In faith communities, Gen Z minorities struggle to find where they belong

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(RNS) – Generation Z is the loneliest generation on record, desperate for a space to belong.

This is especially true among young people who identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of color (hereafter BIPOC), according to a new study. In spring 2022, nearly a quarter of BIPOC youth (24%) said they “did not thrive” in friendships and relationships with trusted adults (35%), compared to just 18% and 30% of white youth, respectively. While 16% of white youth disagreed “there are people in my life who really care about me,” that figure rose to 22% for BIPOC youth.

Drawing on a slew of surveys and interviews with young people across the United States, “Navigating Injustice,” a new study from the Springtide Research Institute, explored whether religious communities are seen as spaces of belonging for BIPOC youth, as well as how faith communities can create and support mentally healthy communities for BIPOC youth.

The surveys were conducted in 2021 and 2022 and included 3,159 young BIPOCs between the ages of 13 and 25. Additionally, the study includes 30 in-depth qualitative interviews with self-identified BIPOCs in the same age group. Springtide’s core mission is to survey the spiritual beliefs and practices of 13-25 year olds, including their level of engagement (or lack thereof) with religious institutions and faith communities.

Obstacles and pathways to membership in religious communities

Although many BIPOC youth identify as religious (76%) or spiritual (78%), even strongly, we learned that many BIPOC youth primarily assess belonging to faith-based communities through a racial/ethnic lens. This is true even for those who are already connected within a religious community, as they discern whether they feel safe navigating the issues of adversity there.

We asked participants: “How, if at all, has your racial/ethnic identity shaped your experience with your faith community? One respondent – ​​May, a 20-year-old who is black/African American – clearly expressed, “I’m the person who can’t leave (race) outside of a space. Being black shapes how I think about things in many ways and what I tend to think about. Religious or spiritual places are no exception.

When the question was reversed – “How has being part of your religious community shaped how you think about your own racial/ethnic identity?” — May struggled to answer. This, as evidenced by the rest of his interview, was not due to a weak involvement in his religious community, but because the question of how religion dealt with race was not intuitive for May, as for many. many other participants. May replied, “Hmm, sorry, I’ll just repeat the question. … How is it shaped? Like when you say, like, how has that shaped my racial identity? What do you mean? Like how I, what does that mean?

Many young BIPOCs in our study, like May, seemed to have an innate appreciation of how their racial/ethnic identity shaped and gave meaning to their lives. This likely explains why BIPOC youth, according to our study, are more likely to turn to race-based communities (e.g., cultural, racial or ethnic affinities or neighborhood groups) for health support. before turning to a faith community – especially if faith communities show a lack of understanding and appreciation of minority faith experiences.

Leading with their racial/ethnic identities, BIPOC youth enter religious communities with certain hopes and expectations for how these communities will support worshipers of color. “Accessibility is a big thing,” said Kate, a 21-year-old Japanese-Mexican American. She said that includes “listening, meeting with congregants of color to see what their needs are and holding a common space for them, appreciating the different cultures that exist in the church through events, and educating the whole congregation about accessibility. in racial/ethnic matters. identity.” Kate and other interviewees told us that they can sense when a congregation does not understand the unique experiences of BIPOC, reinforcing the mixed feelings and hesitation they have about joining a religious community.

Instead of relying on religious communities, some BIPOC youth choose to engage in private spiritual practices. In Springtide 2021’s “State of Religion & Young People,” we asked participants what helps them cope during a tough or challenging time, finding that BIPOC youth are 14% less likely to connect with a religious community than they are. they are not to engage in private practices like prayer. This is consistent with our interviews, in which we heard respondents cite private coping practices such as writing, nature walks and dancing – which often had a spiritual component – ​​over traditional religious practices linked to institutions.

“The State of Religion and Youth: Navigating Uncertainty” Courtesy of Springtide Research

Camren, a 23-year-old Latino, described his private spiritual practices as “a decision to open my computer and just write down my thoughts. After a quarter of the first page, I felt my anxiety subside. For young people, the need to engage in communities of faith may seem less necessary if they are using spirituality to navigate adversity on an individual basis.

Other practices that came up frequently were meditation and breathing; engage or create art through music, dance, poetry; connect and communicate with ancestors; affirm and celebrate their racial and ethnic identity; and effect change through faith-based activism and other forms of civic engagement.

Suggestions for religious leaders

BIPOC youth, like many of their Gen Z peers, benefit when they discover a deep sense of belonging to community, including religious communities. Faith-based communities, however, are rarely seen as a place to belong for BIPOC youth.

A major step in caring for BIPOC youth is to listen well and validate their racial/ethnic identity and experiences, which may include religious trauma.

Hayley, black/African American and 17, told us, “A lot of black kids have religious trauma, that’s why we don’t set foot in churches anymore. They don’t listen to us. They invalidate our feelings. We don’t feel welcome. God could accept me. But the people who run his house don’t.

Compare that to Isabella, Hispanic/Latino, 23, who said, “My faith community positively influences me by honoring my culture and identity. It takes all the pressure away. »

Part of that pressure, we learned, comes from feeling that the young BIPOC still needs to be the one addressing race in the community.

“I don’t want to be that person who talks about race or some kind of social issue. There is a balance between wanting to push the space to talk more about racial and social issues, but not wanting to take all the responsibility of doing it yourself and being the one who always starts or turns towards that,” explained Mia, 20 and black/African American.

Religious leaders should equip themselves to lead the charge in addressing social issues that concern young BIPOCs, rather than burdening young BIPOCs with this responsibility.

Now is the time for faith leaders to start building mentally healthy communities for BIPOC youth. After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, more young people now say they trust places of worship more or completely because of their handling of the pandemic (36%) than less or not at all (20%).

During the upheaval and uncertainty of the pandemic years, young people continued to harness the unique power of faith to help them overcome challenges. A majority of all young people now agree that their religious/spiritual life is important for their mental health (66%), while nearly three-quarters (73%) agree: “My religious/spiritual practices have a positive impact on my mental health.”

Faith leaders should harness Gen Z’s growing trust in religious institutions, as well as their enthusiasm for the healing power of faith, to create cultures where BIPOC youth can thrive.

The research in this report reflects questions asked in surveys conducted in 2021 and 2022, with a pooled dataset of 3,159 BIPOC youth, aged 13-25, for a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points. percentage. The last two questions in this article had 696 BIPOC respondents.

(Josh Packard (@drjoshpackard) is executive director of the Springtide Research Institute. Hannah Turner (@viahannahmaria) is Puerto Rican and a rising junior at Yale University while also serving as a research intern at the Springtide Research Institute. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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