Almeda M. Wright on the Beautiful and Complex Lives of Young People
In this episode, Almeda M. Wright shares about her research that explores the spiritual lives of African American youth and points to a complex picture of both the fragmentation and integration in their spiritual lives as they learn to balance experiences of suffering while persisting along pathways to life more abundantly in Christ.
Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of contexts. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In season three, we focus on congregational ministry with and among youth by exploring five themes: youth agency, theological questions, the role of families and parents, intergenerational community, and multiple pathways for youth.
Kristen Verhulst 01:04
Almeda Wright, it's wonderful to have you on the podcast today, and I'm so delighted to share with others your book The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans, published by Oxford Press. It is really a wonderful piece of scholarship. I wonder if you could just begin by introducing yourself. Tell us where you teach, where you do your academic and ministry work, and then take us into the story behind the book. Why did you write it?
Almeda Wright 01:38
Of course. My name is Almeda Wright. I teach at Yale Divinity School. I am an associate professor of religious education. And I feel blessed to be able to actually do the academic work of religious education. I always tell people I teach people to teach people to love Jesus. So that's my job. It's really good to be in a place where it privileges both the scholarship, but also the practice of ministry and takes seriously preparing people for, as they say, a learned ministry.
The story behind the book, though, starts way before I got to Yale Divinity School. . . . The reason I wrote The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans starts in my own personal journey. I grew up as the overly churched black kid growing up in rural Virginia, and I was always taught to have a personal relationship with Jesus, a personal relationship with Christ, and I think that is valuable. But it was done so in some ways that it almost excluded—or we never had a conversation about—justice, or where God was in politics or in a political arena or even in another call that I experienced to work for change. So growing up as a minoritized body, a woman, a black person in the rural South meant that I was fighting a lot of “-isms” often. . . . I knew I felt called to do that work as well, but didn't have conversation partners in my community of faith. And so I wondered, Are there others like me? Now fast-forward through high school and going to college, where there were way more political conversations and even communities of faith that were having these conversations. What's going on for black youth and young adults? That really kind of pushed me to start doing that research more fully. I encountered Evelyn Parker's work where she talks about—at that time, she's studying young people in the ’90s, which would probably have been my cohort: high schoolers in the ’90s in Chicago. And when I got to doctoral work, I really thought, Has stuff changed? Are young people, young black teenagers and young adults dealing with similar struggles. So that's how I started doing the research. It was interesting because it came—by the way, I have a scientific background. So I came with a hypothesis. I think I'm going to test my hypothesis. The hypothesis is that fragmentation or fragmented spirituality is a thing, and I want to see if there's data to support it or not. And somewhat dishearteningly, it hasn't changed that much since the ’90s in terms of experiences of young African Americans around fragmentation. And so I found young people who had story after story after story of them either being super-excited about God and no sense of God working in racism or sexism or poverty, or, on the other side, the thing that had kind of evolved since the ’90s, I would also encounter young people who were super-excited about justice, but had no concept that their faith could say something to where there was a history, say, of Christian engagement in the justice arena. And so those were the two sides of the pendulum that I observed in these young people as I started doing this work.
Kristen Verhulst 05:02
Yeah, it really homed in on that, this idea of a faith that maybe was a bit nonintegrated or disintegrated, but yet so many examples of where there was this fire inside of them that really only comes from a strong Christian faith, right? A relationship with God, and God being active in their lives. The book has been out for a couple of years now. How has it been received? What are you hearing from or learning from your readers?
Almeda Wright 05:33
The book has been well received. . . . I am grateful that anyone would take the time to read a little book by little old me—actually a pretty big book by little old me. Part of what I have found and what I've been hearing and learning from my readers is first that people don't often listen to the lives of young Black children and young adults, so there is a need for that kind of listening and care. So people were just grateful in some ways with the care and the time that I had taken to take seriously their stories, to take seriously their witness, their wisdom, to highlight their activism. I remember the best compliment or the best reception I had was when I was talking with a young person, a teenager who was in the same age range, and they said to me, “Oh my God, you have language. You've given us language for what I've been experiencing. I didn't have that language.” And they were so excited to read it and to see something in a book that they resonated with. And then similarly, people have been really open and excited to read about the complexity and the diversity in some of their experiences. . . . For example, there's a chapter on theodicy, and I try to highlight poetry and music from young spoken-word artists, and they give such a rich landscape and a rich set of reflections on where God is or where God is not, or how they are making sense of the world around them. And people have been really excited to read that, to hear that, to see that as another window to exploring spirituality and integrating spirituality in art and in justice work. It's not something you do in church, but to really get a sense of that. Those have been the two major reactions. I also had colleagues who, because I am an academic researcher and writer, were like, “Oh, I appreciate the methodology.” And actually, in some ways, I appreciate that too, because it sparked people taking the research protocols and doing different things with it to be able to better attend to diverse and minoritized communities by asking a better question. So that's something that I think has also been helpful.
Kristen Verhulst 07:59
Oh, that's great. That's really great to hear. Is there a particular aspect to the book now that you want to take further, that you look to amplify as you think ahead the next few years?
Almeda Wright 08:12
So anybody who knows me knows that I never think about one thing. I try to live my life linearly, but I never do. I live more spherically, or maybe even like a flower, so I come back to different things. So with this book, the book has been a great launching point. But with anyone who's ever written a book or worked on a project, you always have loose ends and unfinished business and things that you’re just like, Oh, this could be a whole other project. For example, the whole chapter on theodicy, I was talking to my publisher and I was like, “I can write another book on that,” and she's like, “Oh, maybe.” Part of it is because there are lots of questions that young people, not just Black young people, but Black and brown and most of the young people I've ever worked with, are wrestling with: where is God and what does God have to say? And so to really think creatively about not just wrestling with these tough questions of, for example, if God is good, if God is powerful, why is so much tragedy happening? That's at the core of theodicy. But to think about how they're expressing it. And so for me, in that chapter, I look at art, I look at poetry, but I think there's so many other examples of young people wrestling with that. So that's something that clearly I would love to take somewhere else.
The other thing that I'm also working on right now is moving to emerging adults because there is a part of this . . . So this book does a broad swath, and the reason I called the book The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans is because it's youth and a lot of stories from young adults, but to really focus in on younger adults, I think, is something that's really necessary and needed at this point, too, because that group of 23- to 29-year-olds is such an interesting and growing demographic. There's diversity there that we're not fully paying attention to. It's not just an older teenager, and it's not quite fully an adult yet. And there's something post-college, pre-mortgage that is there. I think I've been really excited to think about that. In the book, we began talking about some of the activists as exemplars and Black activists as exemplars in that age range. But to really think about those who may not find themselves in an activist front who are just, if you will, the brunch crew who are doing their spirituality and getting together with friends and trying to make meaning. And so there's a lot of further research that I've started to do that I think is still necessary from that part. And there are so many other things, like there's a whole other book in my brain focusing primarily on Black women and Black girls.
Kristen Verhulst 10:52
I'm glad to hear that. I'd like to take this now toward a couple of themes that we're exploring at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship around intergenerational worship and engagement, ministry with and alongside youth. The first one, it just jumps out from your book, and that's this idea of youth agency. You have direct stories, of course, that go throughout the book that really take us into their lives, which of course are complex. They are multidimensional. They're messy, but they're also these beautiful lives. So what could you point us to that really stands out to you in this idea that “You are enough, young people,” that there is agency, and while you may be experiencing some of this fragmentation, stay strong. Help us get at youth agency as that came through in the research.
Almeda Wright 11:51
So youth agency is always this complicated thing because adults, we sometimes speak out of both sides of our mouth. We’re like, “We want you to be bold and assertive, but fall in line and do exactly what I say.” And young people are like, “We're not there for that.” And that comes through in the interviews that I was doing with them. I remember having story after story of young people talking about—when I asked them to describe their worshiping communities and what that was like, they would have stories where they would talk about, “Well, my church says it's welcoming. But in practice, it doesn't know what to do.” There's a lot of that. Or, “This is the church that I love, but I'm not sure how I would ‘sell it’ to another person.” . . . I think when we think about worship, I had stories of young people who had grown up in churches who loved hymns, but sometimes churches were like, “Well, all teenagers want contemporary worship.” No, they don’t. . . . They love the hymns, but they were not quite sure why they love the hymns. And they were speaking to, or kind of alluding to, some of the embodied formation that is happening. And that is so important to thinking about creating a faithful generation and keeping young people engaged. There's some stuff that we have to do as worship in communities long before they're teenagers that allows them to know that there is a God that loves them, a community that supports them, and there's a worship practice that is going to sustain them. And so there was an irony because I would listen to this on one side and you have this cheeky teenager, but they're like, “I love hymns!” . . . So, what do you love about going to your church? And they're like, “Well, we get together and we sing, and there are these older people who've been there forever and they kind of feel like it’s their great-grandparents, and all of that. And what it also speaks to—and this is so important in the way society is being structured now—is that we don't have these intentionally intergenerational spaces anymore. Young people could live because of the way schooling is set up in kind of a teenage ghetto, if you will, all put in there by themselves, or just with their parents, because they might live states away from their actual biological grandparents, and not have to be around a different type of community or different age group. So church is providing that, and that is something that is so important. But it also reminds us of young people paying attention to what that kind of intergenerational stuff looks like, but also being actors, thinking of being intentional about agency, to see the places where young people choose to engage. So there are stories, rich stories, of young people helping out some of the people in their community, because they're like, “Oh, well, I know this person. They go to my church, and I saw them and they needed this, and I chose to engage in this particular way.” And there's so much rich stuff when we think about agency that sometimes as adults, we have to listen to the desires that young people have themselves and follow it even if it doesn't make sense to us, . . . and sometimes moving out of the way of trying to make it fit completely, and giving them some some risk capital, if you will, because this is one of the things that I'm learning about: an innovation and improvisational leadership. We really have to not always know exactly how things are going to turn out. And part of our working and walking alongside young people is that they don't know yet, either. And putting that false sense of “You've got to know, you've got to plan, plan, plan and know everything”—sometimes we should say, “All right, here's a safety net, and we're going to let you try some things out, see if they work. And that's how we're going to support you in taking and learning and growing and developing.”
Kristen Verhulst 15:47
Well, that's great. That really leads right into this next area, and that is cultivating spaces and practices that allow for for young people to question, to really deeply engage these theological issues and questions and not be quick to give an answer, but just to allow that to be a time of maybe a little uncertainty, but as you said, a safe space with others who love you and want you to grapple with these important questions. What would you recommend for worshiping communities to give everyone room to question together to explore these difficult topics?
Almeda Wright 16:35
Some of that for me also starts way beyond and goes way beyond youth ministries. So if youth ministry is the only place that question is OK, kids know that. And there could be very faithful youth ministry participants, and they knew they'd never translate to being members of your congregation, and we wonder why, and it’s because we're encountering different cultures in the place. And so for me, I often think about what does it mean as congregations for us to hold lightly our beliefs. And that's going to sound really strange, because often we think that there are conservatives and progressives or any other, and that's not true. I think at each end of, say, a theological or even political spectrum, people can hold on to beliefs very rigidly or very tightly and be unmalleable or never, ever, ever be open to the idea that they could be wrong. Whereas teenagers are kind of coming in and they have got amazing BS meters and they are going to immediately ask, “But why?” Like the same way I'm dealing with my toddler: But why? Why do we have this belief? Why do we hold on to this? What's going on? And sometimes they can very quickly learn if it's a space where they can ask that or not. And sometimes we can push it out of them, as though they become what seems like compliant and complacent. But most of the time they’ve checked out. So really trying to as adults model what it means for me to say, “This is what I believe; this is important to me, but because of the Holy Spirit, and because of the way that God is so big and so complicated, I probably don't know it all.” And that opens up a space about it, because for us to think that my limited human brain could capture the fullness of who God is and who the manifestation of Christ is is arrogant. It's also one of those things that young people are like, “Why would you ever assume that,” or “Why would I be interested in a God that you could figure out and hold in a cup right here?” And so to be open to the vastness of stuff, but also to learn with young people and see the space for wonder, the space for unmet questions , the space for imagination, all ways of fostering questions. Because oftentimes when we think about questions, we think of questions as destructive or deconstructive instead of questions being about wonderment and amazement. And I think that's the stuff where oftentimes we need to teach young people to stand in awe versus trying to think that you figured it all out, right?
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Kristen Verhulst 19:53
And along with that wonderment and awe, but also the reality that for so many African American youth, now I'm thinking of young boys, that it's a violent world for them, and it's a world where they have to figure out how to survive. We can say, well, they're not old enough to grapple with that. But that's just not the case, right? We have to ask and talk about those painful, scary things as well.
Almeda Wright 20:20
And that's the thing also because sometimes parents and adults and pastors and leaders want to present this amazing front where it's like, again, we’ve figured it all out. And what we need to teach our young people, and young men in particular, is that there's a time and place where we've been afraid too, and that we don't know what's going on here, and that we are mad, angry at the system, upset when they are mistreated, upset when they are pulled over for just driving a really nice car and assumed to not be in the right place at the right time. And I think there's so many stories of young people just wrestling with these experiences, but also the part that broke my heart was taking it to an adult who didn't know how to handle it, or an adult who was just like, “Oh, it's fine,” versus saying, “This sucks. This is really hard, and there isn't a way to fix this right now. But I'm going to stand with you as we figure this out with you, as you grieve, as you mourn.” Even more recently, thinking about justice works, in a lot of young people I've interviewed, and even more recently, like in this past year, a lot of young people are being involved in Black Lives Matter or protests, and they're either physically involved or observing it on social media and things like that. Yale Medical School just did a recent study of about four thousand or so young people. . . . Upwards of 80 percent had engaged either physically going to a protest or talking about it. And of course the question in everybody's mind was: What's the impact? Is it too harsh? Is it too negative? And ironically, they found that people were more inspired and hopeful after this participation than stressed and fearful. And that was in some ways helpful, but it's a reminder to parents that we don't need to protect our young people, wrap them in bubble wrap and pretend that the world around isn’t a scary, dangerous place, but to really think about what does it mean for us to engage with them? Then the study went further to talk about their experiences when they did it with a parent versus just with other students. And they did note that particularly for Black and Latino/Latina young people, there was a higher risk or a higher level of fear and a higher experience of thinking, you know, this could happen to me. So it wasn't just “I'm here to support.” . . . So the fact that it's not just about allyship did mean that there's a place we have to support young people in that kind of justice work or in that kind of reality, facing the realities of the world that they lived in.
Kristen Verhulst 23:17
That's right. So you just named so many important roles or different adults in young people's lives: parents, grandparents, but also pastors, youth pastors. Are there any other examples, maybe from the stories of the young people, where a particular adult really stood up, came alongside in ways that were perhaps surprising?
Almeda Wright 23:47
So the other group that we haven't really talked about are teachers. Teachers spend so much time with their young people, and the young people I interviewed had both positive and negative experiences, and teachers were able to really shine and support them. So, for example, some of the young poets and artists—there were teachers who were part of these coaching teams to help them write their poetry and develop—and so many of them credit those teachers with helping them to translate pain and anger into something more productive and giving them not just voice, but in many ways an outlet. This is what I say about a lot of Black youth: most Black youth are not silent in the sense of being quiet, but they're also often silenced in the sense of not being listened to. And so to really give them a platform where someone was listening to their experiences and celebrating them through the poetry slams and writing together in community, that was one of the places where teachers and mentors are really powerful. And that's something for us to think about. And I've read this other places, and to see it put in practice something I know the Black churches have done historically, but what we need to do more of is when there are young people among us, and even the young people that are not “attached” or connected to that church, to be able to speak into them: “I see this in you. I see that you are gifted in music. Why don't you come play and worship?” or “I see that you love drums. We've got drums,” or “Oh, I see that you are super outspoken. Why not be a lector or read?” There are ways that that has been happening historically, but we have got to reclaim many of those practices of holding up mirrors for young people, because oftentimes they don't necessarily see fully all of the amazing beings that God is placed into them. And that's our work to do as well.
Kristen Verhulst 25:50
I like that image of holding up a mirror. Toward the end of the book you get into very specific worship practices like Bible reading, testimony, prayer, singing. They strike me as very intergenerational in nature. And is there any story that stands out about ways in which these very tangible worship practices empowered youth or really gave them a sense of “My world, my life, and my relationship with God, my faith is all coming together”?
Almeda Wright 26:28
Some of that was not so much evident in the interviews that I did but in terms of the places where I would hope that the research would take us, to kind of grow into. And there were lots of young people; for example, I think of one young woman who I highlight at the end, Kyra, who had been doing this witnessing work and Bible study work with her mother; her mother was an apostolic pastor. And so that was just her life. And so there were ways that she really was in some ways an exemplary role model for me of a type of integration . . . of really thinking through and fully, like, “How am I going to live, and how am I going to be on fire for God.” But in what one of my mentors called my “worship practices tour de force,” in that section, part of what I was also trying to help us reimagine was how do we reclaim these ancient practices for contemporary or millennial or even now Gen Z kind of generation, and to think about the fact that these are integrated practices if we reimagine them to be. So if we just sing songs to sing songs, we don't necessarily understand that “A Charge to Keep I Have” might actually be something that is proclaiming the communal nature, or it's reminding us of the communal nature, of worship, and how worship both can be the catalyst that sends us out to change the world or the thing that helps us reflect on the work that we've done together. I remember when I was working at Y2Y at the Theological Initiative down at Emory, worship played that role in our community because the students, we always ended the day in worship. And there are, you know, different youth theology models there. And I always wonder, why don't we start with worship instead of ending with worship? But the way it functioned in that community is that they would often go and be out doing service work or taking classes and being challenged by all kinds of theological ideas, but at the end of the day, we always worshiped together, and it was a reminder even after you fought with your roommate, or they didn't have any vegetarian options at dinner, you came back together and you knew that worship was going to be the thing that we all gathered around and that held us together, and that could remind us of the commonality, but also the sustaining power of the community to live, to worship, and fight and struggle another day.
Kristen Verhulst 29:02
I remember jotting down a note that especially maybe a testimony or even prayer practices do connect us with a deepened history, Christians from all times and places, but then also within worshiping communities, our own ancestors, and testimony especially gives voice to how they saw God at work in their lives, and then how that carried them through, and that can be a way to sustain the young people then who learn that story and hear that testimony,
Almeda Wright 29:38
A testimony that I remember, and I think I allude to this in the book, it was one that I grew up around, but you don't see as much in particular churches because they're larger churches. I love larger churches for the resources that they have, and sometimes they're so scripted, and there’s not a way that there are these impromptu worship, praise and worship spaces. But I remember there was a youth church that I did a mini-ethnography for when I was in doctoral program in Georgia that had a praise and testimony service for their young people, and they got up and they shared everything from midterm grades to struggles with family members, and they were able to model or participate in that practice and that legacy of the form; these practices—there is a structure even though they may feel extemporaneous. There's a structure where you speak to and about what God has done and what your struggle is, but also how God has transformed it, and learning that formula, learning the fact that you're not just here to complain, but you're here to talk about what it is, but also to see and name where you saw God acting in. That is such a powerful practice for people to do and to see that in that worshiping community was powerful.
Kristen Verhulst 30:52
Yeah. I want to take us into the chapter on activism and protest, and I think that's a wonderful example of the final theme that we're exploring, which we refer to as multiple pathways into the life of the church, into a life of faith, of integrated faith, and I think what you found, particularly for African American youth, activism was a really powerful pathway. Can you just share a little bit more about that?
Almeda Wright 31:20
So a lot of what I saw there and even why I was kind of looking at activism started with the questions of agency, about where were they being active? Where were they really kind of putting, if you will, their faith into action. And activism was one of those places where I remember interviewing a young man who was an M.Div. student at that point, who really was talking about how he only became really political during seminary. And you're like, what? But it's also one of those things where it's like, all right, again, resonating with this idea of a sense of call to care for people or to be in a community often means a call to to stand up and to protest and to speak on the behalf of those who don't necessarily have a voice yet in that space. And so I saw lots of young African Americans doing that kind of work, and I think I give four case studies to give a broad spectrum of the different ways, from one young woman who has an activist writing voice. And so she's writing these amazing pieces, and people are reading her and you're like, “Oh my God, thank you for again giving language to my life, but also again speaking for those who don't necessarily have voice and writing in a way or protesting in a way that is actually bringing awareness for a lot of different things.” Also, similarly, sometimes young people will be attracted to a lot of activists in the public sphere but not know their backstories of faith. And so part of that chapter was also to kind of help highlight some of the backstories of faith, for example, Bree Newsome down in South Carolina. People saw her as the young woman whose scaled the flagpole and took down the Confederate flag but don't know that she is the daughter of a pastor who was quoting the psalms as she is taking down the flag, who names and reflects at the Wild Goose Festival on her own spiritual journey and the fact that she had prayer warriors praying for her as she was even deciding whether or not she could participate in this action. And that integration, that level of intentionality, is something that young people need to know about and to have as another model. Those stories where were hidden jewels and gems in the research, but also moments where I knew that the work was about really helping young people to say all right, because I know since then I do work with a bunch of young people here in Connecticut, and part of it is really helping them to name the activism that they're part of and to see the places where God shows up there. And I remember one young woman here, she was like, “Yeah, this may not be in the church, but God is definitely there.” And so to be able to be cognizant of that and to talk about the spirituality of a movement, even if it's not, say, Martin Luther King preaching about civil rights, it doesn't look like that, but for them to still be able to name and see some of that has been powerful.
Kristen Verhulst 34:32
You also touched on the arts, and I think that too is another pathway. The poetry, spoken word seems to be yet another way to watch young people flourish in their gifts, but also in ways that help them connect their lives, their everyday lives, with their lives of faith.
Almeda Wright 34:56
Whenever people ask me nowadays where I'm most excited about youth ministry happening, or where do I see some of the best youth ministry taking place, I somewhat sadly, somewhat not, somewhat surprisingly, somewhat not, I never really name churches, but I look at these kind of art communities that young people create for themselves or that are created either in the basements of churches or in schools or things like that, but that are kind of church-adjacent. And part of why I name that as the places where I see some of the best youth ministry happening is because it is a space that is catering to the gifts, talents, complexity, messiness, literal messiness of teenage life and of young life, and I think that's something that those of us in traditional church spaces have to constantly learn from. How do we be OK with young people bringing their full selves and their messy selves into those spaces? And or how are we going to be OK, instead of saying, “Come into our pre-planned program,” to begin to go and be with young people and these alternative spaces and say, “We see what you're doing here and it's amazing, We see God working through you, and it's amazing.“
Kristen Verhulst 36:20
That's right. Well, Almeda, it's been wonderful talking with you. And as we say goodbye here, I wonder if you have just one final word to our listeners, whether that would be young people listening in or the adults in their lives who love them dearly and want for them a life in Christ more abundantly with a worshiping community. Any final words of encouragement?
Almeda Wright 36:47
For those already listening, I just encourage people to keep doing the good work. Part of it is that one of the things that sustained me . . . is that I am guilty of years of hope. And part of it is this idea that I have not given up on young people. I've not given up on church. I've not given up on the power of the gospel of Christ to transform lives. And so to hold on to all of those convictions and to hold them in conversation is the work that we have to keep doing. And no, it's not easy. No, there's not a cute formula that I can give you for that. But staying committed to that is what I wake up in every morning, recommitted.
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