Crossing Boundaries for Social Justice

(written for The Christian Citizen: (pp.

22-24) Image

As more and more schools in the United States shift their social mission from community service to social justice models, this is a good time for churches to explore the implications of this shift for church youth work.  Service projects foster community, expand exposure, and facilitate meaningful work in the world.  However, service projects fall short of the potential for social transformation that is at the heart of churches’ work in the world.  They focus on one aspect of Jesus’ story — namely, Jesus as helper – but neglect another — Jesus as social radical.  What might it mean for youth groups in our churches to connect with the radical side of Jesus?

Healing, giving, and welcoming were as much vehicles for connection between Jesus and people who were different as they were acts of help.  Many of these connections were forbidden.  While Jesus’ message has often been interpreted as “help others,” those stories of helping are also stories of crossing boundaries, models for getting close to people who have been culturally, religiously, economically separated from us.  In a world of hierarchies and inequality, boundary crossing challenges a status quo that holds people apart.  In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), for example, the Samaritan helping the Jew is crossing boundaries of culture and religion: this is what it is to be a neighbor, Jesus explains.

What would it look like to put aside the helping narrative for a moment, and focus on the boundary-crossing narrative?  After all, helping relationships often place us in boundary-crossing situations that are exciting, challenging, and confusing.  Boundary-crossing involves looking inward as well as outward, paying attention to the blocks within ourselves as well as power systems that perpetuate and exacerbate divisions.    The segregation and polarization that rack the Unites States today indicate that we have a long way to go in learning how to cross boundaries.  It is often said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week — cause for despair in churches like mine, where the congregation would like very much to be more diverse.  Given the challenges of crossing boundaries, how can we hope to guide our young people in living out this part of spiritual community?  Perhaps we should let them be our guides.

The movie The Children’s March opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking in a Birmingham church, urging the African American citizens to come and get arrested with him, fill up the jails, and change the racist system.  The grown-ups stay quietly in their seats.  But the young people start standing up.  King and other Civil Rights movement leaders forbid the young people from getting involved.  Too late!  The children had already gotten the bit in their teeth: the young people of Birmingham, including children as young as 6 years old, mobilized.  Days later, they left school, marched downtown, and were arrested by the thousands.  The “Children’s March” set the stage for the March on Washington and helped to shape the principles, the energy, and the actions of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

The young people were crossing boundaries that their parents couldn’t, yet.   They were defying the rules, limits and expectations of the adult world.  This defiance, the Civil Rights movement came to understand and proclaim, was deeply rooted in Jesus’ radical work of overturning established conventions and assumptions.  Are our churches today supporting the potential of our young people to fight forces of division and inequality?

Youth group parent leaders at my church are experimenting with changes in our approach to community life with our youth group, and exploring the possibility that these changes could also breathe new life into youth programming.  We are questioning our assumptions about what we expect of our young people.  Does our church tap their energy, creativity, and resilience?  Where do these qualities intersect with the theological questions and community life that occupy our church?  Namely, what would it mean to walk with our young people in the tradition of social justice?

We decided to develop a social justice project focused on crossing boundaries – not on helping, on good character, or on bible study.  We are spending the year visiting other houses of worship (temples, synagogues, mosques, churches of different denominations and nationalities), and meeting with the youth of those congregations.  The question we bring everywhere we go is, “What is social justice in this community and what is the role of your religious community in living out the meaning of social justice?”  For crossing boundaries not only carries a political charge; it also sparks inquiry.  It puts us in the territory of questions, dialogue, and the unknown.  We are hoping that the inquiry we are collectively engaged in will help us to learn from one another – Christian from Muslim, adult from adolescent, individual from group – and begin to reconstruct for ourselves what the tradition of being a neighbor, as Jesus described in the story of the Good Samaritan, means for us today.

We are at the beginning of our journey, but one thing is clear so far: the defiant Christian is a very different proposition from the pious Christian.  We began with a trip from the far north of Chicago to the far South of the city, to visit St. Sabina Church, whose priest is a boundary-crosser of tremendous stature.  Father Pfleger, a white pastor in an African-American church, lives out his Christian faith through civil disobedience, breaking the rules, challenging the status quo.  He questions Catholic hierarchies and white Christian piety from the pulpit.

Our young people are standing in a space that they have been separated from by the unwritten laws of segregation, participating in unfamiliar rituals and listening to what people in St. Sabina name as being a neighbor.  They are not doing service.  They aren’t helping anyone.  They are experiencing boundary crossing… and we adults will be listening when they tell us what it means to them.