I need to begin with context. Our ministry is a multisite urban youth ministry. We work with a mix of “churched,” “unchurched,” “dechurched” and “overchurched” students.
Our students are primarily African-American. My family and I have chosen to live in a neighborhood with some of the families that are a part of our ministry. That particular area happens to be a multiethnic community whose residents are primarily living under the poverty level. To be blunt, we are known as the “white family” on the block.
At one of our small groups a couple of weeks ago, we happened into a discussion that has left me thinking. One of my students made this statement: “All white people are rich.”
I almost choked when 15 other high school students nodded their heads in unified agreement. I thought of our struggle to pay bills weekly in our home, the one car we drive and the stuff we don’t own. However, I also knew many of these students didn’t have a car at all and that food in their cupboards is sometimes dwindling. My mind wandered to where this perception had been perpetuated.
“All is a strong word,” I said. “You do know we live three blocks from here?” (I was intimating we live in the same neighborhood they do, and they did not believe themselves to be rich.)
“Yeah, so?” was the student's response. I could see from the wheels turning that she knew we choose to live there. Even more so, it was her belief that at any point we could make a move to any other location, while she may never do that.
“All,” I pointed out once again, "is a strong word. When we start using that word, we fail to see individuals.”
We talked about struggles, racism and those who have fought for each student in that room to be able to truly be anything God has called them to be. I asked how many people in the room had cable or a flat-screen television. All hands went up.
I said, “We don’t, and this is a choice based on finances. As a matter of fact, our television is 30 years old, and we have to use a pencil to turn it on.”
There was an audible gasp let out across the room, followed by perplexed looks.
“Now, don’t get me wrong,” I went on. “Our needs are met; however, we are far from rich. My kids don’t get everything they want, and neither do we.”
We then talked honestly about barriers the students might face that I might never know. I also let them know that Jesus came to overcome all of this. Their road might be difficult; however, this can’t be an excuse to give up now.
We talked about what a stereotype is. It is a negative overexaggeration based on some common traits. In short, it takes the bad habits of some of a group of people and labels them “all.”
There are movies and television shows that perpetuate certain stereotypes based on our background and the color of our skin. There are others that are attached to our gender, size, hair color or geographic upbringing. Some of them make us laugh. Some of them we latch onto. However, I was struck with just how dangerous stereotypes can be.
These students were using that statement as an excuse. They had already come to believe their lives were on track to be the same as most of those they know. They would never attend college. They would exist day to day. They would struggle and be called poor. Most of all, they would be stuck in a life they hate, living in a place they despise, and they would never have a way out.
“We can never know all people are any one thing,” I told them.
They were shocked at the number of African-Americans I am friends with who are married, living in the suburbs and not struggling to put food on the table.
I finished with letting them know it is about the willingness to get to know people and never looking at only the surface.
Then I got to thinking about when I was their age. I had made some connections and carried my own stereotypes:
- “People in certain denominations aren't really saved.”
- “Kids from that side of town are 'those' type of kids.”
- “People from the north are cold and indifferent; people from the south are shallow.”
I, too, used these stereotypes as an excuse to not believe Christ can change everything. I used them as a reason to never see or talk to certain people. I used them as a reason to stay stuck, existing in a box that couldn’t see the rest of the world.
Chew on this today. What are the stereotypes your students carry? What are those you carry? What will we do to stop using the word all?
Leneita Fix is the director of ministry development for Aslan Youth Ministries, a family-focused urban ministry serving Monmouth County, N.J., and Haiti. She has been working in some form of youth and family ministry for almost 22 years.
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