Luis Cortés: Esperanza builds an ‘opportunity community’ for Latinos in Philadelphia

Don’t tell the Rev. Luis Cortés that Esperanza is something special.

It is, of course. And he appreciates the compliment. But he doesn’t think that an institution like Esperanza, which serves the Latino community in North Philadelphia, should be special.

“A place like Esperanza should be normative. We have 30 neighborhoods in the city; there should be 30 Esperanzas,” he said. “There should be 30 places where you can participate in the arts, where you can learn about and play music, where you can experience different forms of dance, where you can learn photography, where you can learn how to add and subtract.”

Just because people are poor doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the same things that everyone needs for a good life, he said.

Founded in 1987, Esperanza seeks to help the residents of Hunting Park, a majority-Latino neighborhood, have the same opportunities that other residents of the city enjoy. It focuses on education and economic development, including affordable housing, schools, housing counseling, immigration legal services, workforce development, youth leader training, and a fully accredited branch campus, Esperanza College of Eastern University.

The organization — its name means “hope” in Spanish — has more than 600 employees and a budget of more than $70 million and is a model for other institutions across the country.

Cortés, who is a Baptist pastor, worked with Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia to found Esperanza. He earned an M.Div. at Union Theological Seminary and a master’s degree in economic development from Southern New Hampshire University. 

Rev Cortes
The Rev. Luis Cortés

In this interview, he talks to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about why he founded Esperanza and why he thinks institution building is key to social change. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You have a goal of building an “opportunity community.” What do you mean by that?

Luis Cortés: Our ontology has a set of concepts and categories, and the relationships between these are fundamental. There is a Creator, and there are the created. Those are givens, as fact. So we start there. The other thing that’s given, as fact, is that all human beings are equal in God’s eyes.

If you believe that, then you must believe that we should try to provide a great opportunity for everyone to become that which God would have them become. To be in service to humanity is to assist everyone to develop to their highest potential. That’s our modus operandi.

This understanding then is followed by the question, what do you do with the poor? The mission work is to create a place where you provide all residents the opportunity to live a quality life. What must you provide for people to reach their ultimate goals, to be able to serve humanity better despite their economic situation and to have them feel they have a good quality of life?

This is what becomes an opportunity community, the development of all things needed for individuals to reach their potential. As an example, we built a theater and we have cultural pieces, like teaching dance, teaching music, all from a cultural perspective.

students practicing music
Students learn music, dance and other disciplines at Esperanza schools, which also bring in the top arts organizations in the city to perform and teach.

All people come from and have a culture. We have a language, we have music, and for Latines, we are in exile — we’re away from where our culture was based.

What do we do to create an opportunity community — a community that understands your class and your culture and helps you build so that you can have a great life staying here in this neighborhood or you can use what you learn here and have a great life elsewhere?

F&L: How did Esperanza begin?

LC: I was the founder of Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia in 1981, an outgrowth of developing a field education system for Latine students at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was about 26 clergy from about 18 different denominational entities.

These clergy were all in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, and they had never really worked together until we organized as a field education consortium. As a group of clergy, when we would get together, like any group of highly motivated concerned citizens, we inevitably become active on challenging issues of the day.

We were getting together to discuss field education, quite mundane. And then all of a sudden, conversations shifted to, “They shot a guy here last week” or, “The police did or didn’t perform,” and we just moved in the direction of the conversations and became a civil rights organization.

During that time, Pew Charitable Trusts did a study on religious institutions, and as a result, we got funded for three years to start Esperanza and to work in clergy education. The clergy hired me to do it, with the mandate to do the clergy education and create a proactive organization, Esperanza.

In the beginning, the more we helped an individual family, the more it hurt the local church. As we helped individuals, the family moved farther away from their church, eventually joining a suburban congregation.

What we learned as a group was, it doesn’t matter if our people leave to improve their lot, as long as we create an institution that remains to assist those that stay or can’t get out.

Our philosophy became that we will work together to create Hispanic-owned-and-operated institutions. We began working on that theory of institution building where we could control the mission and agenda of our community, as opposed to the present-day external control.

We as Hispanic people in this nation have never focused on this on a large scale. We’ve never created our own institutions. What we do is we assume that we will inherit the institutions of America as we become a larger part of America. But that is not how it works. The institutions that provide for and control our neighborhoods are all managed externally: police, fire, schools, streets, most businesses.

So we decided we only wanted to create Hispanic-owned-and-operated institutions. We had enough Hispanic institutions that were doing social service, so we decided to not compete with our follow Latine agencies. We focused on education and economic development.

We wanted to do education because education is the first step and we understand institution-building as economic development.

When we first got started, it was like, “How do we help people?” Now it’s, “How do we help our institutions help people?”

F&L: How did you come to appreciate institutions in this time when there’s a lot of cynicism, a lot of distrust, a lot of anger around institutions?

LC: Since our nation’s beginning, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that it is associations and the institutions that they create that make Americas unique.

We’ve got to think positive. We serve our communities and our neighbors. So if everybody would do as well as they can at their community-serving job, whatever that is, we should be headed to a better place.

As the religious population lessens, there will have to be alternative institutions that defend the rights of the poor. Historically, the church has responded to the poor first through charity, then the development of institutions like hospitals or schools. Advocating to change unjust laws.

If that faith role dwindles, we have to figure out who or what replaces that. I see that as a major problem for the future.

F&L: In addition to the institutions, you are making change in individuals. The documentary “Esperanza: Hope for Our Cities,” for example, shows that commitment. Why do you stress self-belief, grit and confidence?

LC: I went to public school in Spanish Harlem. When I got to elementary school, they said to me, “You can be president of the United States.” And I looked around, and it’s old, it’s decrepit, it’s dirty, it’s outdated, and I’m like, “Nah, no way.”

For many people, it’s hard to self-motivate if you don’t see anyone else around you achieve success. We need our youth to “make it.” Last year, in our graduating high school class, we had MIT, two people at Carnegie Mellon, and one girl went to Wellesley, among a plethora of state colleges and universities. It is now normative.

Part of our model is we must have modern equipment. The space must be super clean. Visitors come to our place and they say, “Wow, this is so clean.” It’s a compliment. I understand. But it also says something about their expectation.

When I’m told, “Wow, this place is clean. This lab is so modern,” what are they saying? That in their preconception of economic poverty, they did not expect a first-class lab here. They did not expect, because of the economics, this place to be spotless. They do not expect your top five students to go to those schools, and you have one of the top college-graduating high schools for Hispanics. They do not expect that.

Whatever prejudice they brought in begins to be challenged, right? It’s like — look at this: MIT, Harvard, Penn. When they see that, they say, “Something special is happening.”

While there may be truth to that, it’s only special because other people won’t do it. Our team at Esperanza figured out how to do it, creating a culture of opportunity.

I believe there’s nothing that we can’t do. It’s just about how much time you have and what are your priorities. People ask me about this all the time — “How did you do it?”

Well, you find the need and fill it. And once you fill it, create an institution behind it, then find the next need and fill it. And once you fill it, create an institution that survives until it can thrive.

F&L: You mentioned the cleanliness, and you also insist on giving Esperanza’s students and other participants the best in other ways. Why is that important?

LC: We start with the concept that we should have what any community has. If you look at most communities and the arts, for example, they have access to experiences and ways to learn; they have ways to experience music, acting, dance and painting or visual. We have to create the avenues.

First we got the theater, and then through the theater, we do dance. But we also brought the best of the region. So the Philadelphia Orchestra plays at our theater; Opera Philadelphia sings in our theater; the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra plays at our theater; Philadanco and the Philadelphia Ballet dance in our theater.

We communicated to these arts institutions, “When you come to our neighborhood, it has to be your A team.” Normally when they go to a community, they send the B and C team so they can work and practice as they serve a neighborhood project. At Esperanza, if the A team ain’t coming, you don’t come.

The artistic talent also has to give time during the week to work with students. Not just Esperanza schools, but there are about 10,000 public school children in our neighborhood. They do workshops and our community youth interact with them. After their theatrical performance, they sit and answer audience questions for 15 minutes. We have found the arts groups love these interactions as much as our residents do.

F&L: You also work on gentrification. How much of an issue is that for you?

LC: The bottom line is that urban communities near centers of our American cities where working-class Spanish-speaking people live are being dismantled by an upper middle class and above who wants their land and their housing so they can capitalize economically and culturally. It is happening everywhere.

Cities are happy with the gentrification or displacement of our neighborhoods, because it means a better tax base for the city. So when the city gains, the economically disadvantaged lose. That’s a constant struggle.

We need to build up equity in Black and brown communities. The No. 1 equity builder in Black and brown communities is not giant companies; it’s mom-and-pop commercial shops and home ownership. What we can show is, as we lose the housing, these mom-and-pop shops are destroyed.

So, the real question is, do we really want to help Black and brown people, or are we just saying we do while we actually cash in on their assets?

In America, they’re taking our neighborhoods under the guise of mixed income communities. In St. Louis, Black neighborhoods are being bought up by universities. West Philadelphia, it’s universities and science centers. North Philadelphia, it’s another university and the corporate needs. So they push people out of their long serving neighborhoods.

Today, young professionals don’t want to spend money on a car to live in the suburbs. They prefer to live in the city, not have a car. They’ll just Uber and use the money saved on transportation for restaurants and recreation, which is fine. But the economic burden falls on the economically disadvantaged, who need to move farther away to more expensive housing, losing the businesses that cater to their needs.

It’s interesting that progressive communities are the ones that gentrify Black and brown neighborhoods. It’s not the conservatives. Conservatives avoid minority communities, while progressives enjoy moving into a culturally mixed neighborhood until they extinct the original ethnic group that was there.

Progressives move in during their early professional career, purchase housing cheaply, live there for five years and make six figures on their “investment.”

It’s a real interesting dynamic where we fight the conservatives on one side and we have to fight the progressives on the other. They do have one thing in common: they’re white.

The role of the church should be different. How do we talk to progressives to say, “Listen, I know you can make money by moving into my neighborhood, but you’re hurting us. How do we really build a mixed income community?”

There’s a dynamic that’s happening in our country. San Bernardino, Phoenix, Calle Ocho in Miami, San Antonio, Philadelphia. Chicago, with three distinct Hispanic neighborhoods. They’re all under the same pressure.

F&L: How do you keep from being overwhelmed when everything you describe is extremely complex? It’s difficult. Yet almost 40 years later, you’re still hopeful.

LC: I am a minister. I believe in God. And in the end, we are all called to serve others. Despite all the problems, our job is to persevere and pursue. And persistence is the name of the game.

When we first got started, it was like, “How do we help people?” Now it’s, “How do we help our institutions help people?”

For almost a decade, I’ve enthusiastically followed Streetlights’ journey as the organization’s innovative Latino leaders re-imagined the audio Bible, infusing it with the vitality of hip-hop beats and showcasing diverse and authentic voices. Their artistic vision and dedication to placed-at-risk youth speaks directly to my heart.

Born from a vision in a basement 17 years ago, Streetlights has grown into a thriving nonprofit with an $800,000 annual operating budget, 75,000 newsletter subscribers and 430,000 app users worldwide, according to its leadership. It has achieved international influence, reaching 18 million plays of its audio Bible — currently in Spanish and English — with plans for more languages. Beyond the audio Bible, its initiatives also include the Corner Talk teaching video ministry and a music ministry through its touring band, ALERT312.

ALERT312 is a music ministry of Streetlights.

How Streetlights expanded from basement dream to international reality offers a powerful learning opportunity for us all, including for my own role as an executive director. Since visiting the Streetlights studio in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin community last fall, I’ve gleaned valuable lessons in organizational leadership and capacity building from its inspiring story of collaboration.

Esteban Shedd, Streetlights’ co-executive director, said his vision emerged from the disconnect many youth in his community felt toward the Bible. They found it inaccessible — difficult to understand and hard to relate to culturally — with a lack of engaging resources. Shedd, inspired by the scripture “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 NKJV), envisioned a culturally relevant, bilingual audio Bible for the digital-native generation. That led to the development of artistically rich digital tools that engage young people from urban communities in their heart language.

Streetlights app
Streetlights has 430,000 app users worldwide.

Shedd patiently refined his vision over two years, supported by prayer, discussions with leaders and family, and in-depth research about resource production. He waited for the right moment — confirmed by the Spirit and community support — balancing the demands for action with the wisdom to nurture the vision, anticipating when peace and faith would align.

The catalyst came from a friend at GRIP Outreach for Youth, a faith-based nonprofit working with Chicago’s young people, who suggested that Shedd speak with that organization’s executive director. This conversation ignited Streetlights’ inception, leading to a series of conversations and careful planning with GRIP’s board. Bolstered by their support, including covering his salary for a month, Shedd was offered precious time and space. GRIP evolved into an incubator for Streetlights.

But, Shedd said, it was a challenging decision for some in GRIP’s leadership, given that GRIP, too, works with urban youth in underresourced neighborhoods. The initial wariness that the partnership might strain GRIP’s limited budget eased after a board member highlighted how Shedd’s culturally relevant Bible project aligned with GRIP’s mission, offering new ways to serve youth.

Shedd said those who were hesitating realized that the organizations’ missions weren’t separate but an opportunity for unity; they came to see GRIP as part of a larger, interconnected ecosystem. Strategic planning for the partnership began, focused on communicating clearly and engaging stakeholders, crafting a framework that equipped GRIP to effectively navigate and adapt in this new role.

album cover The Lord is Beauty
ALERT312’s album cover for “The Lord is Beauty.”

This was also a leap of faith for Shedd. Newly married and juggling his roles as rapper and hip-hop group leader, he committed to Streetlights despite the economic uncertainty for his family. Through prayerful consideration, he and his wife found peace, understanding that vision and conviction are crucial in Christian leadership and may precede funding. Trusting in God’s call and in GRIP’s leadership, Shedd entered into a mutually affirming partnership, where he knew that his vision would be honored, with no attempts to change, control or compete against it.

GRIP’s support meant more than guidance — the executive director and board offered spiritual backing, mentorship, friendship and essential connections for the work ahead. Shedd vividly remembers Scott Grzesiak, GRIP’s founder and then-executive director, providing unwavering encouragement during uncertain times, which was vital to persevering.

In that crucial first month, Shedd devoted countless hours to developing Streetlights’ business plan, capturing its vision and how it would fit within GRIP’s fiscal umbrella. Thanks to the supportive environment provided by GRIP, Shedd was able to avoid some of the typical challenges that organizational leaders face — playing multiple roles and wearing various hats, risking feelings of isolation amid a flurry of meetings, swinging between exhaustion and exhilaration as the vision takes shape.

Out of the Tension... Comes Beauty
ALERT312’s album cover for “Out of the Tension… Comes Beauty.”

During this phase, Shedd harnessed his skills as a hip-hop group leader for strategic planning and building social capital. He laid the groundwork for capacity building and sustainability by earning trust from leaders, forging connections in Bible publishing and engaging in effective fundraising. And he wisely focused on community and collaboration, as he sought advocates both within and beyond GRIP.

Shedd initiated scaling efforts, taking on odd jobs with friends to contribute toward the salary for Streetlights’ second team member and leveraging his artist community ties for a digital audio Bible demo’s fundraising. This pivotal first year set Streetlights on a path toward resilience and significant growth, focused on mobilizing resources, managing finances and coordinating volunteers.

What began as a one-month commitment became a nine-year dynamic partnership between GRIP and Streetlights. Within GRIP’s abundant and creative embrace, Shedd and his co-leaders, Loren La Luz and Aaron López, transformed Streetlights into an autonomous organization. As with Acts 2:44-47, Streetlights and GRIP united under a common vision, sharing resources, celebrating collective successes and meeting their community’s needs with joy and gratitude toward God.

The partnership between Streetlights and GRIP exemplifies the power of unity, faith, generosity and a mutual commitment to enhancing capacity. It underscores how organizations can come together to create transformative outcomes.

Streetlights’ journey inspires me to broaden my organizational leadership views, sparking questions like: What resources do we have to empower others? Where can we find partnerships to build essential support systems and strengthen our capacity?

Rooted in Christian values, such an ethos of collaboration reminds us we are not meant to tackle this journey alone. Together, we grow stronger, shaping a future that transforms capacity building, where collective progress and innovation become our common goal.

sound mixing
Streetlights’ leaders reimagined the audio Bible to reach a younger audience.

For decades, vacation Bible school has been among the most effective church tools for reinforcing biblical lessons among youth and engaging in community outreach and evangelism. But over the past few years of extraordinary challenges, as some churches have stopped offering VBS altogether, others have begun exploring new ways to deliver the content.

The traditional VBS model for educating youth, typically during the summers, was founded on a concept that dates back at least to 1898. But VBS may be undergoing significant changes that were accelerated by the pandemic, according to a multifaceted five-year study, Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond COVID-19 (EPIC).

As recently as 2019, 36% of churches offered VBS and/or church day camps during the summer, according to EPIC findings. By 2020, that number had dropped to 17% of congregations. Although the number of churches offering VBS climbed back to 36% in 2021, that level of participation did not appear to be sustainable. Only 31% of the 615 church respondents said they planned to offer VBS in 2022, the last year for which the EPIC study had available numbers.

These trends with VBS seem to be directly tied to declining rates of volunteerism in churches. As of March 2022, about 20% of church members overall were volunteering — down from 40% in early 2020, the EPIC report revealed.

And 57% of churches in the 2022 survey reported volunteer challenges in their education programs during the previous two years. Since volunteers are primarily responsible for children’s education in nearly 60% of churches, those programs, including VBS, have been significantly affected.

“Traditional models of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School may no longer be feasible in many congregations either because of the lack of volunteers or the lack of participants,” the study’s April 2022 report on religious education said.

concept art

Interested in more research relevant to Christian leaders?


Exploring new ways of hosting VBS

Many church leaders currently are grappling with how to continue offering VBS programs that can accommodate limitations like declining volunteerism, according to Melita Thomas, team leader of training and events at Lifeway Christian Resources. Each year, Lifeway supports VBS training for more than 60,000 participants across the country.

Thomas portrait

“People are getting creative about how VBS looks. They’re breathing fresh life into it by doing it in nontraditional ways and in nontraditional settings,” Thomas said. “The pandemic helped, because it broke the mold of VBS for a certain number of hours of the day during a specific number of days in a week at the church. And the idea that you need to have crafts, music and recreational activities went out the door with COVID.”

However, the process of switching to new formats isn’t always easy.

Thomas said many church leaders have expressed reluctance about moving away from the more traditional model of VBS, in which churches host daylong activities as part of a summer camp experience.

“VBS doesn’t have to be what it used to be,” Thomas said. “Leaders must be realistic about what they can offer. VBS can consist of what you’re able to do now. That means you may not be able to do it in the same way as before, but it’s still worth doing.”

Church educational programs like VBS, no matter the format, can provide critical support for youth — especially during challenging times like those caused by the pandemic, Thomas said.

“We’re seeing epidemic levels of anxiety, disconnectedness and loneliness among a generation that’s more connected to technology than ever before,” she said. “VBS becomes a very practical solution to that. Children can unplug from their devices and plug in with caring adults who build relationships with them and show them Christ in all they do.”

Equipping your VBS team for success

Church education leaders preparing to move forward in these new times with a successful VBS model must look at three essential areas — adjusting capacity, instilling a sense of mission and equipping the VBS team through training, Thomas said.

Leaders can start by determining the bare minimum of what they can offer. For instance, if a church has three to six key volunteers, they can assess the team’s overall strengths. It might be that one person can supervise crafts but no one has volunteered to lead music. If that’s the case, the program can be built to focus on crafts and lessons but eliminate music as a component, Thomas said.

“Church leaders need to acknowledge their restrictions, limitations and budgets, and take into account what works best for the children they serve,” she said, noting that they can use VBS resources to craft their own programs.

For example, church leaders have experimented with short VBS sessions in the evenings, after more volunteers are available to support the program, Thomas said.

Second, it is important to instill a sense of mission for everyone participating in VBS, whether it is passing out snacks or overseeing activities. “It shouldn’t be this thing that we feel obligated to do because we’ve always done it,” she said. “It’s important that people grasp the ‘why’ behind VBS. And it needs to be communicated in a way that it becomes a revolutionary force in the church.

“So even if you’re the snack lady, you should have a sense that your purpose is to reflect the light of Christ, watch for gospel opportunities and build relationships with the children,” she said. “They need to see that what they’re doing is much bigger than the task they were assigned.”

With that sense of purpose, volunteers are more inclined to participate, Thomas said.

Last, training and support provided on the front end — before VBS starts — increases the likelihood of VBS teams being successful and being willing to return for future programs.

Thomas also encourages church leaders to be mentally prepared to make shifts with different types of educational church programs.

“It may be hard to let go of what you did in the past,” she said. “There’s always a bit of grief adapting to the reality of what you’ve lost. But if you can turn your attention to what you can do and what it can be, embrace the success in that.”

Thomas said that these changes with VBS may be temporary. “It doesn’t mean that what we had pre-pandemic will never return again,” she said. “We just have to take a couple of steps back and rebuild based on what’s available to us.”

The wave of white Christian nationalism sweeping through various levels of government in recent years is showing up prominently in education. Proposed and passed legislation constrains or prohibits public schools from teaching children about our nation’s history of racism and racialized violence and how society can address racial inequities and racial justice. Books have been taken off public library shelves.

In the face of these realities, what can churches do to infuse their spiritual formation curricula for children and youth with a robust anti-racist theology? I’d suggest three shifts that churches, faith leaders and volunteers can and should make to be more explicitly anti-racist: epistemological, material and structural.

Epistemological shifts

Before making any material or structural changes, those involved in spiritual formation must make some epistemological (or cognitive) shifts in their own understandings of race and racism. This means beginning to evaluate their unexamined assumptions of race, how racism works at individual and societal levels, and how predominantly white culture influences the reading and understanding of the Bible.

First, they must learn what “race” is and how race categories shape people’s life experiences. There is an abundance of materials out there that can assist in accomplishing this. One resource I’ve found helpful is “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. This book is easy to read and addresses many common questions around race and racism with a targeted yet graceful poignancy.

Second, those involved in spiritual formation must begin to see the relationship between interpersonal racism and structural racism. One of the definitive studies on children’s socialization into race is “The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism,” by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin.

Van Ausdale’s research shows that children as young as 3 use race and skin color to categorize, include and exclude other children in play. Further, she found that young children learn to employ racialized rhetoric from the larger culture beyond the direct influence of family and school.

Third, spiritual formation practitioners must learn how their cultural standpoints shape their reading and understanding of the Bible. Esau McCaulley’s “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope” challenges readers to see the Bible through the lens of Black church tradition to connect messages in the Bible with Black experiences and questions.

As churches, faith leaders and volunteers do the work of shifting their perspectives on race and racism, they become better equipped to tackle more material shifts in their formation practices.

Material shifts

My research has found an overwhelming lack of diverse racial and ethnic representation in illustrations, pictures and media. Further, Montague Williams shows in his book “Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.” that conversations about race and racism are typically either avoided or restricted within youth formation spaces.

Among the simple things churches can begin to do: diversify their materials. This goes beyond being “historically accurate.” Through the centuries, multiple cultures have depicted biblical characters and stories through the lens of their own ethnicities. Alongside white representations of Bible stories, those involved in spiritual formation can include renderings that are African American, Korean, Guatemalan, Navajo, etc.

They can draw from Bibles and storybooks with different racial, ethnic and cultural representations in illustrations and perspectives. These materials can easily be found through searching online or reaching out to diverse networks of practitioners in spiritual formation.

In addition to diversifying representation in materials, churches need to normalize conversations about race and racism as part of spiritual formation. There have been scant attempts at creating lessons that deal specifically with race and anti-racism. While any such attempts are a good start, anti-racist conversations must go beyond special topics or series.

Anti-racism needs to be woven throughout the practice of spiritual formation. As churches teach through the Bible, Scripture must be allowed to speak for itself on issues of race, racism, anti-racism and racial justice. They may find it helpful to use supplemental materials like “The Gospel in Color,” by Curtis A. Woods and Jarvis J. Williams (there are versions for kids and parents).

Finally, churches can tell stories of racially marginalized Christians, their histories and their experiences. Churches predominantly made up of racially marginalized people can tell their own stories of encountering God as a racially marginalized group and how their racial and ethnic identity forms them spiritually. Other good sources for stories include materials like People of Color Who Inspire, from the Godly Play Foundation.

Structural shifts

After doing the work of making epistemological and material shifts, churches need to implement some structural shifts to sustain anti-racist spiritual formation practices beyond the immediate public crisis we find ourselves in.

These structural shifts include creating external accountability to maintain anti-racism as part of the explicit spiritual formation curriculum, such as joining or creating networks of racially and ethnically diverse spiritual formation practitioners. This has become easier in the past couple of years as we’ve navigated a steep learning curve to connect virtually in various ways.

Another structural shift is to include racially and ethnically diverse voices in the leadership, teaching and oversight of spiritual formation. Predominantly white congregations can seek out such diverse voices, through books, podcasts, trainings, etc., can spiritually form and influence how congregations approach the spiritual formation of their children and youth.

Most importantly, churches need to pray for God’s help to make these shifts. They can pray for wisdom, courage and insight on providing youth and children with a robust anti-racist theology in their contexts. They can pray for opportunities to stand alongside parents as they partner in the spiritual formation of children and youth. They can pray against the sin of racism in their communities and for ways to push back on the forces that would erase the experiences of racialized minorities in the public square.

Anti-racism needs to be woven throughout the practice of spiritual formation.