Black youth are taking a closer look at Black experiences in Canadian churches — and their research is helping congregations improve their offerings while furthering the United Church’s commitment to anti-racism. The Young Black Scholarship Program, a new project launched in March 2021 and funded by Mission & Service, explores topics like enhancing well-being and creating safe spaces for Black people in the church.
The scholarship recipients — Amelia Brohman, Noah Janosch Brown, Andrew Johnson, Brianna Lane, Jonisha Lewinson and Sifa Zahinda — are all members of the United Church. Since they began sharing their research last September, they have presented their findings online to six churches across Canada.
Given the denomination’s complicity in racist legacies, says Brown, the United Church has a “responsibility to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous or people of colour] and queer communities.” Brown points to the history of residential schools as an example. “Most churches…participated in some aspect of that,” he says.
Lewinson emphasizes that Black people have experienced segregation in Canadian churches. Historically, they were excluded from church by white Christians. “Black people had to then go and create their own church, which also became their lifeline,” she says. Black churches became centres for public health and education, and served other community needs.
While churches are no longer segregated, Zahinda sees Black people leaving predominantly white churches like hers because they’re uncomfortable. It’s inspired her research on how to make the church a safe space for everyone. “I wanted to find out where the church went wrong. Is it because the music, the culture, the environment is so different, and white folks are not willing to accept that?” she asks. “Maybe a little change won’t really hurt.”
Lane, who also attends a predominantly white church, encourages ministers to make services culturally diverse. She suggests inviting guest speakers, so people in the pews can encounter different perspectives, adding that churches need to “think about the congregation members that are sometimes left behind.”
Among those excluded are people in need of mental health resources. Lewinson wants churches to pay more attention to youth and discuss mental health, something that would be especially beneficial for Black youth dealing with racial exclusion. “It’s hard when the place that you go to worship and you go to experience God doesn’t really talk much about [mental health],” she says.
While the history of Black people in Canada and the church shocks some congregants, others are often reluctant to acknowledge the impact of white harm. Most people, however, are receptive and grateful to receive the information, according to Brown. “What I really appreciated about this whole process with the United Church is they have full belief in us,” he says. “They don’t really try to dictate what we do.”
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Brown adds that the Young Black Scholarship Program allowed the scholarship recipients to research anything they felt was important.
With the presentations having wrapped up in November, four recipients — Brown, Lane, Lewinson and Zahinda — are now creating an anti-racism curriculum for United Church youth. “What we’re creating now is everything I needed when I was a little kid,” reflects Brown. “I want to expand this practice to something else that sort of transcends the church.”
Sherlyn Assam is a writer in Brampton, Ont. This story first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2022 issue with the title “Black youth research and share.”
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