By: Angela Giles
January 28, 2021
Meet Montague Williams, associate professor of church, culture, and society at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. He is also the author of Church in Color Youth Ministry, Race, and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr. In his Q&A, Montague shares what inspired him to write this book, why churches need a re-reading of Dr. King’s work, how he views mentorship, and his hope for the next generation of faithful leaders.
My first in-depth encounter with FTE came after meeting Dori Baker at an event on religious education. After an evening of conversation, she suggested I participate in FTE’s former VocationCARE program, which was designed to support and resource leaders who focus on helping young people discern vocation. I was serving in a student development position at the time and was preparing to shift to a teaching position I had recently accepted. Whether chatting in a student development office, teaching in a classroom, preaching in a chapel, or providing guidance on a pilgrimage, my own sense of vocation involves helping others discern vocation. Needless to say, I was very thankful for the invitation.
I was intrigued by the way VocationCARE brought together practices and meditations that allowed participants to dig deep into one’s own sense of wonder and reach wide to honor insight from various cultures and traditions. I have been happy to remain a part of the FTE community by serving as a vocational discernment coach, facilitating workshops, and rooting for emerging leaders preparing for all kinds of creative leadership.
Overall FTE, has allowed me to feel free and to feel like there’s a place in the world of theology for me. It’s also been a hopeful vision of what’s to come in theological scholarship and ministerial leadership. The future looks really exciting and, through the FTE community, we get to embrace it now.
I’ve found that being a mentor takes a lot of commitment because half of the work of mentoring, especially mentoring young people from marginalized and minoritized groups, is combating voices that say “you can’t do this” or “who you are doesn’t exactly fit.” For me, half the work is constantly pointing out amazing things about the work, creativity, voice, and insight of the person I am mentoring and showing them how much it’s needed in the field or in places they want to go.
It is easy to think the goal of mentoring is to make replicas of yourself, but it’s not. Being a mentor means helping people be themselves and see who God is calling them to be. If you focus the work on making personal replicas, then you’re only going to mentor people like you. I think of how such practices have fostered inequity in leadership for so long and stomped over the kind of creativity needed to see organizations become liberative spaces. Along these lines, only mentoring people like yourself prevents you from learning in the process. My best mentors are ones who I am now friends with and who have slowly welcomed me in as someone who also teaches them.
The book is a revised version of my dissertation, and it seeks to highlight the narratives, experiences, and questions of young people in multiracial and multiethnic congregations. Before going into PhD work, I was a youth pastor serving ministries in Chicago and Kansas City. Both youth groups were diverse in different ways, but there were questions around race, identity, and vocation in both settings that were difficult to answer. The vast majority of youth ministry resources assumed that white megachurches were the norm or should be the norm, so they were obviously not helpful for the contexts where I lived and served.
When I conducted research for this book, I looked at three congregations in three different cities with distinct multiracial and multiethnic demographics. One thing that emerged in the research is that each congregation had their own way of attempting a racially colorblind mode of discipleship. What made this strange is that the research was done after the death of Trayvon Martin and during the beginning of unrest in Ferguson. While I thought I might run into some traces of racial colorblindness, I did not expect it to be such a driving force in all three congregations. Interestingly, in all of these congregations, there was a nod to King’s one-liners or King’s accomplishments as a motivation for their frameworks. Other nationwide research showed King was a common source for congregations to sanctify racial colorblindness.
King was one of the theologians I focused on in my doctoral coursework and exams. So after trying a variety of different routes, I realized that what was most needed here was a re-reading of King to help rethink the work of youth ministry in a way that engaged the experiences and questions young people raised. I use published and archived documents to display how King’s take on eschatology, Christology, pneumatology, and praxis come together to call for an aesthetic resistance to racial colorblindness and other manifestations of racism.
There are a lot of ways of getting at the realities of race in youth ministry and church life. Church in Color addresses the way some congregations have come to believe that young people need the physical and social walls of a church to foster places of racial innocence and colorblindness. What I show is that such discipleship actually abandons the way of Jesus and asks young people to leave their bodies at the church door and receive a deflated form of discipleship. That is not faithful to the Gospel, and it is not a testimony of the Beloved Community. Of course, my goal is not to just show the problems but to promote transformation. I take time in the book to outline ways congregations can implement needed changes for the sake of young people.
My hope is that faithful leaders in congregations and other contexts find encouragement to bring their whole stories to their work of discernment. It’s when we allow ourselves to dig deep into our stories with the love and grace of God that we can emerge as leaders the world needs.
My hope for emerging leaders in theological education is that they find the calling and freedom to turn to the lives of people whose stories and voices have been neglected in the academy. Part of our vocation as scholars can involve making room for neglected stories and voices to shape theological questions and directions. I think the pressures of dissertation work, tenure, and promotion amidst the culture of the academy can lead scholars to believe this is not possible. But we really can do theology for the sake of the people we care about. You don’t have to abandon yourself or your communities to be a theologian. In a world where reality seems up for grabs, what we need are theological scholars who engage what’s happening in real life. In the end, the questions we find there are the more difficult ones, and our work to answer them will have a longer-lasting impact in shaping the world for which we long.