Safe Place to Talk Diversity

Written by Gloria Lee for Youth Specialties:

When I first immigrated to the US from South Korea at the age of 8, I went to go live with my grandparents in Olathe, Kansas. I was the first Asian kid in my elementary school, not to mention the first Korean. Back then, kids had never heard of Korea, and they kept asking me “where are you from again? You’re not Chinese? You’re not Japanese? Then what exactly are you?” I actually got sick of kids asking me about Korea or where I was from, so in 6th grade, I asked my teacher if I could do a report on Korea so the kids can understand my country. To be honest, I don’t even know where I got the idea nor the confidence to even ask my teacher. Thankfully, Mrs. Ater agreed and I was allowed to share about Korea, the country, and its culture, to my class for the next 2 weeks.

I’m forever grateful to Mrs. Ater for giving me the opportunity to help kids understand how I’m different from them, but it doesn’t make me different as a human being. Kids were more intrigued, and they asked lots, and I mean LOTS of questions. This helped them realize the value in different culture… and while I had assimilated into the western culture in a lot of ways, they also understood that we spoke Korean and ate Korean food when we were with family. While some kids from other classes made fun of my small eyes, the kids in my class kept wanting to ask me more questions… one kid even asked me to teach him to write in Korean.

In 9th grade, I was randomly selected from my school district to attend diversity camp in Los Angeles. The purpose of this camp was to dialogue openly about our perception of different ethnicities and cultures and to better understand one another. Some exercises included jotting down all the stereotypes that are out there, and addressing each one which dug into the history of each culture. I didn’t know it at the time, but this camp taught us how to connect with people that are different from us. And we all left the camp with friends from a different cultural background.

Neither of my above experiences included God’s design nor perception of diversity. However, I feel that the church should create safe space for these conversations to happen. What I have learned at a young age through some of these experiences is that people are more alike than different. We all have the need to be liked. We all have the need to be understood. We all have a history that has shaped us to be who we are. And we all hurt when we’re misunderstood or judged.

I have also learned that many of us are curious. We have questions. And the unknown or unanswered questions often lead to fear, and we often jump to our own conclusions or judgment of others. However, there aren’t many platforms where people, especially youths, are allowed to ask and learn about one another.

In the church, we often talk about how we need to love everyone regardless of our differences. However, we often don’t hear of churches nor youth groups that provide a safe place for these conversations to take place. So where and how do we start?

One idea is to provide discussion with a panel consisting of different ethnicities. This can be a place where students can ask honest questions (anonymous questions allowed) about race, culture, and diversity. The panel can help students better understand people that come from different backgrounds. It’s important to establish a safe environment, letting students know that their questions won’t be judged. It’s not a place where anyone needs to feel offended, and allow everyone the benefit of the doubt. Allow the panel and students to express their feelings. Lastly, be sure to allow time to debrief what they have learned, and how this has changed their initial perceptions.

Another idea is to provide an event where students of different backgrounds can connect. Shared experience usually connects people. Whether it’s serving together or playing together (if it’s a team event such as laser tag, make sure the teams are racially mixed). If your youth group isn’t diverse, invite an ethnic or multi-ethnic neighboring church youth group for a joint-event. Allow time for students to converse. You could even have “get-to-know-you-better” games. Once again, be sure to debrief with your group on what they have learned.

We often talk about loving others that are different from us in our youth groups… give opportunities for students to experience and practice being with others different from them. And allow them to live out their faith and the Word of God right now!

14” For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. 16 Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.”  Ephesians 2:14-16 (NLT)

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