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Lenten Conversations: Almeda Wright on Helping Teens Live Faith

March 31, 2017

Another Way for week of March 31, 2017

Lenten Conversations: Almeda Wright on Helping Teens Live Faith

Editor’s note: Last in a six-week Lenten series of interviews Melodie Davis conducted with influential Christians over several years.

Dr. Almeda Wright, courtesy photo of Yale Divinity School

Almeda Wright is the youngest of the influential Christians we’re hearing from in this series for Lent. So likely you have not heard of her yet but her influence and vision for helping us understand teens and faith in our culture today will spread as she teaches religion at Yale Divinity School .

I did write briefly about Dr. Wright in an earlier column comparing her upbringing to my own, which in some ways was remarkably similar in spite of her African American family. She too was the daughter of a deacon (Baptist) who also checked on his daughter’s religious life while she was in college by asking during Sunday evening phone calls, “How was church?” A huge additional difference between us is she loved math and engineering and went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) while I would have totally flunked out there!

Her academic work for her doctorate included extensive study and research on faith and youth. I met and interviewed her at a conference now called Faith Forward. She was reporting on studies she did over three summers with youth leaders who participated in a faith based leadership development camp.

She had asked these youth—admittedly a group inclined to be much more religious than average—how they have experienced God in their personal lives. Over 90 percent said they had personally experienced the presence of God: sometimes in things such as a test in school (her favorite answer) but also in worship, nature, and personal prayer. They recognized God’s blessing in their lives. They were also the kind of kids who were active and involved in service projects and helping others.

But, and this is the kicker for Dr. Wright, these youth rarely if at all connected their personal faith to problems in the larger culture like racism or drugs or poverty. Her hunch was they hadn’t been empowered or encouraged to make those connections and to figure out what Christians should or could be doing to make a difference. She further suspected that too often in our churches, the personal relationship with Jesus is seen as what’s important. Wright believes absolutely that a personal bond and belief is important, but wants people to take their faith further into the world.

Today’s youth (in contrast to earlier times) have parents whose major creed may be translated as “play nice in the sandbox,” Wright half joked. The religious beliefs of the youth are separated from their experiences of an evil like racism, or they absorb that religious faith is just private. She believes churches and parents can help teach teens the link between a personal faith and making positive changes in the world.

What gave Wright her tremendous sense of the importance of faith in all of life? It was her family, and we’re not just talking her nuclear family, but the whole extended family where her cousins, aunts, and uncles were all part of her church. “So on Sunday we were going to church and on Wednesday Bible study, and on Saturday there was youth group or choir or an usher meeting,” she described. “I remember singing and leading worship as early as five.”

She went to a Catholic school for awhile and there religion was taught across the curriculum, including making crosses out of straws or macaroni, things like that, and was immersed in many religious traditions and rituals.

Yet her path to teaching in the field of religion was not clear cut. She was studying engineering at MIT because she’d always been good at math, but took a semester off from her major to study art, history, and religions broadly (Christianity and Islam) in Spain. When she got back to MIT, she finished her degree in engineering, but wasn’t sure what to do after.

Because of her strong beliefs, she considered ministry, but two things were holding her back. “I’m a Baptist and I’m black and I’m from the south and that means that there were not women in ministry in my tradition. It wasn’t even something that I could foresee as an option.” Of course in Massachusetts she did see women in ministry, and “all of these things came together” to give Wright a new idea of how to serve God with her life. She did end up being ordained for teaching and pastoral ministry.

Most of us don’t have firm ideas while younger of how to put together personal faith with a path of serving God in our communities and world, but over time it becomes clearer. But it won’t if kids are not exposed to these ideas from an early age.

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” the old Proverb goes (22:6, NIV). While that does not always happen, we can use the traditions of Lent and Easter and other religious holidays to “teach your children young” as the old Crosby , Stills and Nash lyrics go. Another line from that song echoes Wright’s message, “You … must have a code that you can live by.”

***

For a free booklet, “Talking to Your Kids about God and Faith,” send two U.S. postage stamps and write to Another Way Media, Box 363, Singers Glen, Va. 22850.

Hear a presentation by Dr. Wright given at the Children and Youth New Kind of Christianity (now called Faith Forward) conference. Dr. Wright also has a forthcoming book due out Summer, 2017,  The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans, Oxford University Press.

 

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books, most recently Whatever Happened to Dinner. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.

 

 

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2 Comments
  1. Thank you for introducing us to vibrant Christians I would not otherwise know about: a theologian teaching at Yale, but put off by the constraints of the Baptist church that discouraged women in ministry. Last week I found a newspaper tribute to Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus which my Ruthie held onto. (Golly, she kept everything!). You surely must know that RBS was the first woman ordained by the Virginia Mennonite Conference at age 74.

  2. My pleasure to share these pieces and thank you, Marian. Yes, I certainly knew Ruth Stoltzfus who was an encourager in so many ways–maybe not actually a mentor, (I didn’t know her that well) but we exchanged letters at times, and greetings. She also had me review her memoir manuscript at one or two points as she was writing it. So she was certainly an influential Christian and woman in my life–but I never interviewed her. But what a strong and powerful woman!

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