground in Fear or Defending the Fatherless in Love

I beg you sir, ma’am, pastor, youth pastor, youth leader, youth director, church volunteer to really ask God to show you your heart. I’m not calling you an ageist, classist, or a racist. But I am saying that we are all prone to breath in the ideas of an unjust society that uses media to broad brush people groups as inferior, worthless, criminal, etc. There was a sobering study conducted in which people of all colors had their brains scanned to detect emotions while random images of people were flashed on a screen. A majority of people (of all colors) were revealed to have experienced feelings of fear and anxiety when a black male was flashed in front of them.

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Could this subconscious phenomenon be affecting you as you engage black teens? For the Christian we know that sin runs much deeper than we can detect. This is why David cried to God in Psalms 139:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts![c]
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting![d]”

We have the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit to wash away prejudices, biases, and fear. For various reasons It’s well known that African-American teens are the most affected group by fatherlessness.  We have a biblical call and mandate to defend the fatherless and to bring restoration to the oppressed and vulnerable. We can’t defend the fatherless if we are too busy defending our “turf” in fear of them. We are losing our “Trayvons” and I MUST add our Renisha’s. (Renisha McBride was a 19 year old black woman who had her face blown off while knocking on a door for help after a car wreck in Detroit)

It’s the responsibility of the Church to step to the plate and bring redemption. Not out of some sense of superiority, rather out of deep humility and in a spirit of solidarity. Black church leaders we can’t afford to be apathetic about this. We’ve got to change the way we do church. We can’t allow a desire to keep tradition alive to result in the death of a generation. More than a church suit and a Gospel song, they need you to give them your life and the Good News. Let’s stop trying to make them jump through our cultural hoops to encounter God. God can use them in their culture and still purge them from the things within it that are not like Him. (I’m a witness and I got a band of brothers & sisters who I have discipled as proof!) White Church & multi-ethnic church leaders we need to ruffle some feathers and not side with the feelings of parents who feel threatened by the presence of black and brown youth. We can’t keep doing “stiff-arm” evangelism. We go out and touch folks in their own communities but refuse to invite them to be a part of our own communities. Lets be more culturally inclusive in our ministries. In the book “Aliens in the Promised Land” one writer confessed that his denomination’s “holy grail” of church membership was white 20 something’s. He said that churches and ministry that were reaching them got all the funding. Those reaching other groups received considerably less backing. This ain’t cool….this is not in step with the Gospel. I have (and I believe God) has no problem with intentionality in reaching middle class white teens & 20 somethings. I’m just saying we can’t ignore the late teen and 20 something black and Latinos who need Jesus just as much.

 I HAVE A DREAM 

I won’t stop praying….I won’t stop writing….I won’t stop preaching….I wont stop organizing…I won’t stop pointing out the massive elephant in the room!  Lord knows I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. This call is “like fire shut up in my bones”. I can’t shake this vision I have of the Church in America wrapping its arms around socially oppressed and underprivileged youth.

I have a dream that one day “blackness” will not be viewed as a threat, a sign of inferiority, or as an indicator of criminality. I have a dream that a black, brown, or lower class life will not be viewed by society as having less value than a white middle class life. I have a dream that their mere presence will no longer be viewed as a “nightmare” waiting to happen.  I have a dream that the Father will pour His Spirit on the Church and we would be used as witnesses to bring hope, healing, and restoration to youth who have the odds stacked up against them. I dream that millions of “Trayvons” and “Renishas”  will fulfill their life’s purpose and potential to know, love, and serve Jesus. I dream that the Church will powerfully preach the Good News of God becoming a poor minority (Jew) from the hood (Nazereth) and living under a system of political and religious oppression bent on snuffing his spiritual and physical life out.  God intentionally came in this fashion to send a paradigm-shifting message. With the “odds” against Him, Jesus lived the perfect life we couldn’t and died the death we deserved that we might be liberated to worship and SERVE HIM ALONE!

May the Grac(ism) of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit….NOW!

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