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Co-creating with Diverse Youth 

Proskuneo Ministries, a Jesus-centered multicultural worshiping community, provides multiple spaces for the diverse youth of this town to experience safety, a sense of belonging, and individual and collective agency. 

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In Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth series, pastoral leaders from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their ministry work with and for youth through the lens of several key values: youth agency, theological practices, role of parents, intergenerational relationships, and multiple pathways. 

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Our small city of Clarkston, Georgia, is known as “the most diverse square mile” in the U.S. It’s a young city too: 41.4 percent of the population is under 18 years old, and many of them come from refugee or immigrant backgrounds. 

Proskuneo Ministries, a Jesus-centered multicultural worshiping community, provides multiple spaces for the diverse youth of this town to experience safety, a sense of belonging, and individual and collective agency. 

Providing safety and acceptance through hospitable spaces

Many youth in our town came to the U.S. from other countries, following parents who came as refugees or who chose to resettle here. Youth from immigrant homes grow up with home cultures different from the dominant American culture. Most adapt to the majority culture and learn English faster than their parents, so they end up learning to code-switch between at least two different cultures.

Many of those who came as refugees have been through tragic and traumatic experiences without available resources to process or move toward healing and wholeness, so Prosukeneo does its best to provide multiple spaces for youth where they can feel safe, accepted, and seen. This means providing unconditional hospitality without pressuring or coercing them to convert or change. This idea aligns well with what theologian Henri Nouwen said: “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” 

Creating and providing a hospitable space can look like assuring youth that they don't have to choose one culture over another in expressing themselves since many of them are growing up in more than one culture and identify themselves as bicultural or multicultural. Surprisingly, we also see a growing number of American-born youth in our town pushing back on being identified as monocultural. My prediction is that youth growing up in a diverse environment and also being exposed to globally connected media platforms tend to embrace diversity as a normal way of life—a contrast to previous generations. 

In hospitable spaces, we ask open questions such as:

  • How do you welcome the guests in your home? (a question about cultural hospitality)
  • Where do you feel at home the most? (a question about one’s sense of belonging)
  • How do you define your cultural or ethnic identity? (a question about cultural identity)

These types of questions can open up opportunities for young people to be seen, heard, and known without biases or stereotypes that stem from cultural blindness being imposed on them. Providing safety and acceptance through hospitable spaces means giving youth space where they can choose to be themselves without pressure to assimilate or meet the expectations of the host culture. 

Helping youth develop and embrace both individual and collective agency

Many youth from collectivist cultures, such as those found in Asia, Central or South America, Africa, and the Middle East, must navigate an adjustment to the dominant individualistic culture of the U.S., and it’s not an easy task. Inside their homes their identity is deeply woven into a family culture that is collective in nature. They are not used to making independent decisions, and they constantly have to deal with social pressures from their immediate and extended families. It’s hard for them to see themselves as having independent, individual agency. But the individualistic American culture forces them to think independently. They often hear, “It’s your decision, and it’s your life. Live YOUR life!”  

But it’s not that simple. What if someone’s parents kick them out of their homes for making an individual decision to follow Christ? Is your community ready to embrace him or her as part of your family, even to the point of living together? What if someone’s parents decide not to show up for his or her wedding to send a clear message that they are not going to bless or approve the marriage? We often forget that the cultural context of the Bible was collective, and in this context it was written, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12, NIV).

For youth who grow up thinking that it’s impossible to separate themselves from their biological parents or their extended family, the collective identity is deeply embedded in them. We must find ways to honor their cultural traditions and acknowledge their collective agency when it comes to decision making under such pressure. We should not quickly judge their way of doing life as unhealthy codependency. 

At the same time we also need to realize that the Bible also empathizes with the importance of individual agency in verses like this: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, NIV).

In our spaces, therefore, we emphasize developing individual identity and agency to develop spiritual maturity as the apostle Paul describes: “[Christ] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28–29, NIV).

Walking alongside and co-creating

Proskuneo helps youth in our community share their stories through creative means because we believe it’s an empowering process to share one’s stories in community. As they share their stories in safe and hospitable environments, we’re witnessing the integration of self and a journey toward healing and wholeness. Sometimes spoken and written words are not enough, especially if youth are not fluent in English or grew up in a culture where speaking in front of others was neither encouraged nor valued. Creative arts such as music, dance, and visual arts, or other non-text-driven communication like movement, can help diverse youth integrate and express themselves, so we often use artistic means to attempt the co-creating process.

In this process of co-creating, a non-threatening and non-dominant presence of others is necessary. We’re learning how to wait for their pace without rushing or pushing our agenda. It can be frustrating at times not to impose our agenda, but we must believe that youth have resources within them and a voice to be drawn out when patient, listening ears are present. A process of carefully discerning the inner desires and the voices of youth requires faithful “alongsiders.” We need alongsiders who wait to listen, who discern at the slow pace of fellow travelers, who have the posture of a friend and companion rather than an authoritative leader or even a mentor. 

Our vision for co-creating with diverse youth in our town is not simply to provide a space for them to peacefully coexist. We want them to interlock their arms and co-create something new and beautiful, a new creation containing part of who they are now and also pointing to who they are becoming collectively. Just as the beautiful community of the triune God continues to create together something good and beautiful, we want youth in our community to move beyond coexisting to co-create something beautiful in unity in diversity even though the process may seem ambiguous and messy.

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