Richelle B. White on Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian: Repertory with Roots for Youth
In this episode, Richelle B. White shares her passion for drawing from the wisdom of the Bible along with Black history, Black culture, and Black music as rich, relevant, and necessary sources in nurturing in faith the lives of Black youth.
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 01:05
Richelle White, thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast. I'm delighted that we can talk about your book Repertory with Roots, and for everyone listening today, Richelle White is professor of youth ministry at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. White is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and author of several books and curriculum resources that focus on the experiences and needs of Black young people. Richelle, I'm so delighted to talk with you today. Would you tell us a little bit more about your teaching and ministry context there at Kuyper College?
Richelle White 01:52
Sure, Kristen, and thanks for allowing me to be a part of this experience. As Kristen has said, my name is Richelle B. White. I am ordained in both the Baptist and the AME traditions, and currently I am associate minister at First Community AME Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I have served in a variety of ministries over the years that I've been there. I've served as the youth minister, then that term was later youth pastor. I've been the Christian education director. Most recently, I've served as the student incentive program coordinator, a Sunday school teacher, a member of the clergy development team, and the Daughters of Imani: Christian Rites of Passage for African American Young Women program. I'm also professor of youth ministry, as was said, at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I teach ministry leadership, arts and science courses, as well as social work courses in addition to the youth ministry curriculum. I would consider myself a generalist educator; I teach in multiple disciplines. I'm also the founder and CEO of Cutting Edge Conversations LLC, which is a coaching, mentoring, and consulting practice that is committed to helping, supporting, equipping, empowering others on their journey toward human flourishing. So those are the areas in which I find myself doing ministry.
Kristen Verhulst 03:19
Very wonderful, rich connections across all kinds of different groups and such. So Richelle, would you tell us the story behind the book? Why did you write it?
Richelle White 03:33
Well, the book’s full title is Repertory with Roots: Black Youth, Black History, Black Culture, Black Music, and the Bible. It is a refined version of my doctoral dissertation, which was entitled Holy Hip-Hop: A Pedagogical Strategy for Christian Education with African American Youth. My dissertation focused on using hip-hop music as a tool for Christian discipleship. Repertory with Roots not only included hip-hop music, but all types of Black music, as well as Black history, Black culture in conversation with the biblical text. Basically it's a curriculum that promotes Christian discipleship while it encourages Black youth to be unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian.
Kristen Verhulst 04:27
Beautiful. It has some wonderful—you mentioned curriculum resources, appendices in the back that just give some wonderful, very practical resources. I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit more about how you landed on the title Repertory with Roots?
Richelle White 04:48
Well, “repertory” means collection. So I was thinking of a dance repertory, stories that are collected. I wanted the ideas of Black culture, Black history, Black music, and the Bible to be a collection. So those are the collections, and those are the foundations—therefore the “roots” term. For Black youth, Black history is foundational. Black culture is foundational. Black music is foundational, and the Bible is foundational. So that's Repertory with Roots, a collection of foundations, and those four are the foundations that help with identity formation and development.
Kristen Verhulst 05:31
That's great. The image of a tree with roots—the cover picture is a tree—roots go far, wide, and deep, so it is wonderful to think of these different aspects that all work together and create a root system to support young people. So the book has been out for a few years now, and I wonder, what have you been hearing from people that are using it, reading it? What's been some of the feedback to you?
Richelle White 06:05
One thing I've heard is that I use the term “relational, real, and relevant,” and people are able to see that in the resource. Iit is a welcome addition to the body of curriculum resources written by, for, and with African Americans in mind. When I teach at conferences or engage in workshops or seminars, I'm greeted by people who are surprised by the connections that can be made between culture, history, music, and the Bible. And I've also heard that secular music should not be used in the church.
Kristen Verhulst 06:41
So what's your answer to that one? How do you respond?
Richelle White 06:46
Music is a language. It gives voice. It promotes messages. And when you learn how to discern music and the messages in music, you can make an educated decision on whether you want to listen to it or not. So you can decipher it as having educational value, and you can decipher it as having entertainment value. Or in your own estimation you may say, well, I don't think it's right for me. The music that I choose has been carefully discerned that it has a message. We don't just find our messages in the world today just by reading the scriptures. I've heard pastors say I read the scriptures alongside the newspaper so I can make sense of what's happening. So when they say that, I just smile because, as my grandmother will say, they don't know any better. And if they knew better, they’d do better.
Kristen Verhulst 07:52
Of course, for many young people music is just such a part of their growing-up experience, their culture, their ways of relating to one another. And to talk about it and understand what we are listening to, and even how do the words and the tunes work together to create different ways of being and considering who we are in relationship to God and to one another?
Richelle White 08:28
There's one thing by Don and Emily Saliers called the song line, which means music connects the generations. That was a key thing that I looked at in my dissertation that music connects generations, and that's a part of this process, being an intergenerational work.
Kristen Verhulst 08:46
Is there anything now that the book has been out for a little bit that you would want to change or even amplify in a certain way that you feel even more convicted about?
Richelle White 09:04
Well, I've thought about expanding the resource to include more lessons. Maybe I would like to see a yearlong curriculum. I think as it stands, there are fifteen lessons, because each lesson has three parts. So I would like to expand, maybe for a little bit longer period of time. But more importantly, looking back, I would like to have published two resources. One being the Repertory with Roots book, which outlines the theory, which is why I do what I do. And then the second part a Repertory with Roots workbook so that the lessons will be easier to access. The way they are now, people have to copy them, whereas if they were in a workbook format, you could just say “Turn to page 10” and we'd be ready to go.
Kristen Verhulst 09:56
It makes a resource for them, the young people and teachers to share together and help with note taking and so forth. So here at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we are always thinking about the public worship gathering and how the youth are both participating in or perhaps not being included or left out in different ways. And so I wonder if we could very specifically think about youth and this idea of identity formation and even what the youth themselves—what agency have you seen in your teaching over the years, the various roles you've had in the church, that really encourages all of us adults who work with youth that there is a tremendous value in letting the youth lead and develop a sense of their own agency in things like faith development and worship? What have you noticed in your teaching in church?
Richelle White 11:10
One thing COVID, being in the midst of COVID continually, First Community received a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and that was a life-changing resource for our congregation as we were trying to engage our young people during COVID. For example, the grant focused on prayer, worship, and servant leadership, and so students were actually given a voice, whereas the director of that project sat down with them over several Zoom meetings and asked them what they would like to see done in those areas or how they would like to participate. And so they gave input into worship planning, input into Bible study, input into prayer practices, and they were given the opportunity to create ministry for themselves. So, for example, one of the areas we studied was prayer, and we used the book Lord, Teach Me to Pray in 28 Days. They took that resource and they created a session, or sessions, catered to them as young people. And so they facilitated their own book study on prayer. We were able to see some students who were maybe more quiet emerge as leaders. They prepared PowerPoints, and then when we looked at the whole worship component, they had some very strong ideas about leading worship. And they also had some strong ideas about music, one of those being that we have a designated youth Sunday once a month; they wanted to be involved more than once a month in the worship experience. And many times with these gatherings of youth, these Zoom gatherings of youth, the adults were present; however, they were observers, and they let the young people take the lead.
Kristen Verhulst 13:07
Yeah, that touches on what mentioned earlier about allowing the young people to have a voice and to be able to express their own hopes and dreams for what it means to worship together and have that opportunity to really be heard in that way. Thinking now about one of the roots, which is Black culture, where do you see the intersection between this idea of youth agency, identity formation, and really understanding and drawing from the history of Black culture over generations and years? How do you see the youth learning about that, or even taking the lead and wanting to learn more about their culture?
Richelle White 14:02
Well, the founding of our church is significant. The African Methodist Episcopal Church—I don't know if you know the story of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones going to St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia to pray, and they were pulled up off of their knees and asked to sit in the balcony, and they made the decision that they would begin their own church. So that's our history. And we keep that at the forefront. Every Founder's Day, we make sure we rehearse that story so that our young people can know about their history and their culture. Also, we have a tremendously organized and planned intergenerational Black history program during the month of February. So we always have elements of Black history and Black culture in our worship service. It could be a little bit more consistent with more thorough worship planning. But there are always elements that young people—our young people in particular, because I'm not going to say all young people—our young people at First Community are proud of their heritage. And so we continue in that tradition of raising them up to be unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian.
Kristen Verhulst 15:17
That's beautiful. That brings me right into this idea of youth being able to ask questions that really help lead them into theological reflection. Are there different practices in your own church or maybe going back to the years of teaching and so forth you've done with youth ministry, are there ways that that can be nurtured, this idea of helping you ask questions and be curious about why it is we come together for worship or who God is and what difference does that make in my life?
Richelle White 16:01
Asking questions is one of my hobbies. I love to ask questions. Sometimes I have to catch myself because I may be seeming like an interrogator because I want to know so much information. But in my ministry, over the thirty or more years that I've been working with young people, I've always created space to ask questions, and in Repertory with Roots I have a simple theological method that can be used to help youth explore theologically issues of faith formation—and it's with music. So the first thing would be to listen. What are you hearing? When you listen to this song, what are you hearing, what messages, what themes are you hearing from this music? In a conversation with someone, what are you hearing them say? The first part of the theological process is to listen. And then the second part is to link what they're hearing or what they're experiencing with their own personal experience. Then the third part is: look what biblical themes, what theological themes do we see in that process? So we're listening, we're linking, we're looking. And so after we do the looking where we look for scripture verses or we look for biblical stories or we look for theological themes that connect with what we're listening and linking to, then the fourth step is, where is this leading me? Where do I go forth from here? What questions have I even maybe answered myself in the process of this framework of theological reflection?
Kristen Verhulst 17:53
It sounds an awful lot like many worship services: listening to God's Word, linking with what God is teaching us going forth; when you leave worship, how is God bringing you out to serve in the world? That's great.
You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.
Kristen Verhulst 18:42
Another aspect of faith formation in the worshiping community with youth is the very significant roles of adults in their lives. I'm thinking here of parents, but of grandparents, aunts and uncles, maybe even just a really dear friend with whom there's no biological relationship but who has been a very important mentor in a young person's life over the years. What advice would you give to adults, to parents, youth pastors, grandparents, that would encourage them to support and really nurture the faith identity, the faith formation of young people in the worshiping community?
Richelle White 19:36
I will say the primary thing to do is to make space to listen—not just hear, but to listen. And not just listen with your ears, but listen with your eyes. What are you seeing? What nonverbals are you picking up? And listen with your heart. What do you hear them saying? Reading between the lines, below the surface. And I think that listening means we need to avoid assumptions. Just because we may see them present a certain affect, that may not be significant to their heart condition. That listening is an example of being present. And being present means being there in the moment, turning off the TV. Stop streaming the music. Let's go to a place where it can just be you and I, so listening and being present I think are key. Avoiding assumptions. And be willing to be a teacher and a mentor.
Kristen Verhulst 20:54
And I wonder sometimes, too, along with that listening posture, that it's OK not to always have to give a response. Sometimes as adults, we just need to listen and be still. It could be we actually don't know what to say, but I'm not sure that our young people always expect us to have to say something, that it's sometimes just that being with them is key.
Richelle White 21:25
I remember I was going through a very difficult time in my young adult years, and I just needed my grandmother to listen. And it was something she wasn't expecting to hear. And so I just poured out my heart and poured out my heart and poured out my heart and poured out my heart. It was a long process. And after I was done, she says, “I don't know what to say. What do you want me to say?” And I simply said, “Nothing. I just needed you to listen.” So I will always remember that as an example of not always having to respond, but just listening.
Kristen Verhulst 22:02
And sometimes to be just a deep listener, listening not just with your ears, but your eyes and your heart, over time that really can strengthen a relationship, and then it could be down the road that there's the moment to have a response or a conversation, but sometimes you were too quick to get there first. We need to have more patience with just being and listening.
You mentioned the youth wanting to be involved beyond just the once-a-month Sunday service, but a more integrated, perhaps long-term way of engaging. That brings me to my next question around intergenerational practices. I think that many churches do sometimes get stuck in a mode where they say, “Oh, let's have Youth Sunday,” or “Let's get the youth to lead this one service.” How could you encourage churches and leaders to think of it more as a lifelong process, we're all in this together, we don't segment it out? How can we be better at being intergenerational in the long term, more in a holistic sense, in ways that really then ultimately strengthen the young people in their faith?
Richelle White 23:29
Think intentional. Creating intentional opportunities for intergenerational interaction. I've seen over the years that the seniors love when the young people lead in worship, number one because it doesn't take them all day; they get it done and we get out of church early. The second thing is when we plan intergenerationally, we have to include youth and adults together. We can't just say, “On second Sunday, such and such is going to happen, and we want everyone to come.” I'm finding that if you want people to do something specific, you have to ask them specifically. Again, you have to avoid assumptions that people will come because, say, the young people are singing on that day or the young people are leading and facilitating discussion. So I think we have to have intentional ways of being together. One thing we did at First Community several years ago I did with the Daughters of Amani Rites of Passage for Girls. I had a wisdom table event. I created this long table, this huge, long boardroom table where all the girls and the adults—I asked about seven different women to come: senior women, middle-aged women—to come and share what their passion is. So for one woman, she loves to sew. So she came and taught the girls how to sew a button and a hymn. One other elder’s passion was writing thank-you notes to people who send her birthday cards, so she taught the girls how to write a thank-you note. One of the elders was a financial wizard, so she taught them how to open a bank account and write a check. Another one is a queen of etiquette. So she basically taught them how to set a table and how to eat a meal using proper etiquette. And that was one of the most celebrated events in the life of our girls ministry. But it happened because I was intentional. I was like, “These girls need to know these skills; whether they use them or not, they still need to have them in their repertory.” I think whatever we do that’s intergenerational has to be intentionally crafted.
Kristen Verhulst 25:58
And what a way also to bless the elders, the senior women in the congregation to their gifts and talents that may or may not be lifted up all the time or or made known to everyone. But what a beautiful way to celebrate that. Are there any other not always apparent ways in which those intergenerational practices come together—any prayer practices, or . . . music seems like an example; most people go immediately to youth who can play instruments or sing. But I wonder if there's other elements of the worship service where you've seen youth really shine in joining in worship, whether it's planning, leading, or supporting?
Richelle White 26:53
Well, we are fortunate that we have some good public speakers, so our pastor empowers them to speak on Youth Sunday, so some of them will actually give sermons. Others feel more comfortable reading scripture. Some like doing the welcome. So every facet of the worship service, not just singing, we are including our young people: the welcome of visitors, the announcements. They just wish it was more often and not just relegated to them on that particular day.
Kristen Verhulst 27:30
That's great to hear that eagerness from the youth. That's wonderful. One of the ways we're exploring or helping adults think outside the box are this idea of multiple pathways for youths into the life of the church, and I wonder again, through your teaching over the years, have you come across or honed different ways that youth ministers or pastors can think about all these different avenues that bring young people into a life of faith or the life of the church that maybe are surprising, are not so apparent to to ordinary worshipers that really can help us expand our imagination about how it is we connect with young people in the life of faith?
Richelle White 28:30
I think we're looking at the life of faith in the church from a holistic perspective, that it's more than worship. Of course, we include them in worship, but we also include them in Christian education, such as a Bible study or a Sunday school or workshops or seminars. So it's not just “we come on Sunday and that's it,” but we have the opportunity to meet and fellowship with one another throughout the week. Also outreach: we have an outreach department and a food pantry, so our young people are involved. We also get those food trucks from time to time, which requires a lot of hands on deck to get people moving through the line. So our young people come specifically for that to help outreach. It helps them to see, to look out for others. We also had denominational opportunities for our young people to serve. We have what's called the YPD, which is our connectional Young People's Department. They do some things on the local level, which would be Michigan; the connectional level, which would be the Fourth District, which comprises the states of Indiana, Illinois, Canada, Michigan, and Indiana. We've had young people to be a part of that as worship leaders for the Michigan conference; we've had them participate in the Bible Bowl, where they go and do Bible trivia games with youth from across the connection; and then we also have young people in those leadership positions where they serve as well. So I think it's very important that we pass along our denominational interaction and affiliation as well as our local church structure. Because the AME Church is a connectional church. One church is connected to the other, and we're all accountable to our form of government.
Kristen Verhulst 30:22
That's wonderful. And what a beautiful way to help young people learn about how the church works together in being the body, and a great way to also continue to build on learning the history of your particular denomination. That's just wonderful. So Richelle, it's been great talking. I wonder now as we close out our time if you have any words of encouragement, words of wisdom to anyone listening, whether they be young people or adults in the lives of young people, and especially African American young people, what would you encourage those listening?
Richelle White 31:10
One of my favorite people in all of the world is Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was an educator, and a college president, and an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And she founded a school for Black girls with $1.50 selling sweet potato pies in Daytona Beach, Florida. And that girls school now stands as Bethune-Cookman University. And I've always been impressed and inspired by her legacy and her love for young people. So there's a quote I'd like to share that she wrote that I think sums up how I feel in this moment. Dr. McCleod Bethune says, “We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.”
Kristen Verhulst 32:25
Richelle White, thanks so much for joining me today.
Richelle White 32:29
Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.