The Spiritual Lives and Activism of Young African Americans

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In the course of her research into adolescent spiritual development, Almeda Wright has heard numerous stories and testimonies from young African Americans experimenting with new ways of relating spirituality to their protests against racial injustice. Her book, The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans, explores what this population can teach the wider body of believers about integrating faith and activism. Chicago-based writer Nilwona Nowlin spoke with Wright, assistant professor of religious education at Yale Divinity School, about how the church can better equip, engage, and embrace young African Americans in their faith journeys.

How would you sum up your work studying the spirituality of young African Americans?

I’m trying to give serious consideration to the voices and stories of young African Americans, who are facing all kinds of challenges. But in the midst of those challenges, they have something to teach Christians and the world at large: a way of being Christian that requires us to rethink some of the disconnects between our love of God and our love of justice, or our ability to talk about personal spirituality without also talking about social transformation.

For me, that’s the core. I use a lot of terms like “pushing them towards an integrated spirituality” or “pushing us to a vision of abundant life.” But at the core, without using that Christianese, I’m really saying that in order to walk with African American youth and young adults in more helpful ways, we need to bring these realms back together.

There’s often an assumption today that young African Americans involved in that “other” realm, as social justice activists, are not orthodox in their Christianity. What do you make of that assumption?

I’m trying to add complexity and nuance to our discussions of black Christian social witness or black-church activism. We all have a tendency to “re-narrate” our past. One of the ways we do this is by saying that the black church was all about civil rights when the reality is that it wasn’t. Certainly, some black churches were actively preparing young people to engage in the civil rights movement by providing theological frameworks for their work, but other churches were adamantly opposed to it. In some ways, we’re seeing continuations of that.

In this current generation of African American youth and young adults, we can’t assume that their activism is going to have any connection to the church. That’s not the majority, at least. In the book, I offer historical and contemporary models to these young activists who want to be Christian and activists.

In the book, you write about the issue of fragmented spirituality among young people. How new is this phenomenon? And is it only experienced by adolescents, or will it follow them into adulthood if not addressed?

Spiritual fragmentation is not necessarily a new concept. It’s discussed as early as 1903 by W. E. B. DuBois and 1909 by William James. DuBois’s idea of “double consciousness” is one example of this fragmentation. James talks about the “sick soul” and the “divided self,” which is another example.

I’m seeing these things among Euro American and Asian American youth in different ways, and I’m also seeing it among adults. The old adage says, “Adolescence begins in puberty and biology, but it ends in culture.” Because some of the cultural markers of adulthood are shifting, where adolescence ends is also shifting. So, some of the spiritual questions and crises you see among 12- and 13-year-olds are also present among 25- and 30-year-olds.

The hardest thing to hear about spirituality among young African Americans is that they’re getting exactly what we teach them. Fragmentation isn’t something that they’re inventing. In some ways, we’re modeling for them this kind of compartmentalized life.

How can seminaries prepare church leaders to better address the problem of spiritual fragmentation?

This is the million-dollar question! I see it on so many different levels. On the administrative side, we need to make space for youth workers in seminary. In terms of pedagogy and the classroom, I have always seen my classrooms as laboratories. That metaphor sounds a little strange, but I have a science background. I set up the room, the “lab,” with my greatest hits, in terms of who I think we should read. But I always leave four or five weeks in the semester where I have people tell me what they’re currently reading. So, for instance, what’s something you’re read that brought you to seminary? What was the pamphlet or handbook that someone gave you when you said you wanted to be a youth pastor? We put all that together.

People bring a rich set of resources to the classroom, and all we can really expect to do in seminaries is to enhance them. There is a level of deconstruction that happens in seminary, but there also has to be a place where we affirm where you’re coming from and help you build on that. In my class, we talk about the arc of practical theology. We start with the important practices, we do rigorous theological and biblical reflections on those practices, and we always push toward the goal of improved practice, improved community, and improved lives.

We need to teach seminarians that process. I think that’s where we’re sometimes failing youth workers and pastors. We’re often saying: Let me give you all this content and not actually give you a process for reflecting on it in light of your context, your practices, and what it is that you want to do.

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Source: Christianity Today