Footprints: How Jesus Uses Youth to Carry Us from Division to Unity (Part 3 of an Interview with Isaiah Brooms)
February is Black History Month. At Rooted, we’ve started asking ourselves an important question: How can we equip parents and other leaders of youth to help their teens foster authentic interracial relationships, as part of God’s design for his kingdom? We thought we’d begin this journey by taking the posture, first and foremost, of listening. We’re thrilled to share with you the third installment a conversational interview between our editor-in-chief, Charlotte Getz, and African American Rooted contributor, Isaiah Brooms. Read the first two parts of this conversation here and here.
Isaiah is the Director of Youth Ministry at Restoration Anglican Church in Arlington, VA.
CHARLOTTE: I love your goal of taking youth to different churches (not as tourists, but as worshipping members of the body of Christ). Are you implementing any of these practices in your own church (Restoration Anglican Church)?
ISAIAH: As I mentioned yesterday, my church is predominately white. However, they are a congregation that hungers to see the diversity of the Kingdom of God reflected in the body of Christ in North America and, more specifically, North Arlington where the church is located. The major obstacle for us, sadly, is probably no different than the obstacle any church would face when trying to reach people who are not like them: zip code. Restoration is located in a very affluent and very white part of Arlington. As a result, there is the complication of being stretched beyond one’s bandwidth in terms of the distance. If you are trying to pastor the area God has called you to, it is very difficult to also reach beyond your walls to a place that is far away. Usually, these look like a typical “mission trip” which, in this case, I do not believe is the best way to approach racial reconciliation and diversity issues.
There are a number of outreach efforts taking place on many fronts, and my youth group has gotten involved in just about all of them. From our work with Immigration Legal Aid, to tutoring at Casa Chirilagua, the youth have been along for the journey. And now, we’re in the process of sending members of our church to plant a church right in the heart of the most diverse portion of our city!
This church plant is what excites me the most. Many of our youth and their parents are going to be leaving the “home church” and heading to our new church plant in the southern part of the city. When that happens, my original students (along with new students in the area who start attending the church) will continue to attend my youth group. My great hope is that many opportunities will emerge for these youth to enter authentic, two-way relationships with people who are different than them racially and socio-economically. The most important thing to remember about trying to bring diversity is that it is a culture shock to everyone involved; so the process of finding opportunities to authentically connect is slower, as is the process of preparing a congregation or youth group for that change.
CHARLOTTE: You mentioned your dream of planting a diverse church.
ISAIAH: Yes! Personally, I believe that I am probably on a church planting journey myself, though not for the next 2-3 years. That journey will more than likely involve another group of congregants from the home church, ones who are passionately seeking multi-ethnic worship. We will head out with a goal to reflect the kingdom of God more fully and to begin the process of healing the deep wounds within the North American church. This, without a doubt, must include a strong, active and deliberate push to involve the youth ministry.
CHARLOTTE: How did you end up at a predominantly white church?
ISAIAH: There is no short answer to this. Logically speaking, nothing in my origin story should have led me to this scenario of being not only one of the only black congregants, but also the only member of the staff who is of color. I am not only on staff, I am in a key position that has required the building and leading of an ever growing and demanding middle and high school youth ministry of 95% white affluent students (ages 12-18).
Spiritually speaking, everything in my origin story has pointed me to this moment and quite possibly other future opportunities to authentically and truly integrate the North American church. When you grow up a true believer in Christ — in the inner-city Chicago scenario that I grew up in — your faith takes on a more tangible form, daily. When I prayed that God would order my steps (Psalm 119:133-136), I meant every word of it. Death was around every corner; the wrong step on the wrong day brought you face to face with it. So, my trust in and dependence on the Lord was very high on a breath-to-breath basis. The entire time I worshipped in my predominantly black church growing up, I felt something was wrong with the scenario. I felt that we were having an experience of God that no one else in the city of Chicago was having. When I read the story of the Jewish flight from Egypt, I couldn’t escape the fact that it was the Jewish flight, not the black flight. This realization begged the question, “Where are the different faces of this movement and why aren’t they in here singing, praising, and dancing with us?”
My first real opportunity to experience multi-ethnic worship was in the most authentic place you could do it: my high school, Culver Military Academy. I was fortunate enough to have Tom Dittmer, a Chicago business owner, to pay my tuition. I’m not sure it was a scholarship, more like a “gift.”
Culver stripped you of everything that made you a product of your culture, and reduced it to a uniform code and culture that didn’t value your race or your family name as anything to measure the success you could attain. They valued your mind, body, and spirit. I went to school with the children of politicians, princes, famous personalities, etc., and no one cared. The playing field was leveled by the new cadet (Plebe) system — everyone had the opportunity to grow, for the most part, from the same starting point. So when we went to chapel together, we sat together, prayed together, and sang together. The chapel service did not look anything like my service in Chicago, and it finally began feeding that idea that I already suspected was true: the body of Christ is diverse, and all of it is beautiful, valid, and needed.
Eventually, I joined the choir and began singing at the catholic service. This new exposure to liturgy connected me to the rich history of the church, but also pointed out the glaring problems of separation in the church. How could traditions of worship to the same God stray so far from one another that they are almost unrecognizable to one another? Of course one of those reasons, among many, is without a doubt the result of the civil war and churches deciding to separate on the basis of race.
Long story short, that experience of being a student at Culver not only placed me, for the first time, in a place where race was not your defining characteristic, but faith and worship was reduced to its basic form and thus made it accessible to every race and culture to authentically come together.
CHARLOTTE: What did you learn about God at Culver?
ISAIAH: His desire for every person on earth to experience shalom with God and the holy spirit. Peace and unity. Simply put, look to Matthew 22:36-40, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
As I said, logically, my life should not have turned out the way it did. But spiritually, God has very clearly had me on a very particular trajectory and I believe it is leading me to help heal the racial brokenness in the churches of North America. That work 100% begins with our youth and I am still leading my students down the runway.
CHARLOTTE: How can we teach kids that Jesus is enough common ground, when people of different races, cultures, and traditions come to worship together?
ISAIAH: I don’t think we can teach this without modeling it. If we want the youth to embrace a reality of racial inclusion in worship, then the adults have to embrace that reality as well. Otherwise there is a major disconnect that can lead a youth to find disgust in the church when they notice issues like double standards and racial brokenness. Youth ministry should never be done in a silo, otherwise it accomplishes the goal of a silo, keeping the youth separated from the work of the entire body of Christ. That body includes the “grown-ups.”
The entire church has to ask itself the question you asked me, “Is Christ enough?” Are politics worth more, zip codes worth more, musical worship styles worth more, and liturgy worth more than union on the grounds of Christ? Some people answer “yes,” to the question of Christ simply being enough — that is reflected in how the youth ministries at those churches are organized. If you have a mission similar to the youth ministry at my church (which is the same mission of the entire church) “to connect youth to God, others, and the needs of the world,” then you naturally have an outward facing way of engaging the Gospel. We don’t just want to evangelize; we want to harmonize with the body of Christ everywhere.
If we as the church truly believe that everyone is made in the image of God, we should be unable and unwilling to live with dissonance within that body. Reconciliation with all the parts of God’s body is the only way forward for a church. A church can’t live in dissonance with the other parts of God’s body because the Trinity does not live in dissonance with itself, it simply does not. Therefore, we should not tolerate or accept it.
CHARLOTTE: Tell me something practical that you’re doing with your students.
ISAIAH: One of the more controversial things my pastor did to continue to usher the congregation into awareness of the diversity of the full body of Christ was start to sing one song per service in Spanish. I watched my Pastor lead the congregation this way and decided to set a goal of helping my all-white Youth Band get to a point where they were singing, playing, and worshiping through Gospel music. When I brought this goal to their attention, they were ecstatic and we are now working towards making it a reality. The larger purpose of this goal is that it represents another way for me to prepare them for what is further down the runway: our students, along with students of color from our church plant in the southern part of the city, coming together to worship as one combined and interracial youth group. I want them to know what it looks like to consider others not like them, to be able to embrace one another with the same outstretched arms of Jesus, and to keep on celebrating the gospel of Grace without missing a literal beat.
Check out these fascinating articles from the Chicago Tribune that follow Isaiah’s story from the inner-city of Chicago to Culver Military Academy in Indiana.