“Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.” –1 Timothy 4:12 (The Message)
In our recent book Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, and I call the American church to a posture of repentance due to all the times we have not only been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of God.
As an organizer and director of the AMOS Project in Cincinnati, I’ve discovered that a humble spirit of repentance is critical to powerful work around racial and economic justice. There can be a strong temptation to replay colonialism by having all the answers and believing we are God’s gift to the oppressed. We white evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this arrogant path. Humility and a repentant spirit are key to a healthy engagement and partnership in our work.
Lately, in the wake of Ferguson, I’ve been reminded of the importance of humility and repentance when engaging young leaders, and particularly young leaders of color. We in the church seem to have a recurring problem making room for young people to lead and have a voice in strategy and vision. King Saul, instead of including and benefitting from David’s wisdom, felt threatened and attempted to kill the young leader. When we read between the lines, we can imagine leaders in the early church working to undercut Timothy’s leadership due to his age.
Paul responds by imploring Timothy to lead, and to set an example through his life and character. Countless people have read Paul’s letter to Timothy over the past two thousand years, a constant reminder to older leaders to make room for the energy and passion and vision of youth.
During the Civil Rights movement, it was young people, and particularly young people of color, who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led the sit-in movement, and provided most of the participants for the Freedom Rides. And the white evangelical church did not make room for the voices and leadership of these young leaders, remaining either on the sidelines or working tirelessly to undergird legalized segregation and white supremacy.
Since the tragic death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, the authentic leadership of the moment has emerged from young people of color. The question is, will we adopt a spirit of arrogance by crowding out their voices? Or will we embrace humility and repentance, and make room to hear their cries and make room for their direction?
Over the past few months, as I’ve wrestled with the plague of high-profile shootings of unarmed people of color by police and reckoned with the racialization of poverty in our nation, I’ve arrived at a troubling conclusion:
There are fewer opportunities for education, quality jobs, and abundant life for people of color today than there have been since the days of Jim Crow.
The church must take seriously the leadership and despair of young people of color if we are going to be relevant and be on the side of justice over the coming decades. These are days that demand a humble and repentant spirit. And these are days that demand wholehearted engagement, in solidarity with young people of color who are in the midst of the storm, eager to lead.
Troy Jackson is Director of Ohio Prophetic Voices, and was formerly senior pastor of University Christian Church (UCC) for 19 years. He is part of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices project.