by Katy Miles-Wallace
It seems like no matter our role, we are always worried about the kids and young adults. What are they doing? Will they find their way? Will they change the world? And, more recently, in light of the social isolation spurred by the pandemic, a more crucial and startling question: will they survive? This is compounded when you throw various marginalizations on the fire, from young adults of color amid race-related civil unrest, to LGBTQIA+ young adults whose very creation by the hands of God is still debated by officials of the church, to young adults with neurodivergencies or disabilities and so many more. It compounds, even more, when these young adults hold more than one of these identities. So how do we reach them? How do we let them know that they’re loved and supported in these incredibly hard times? I have a few concrete recommendations for you and also an overarching concept that is no stranger to us but that I think we forget about.
I’m going to be real with you, almost every marginalized young adult has been hurt by the church in one way or another. A little like the joke often made during medical procedures, “You could at least buy me a drink first!” when we come across marginalized young adults and leap into conversations about Jesus and faith, it can feel like we are pressing for too much spiritual intimacy too quickly. Get to know them first. Find out what they do for fun, what they like to read, what games they like to play, what their favorite food is, and where the best of that food they’ve ever had was. It seems trivial but here’s the thing, the more you get to know them and the things that they like and are involved in, the more young adults like them you’re going to find as you begin to engage in those spaces. Whether this spawns TikTok ministry, playing video games online with your students, or a young adult book club around something they’re already reading, it helps you to know where they are and lets them show you how to meet them there.
Marginalized young adults, if you don’t look like them, are afraid of you and with all the reason in the world. You could just as easily be the perpetrator of their next great betrayal by the church as you could be the one who helps them to heal from their past trauma. You have to openly support everyone that looks like them. In my context, this means a rainbow flag in my office and that I wear t-shirts over my clergy shirts that bear the names of great Black leaders. It means honoring the indigenous people on whose land we stand and allowing space for languages, rituals, and cultures that might be unfamiliar to us. It means that I speak up about how loved and supported marginalized groups are all the time, but especially when those groups are spoken against by church authorities. Jesus offers us great examples of this every time we see the words “You have heard it said….” It is our job to be the “You have heard it said” people in our communities, turning narrow ideologies on their heads to create expansive hope for marginalized communities, i.e. “You have heard it said that LGBTQIA+ people are sinful but I say to you that LGBTQIA+ people show the love of God for the world in more expansive ways than we are used to experiencing.” This shouldn’t just be performative either; they can smell that a mile away. So figure out how to mean it and say it loud. Proclaiming these sorts of things on Instagram and TikTok can be great as they’re very public platforms that Gen Z young adults are using regularly.
Once you’ve planted the seeds with marginalized young adults and they start to open up, you have to keep showing up. You can’t just fall off the bandwagon now that you have their interest. Go to their sports games, school plays, speeches, etc. Be there when they do big things, even if it’s only online. And make sure that they know you were there. Invite the congregation to attend things in support of your youth and young adults too. So much of our tendency is to ask “How can we create more opportunities for marginalized youth to succeed?” This is a deeply important question and just as important is this: “How will we support them through the battering of the waves?” Showing up helps to make you another anchor in their lives, a support structure that they can cling to when the going gets tough.
Ultimately, the best thing that you can do for these brave young leaders is to be the awkward one. This is the biggest lesson that I learned in seminary and it really works with any population but especially young adults. Take on the awkwardness of the situation and just own it. Yes, it can be weird to go out on a limb and ask quiet young adults to share their lives. So share about yourself and your nerdy interests first. It can be hard to ask about etiquette around matters of race, gender, and sexuality. So admit that you’re unsure of how things should be, invite them to correct you, and ask anyway. Yes, they probably think you’re old and out of touch. So ask them to teach you about their young world. Yes, speaking up about issues of human decency in such a politically charged environment can be awkward and hard. So speak up and out just like Jesus did, for the sake of the world and so that all people will know they are loved.
Young adults can be intimidating, especially when they’re intersectional minorities dealing with a level of stress that we can’t even comprehend, and especially when we just want to help them but don’t know where it hurts. I hope these tools help navigate some of the larger steps as we all strive to make sure that our young marginalized leaders have the support systems that they need and to give the church a place in that support. May we be the strong branches that help to bear new and vibrant life.
Katy Miles-Wallace (She/They) is the Interim Campus Pastor at Texas Lutheran University. Their favorite moments in Campus Ministry include talking with students and seeing them engage in worship leadership roles. Katy completed seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in 2018 and is currently awaiting call in the Southwestern Texas Synod.