I knew Deebo Samuel from the time he was in middle school. His story teaches us that empowerment involves standing with, not just speaking for.
During Super Bowl Week, people from South Carolina had reason to be excited about the San Francisco 49ers. Their star receiver is a product of the Upstate and the University of South Carolina. Deebo Samuel is making a national name for himself, and he added to it with an outstanding performance in that game.
Some of us are a little bitter that the Niners suddenly forgot about him in the 4th quarter.
My friend Jed Blackwell wrote an excellent article about Deebo’s career and how much he had to overcome to get to this point. High school friends and coaches surrounded him with the support he needed to stay away from the pitfalls of drugs and gun violence that surrounded him. He now uses his notoriety to support causes that seek to curb violence, the kind that persisted in the neighborhoods where he grew up.
All I could think when I was reading the article was how much I should have done to help Deebo, and all the other young men around him. And I didn’t. I did not do nearly enough.
When he was in middle school, Deebo used to attend a youth group at the church where I was the youth minister. He usually came with a whole group of students from school who regularly attended on Wednesday nights.
Let’s be honest, a lot of youth sit through the Bible study to get to the end, so they can hang out or shoot basketball or play video games or eat pizza. That was pretty much the main reason I sat through youth group when I was a student.
Maybe that’s why Deebo attended. But neither I nor the volunteers who led the ministry took enough time to find out why he was there, or what he needed in his life.
We were an all-white church with a large number of African American students attending the youth ministry. Unfortunately, navigating the distinctions among these populations was not easy—even in the place where diversity should be second nature.
Sadly, some people opposed us extending the ministry to these young men and women who lived in our own neighborhood and attended our community school. Some people wanted us to stop reaching out to these young people. The quotes were what you might expect. “Those kids” were too disruptive, and only came to play basketball. They never came to “our church” on Sunday morning. They were distracting my attention away from “our kids.”
Let us not go too far down the road of picking apart the myriad of wrongs in these lines of thinking, or even dig too deeply into the true motives for these comments. That these thoughts are in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ is relatively easy to point out.
Instead, let us give thanks that PLENTY of people from that church took a stand against this kind of thinking and declared our intention to reach out to all people in our community. As loud as the opposition was, the outpouring of support drowned out the noise, especially from the youth themselves. A few of these opponents even had their hearts and minds awakened, so they joined in to help continue a holistic ministry to our community.
What was good and right and holy won out. So why does this feel like a failure on behalf of the people of this community?
Because it’s not enough just to be opposed to racism or speak out against those who would prefer that we close the doors of the church to “those kids.” Making a difference means speaking up for the students who need more than a weekly Bible study to navigate their lives.
Deebo possesses exceptional talent, strength, and resilience. He utilizes that talent to overcome the obstacles that life throws into his path. But why should he, or any other student, face that without the support of his community church? What happens to those students who do not have that talent, strength, or resilience?
What I failed to do was fight for the resources to dig into the needs of students like Deebo. I did not ask nearly enough questions, or spend nearly enough time diving into the issues facing the underserved neighbors that lived right around the church. I was complicit in the racism of some in our church because I did not advocate hard enough to invest more of our time, talent, and treasure to empower those students who needed us the most.
In these uncertain times, we have to do more than just claim, “I’m not racist” to our friends and neighbors. There is a tremendous need for voices to cry out for action and justice as we stand with the vulnerable. There is a tremendous need for us to listen to the cries of those who face the issues that Deebo Samuel faced.
It is not the call of white people or those of privilege to declare what “those people” should do. We are implored to let children like Deebo inform us of what they need in order to overcome the challenges they face. We are called to learn first and offer action based on our newfound knowledge. Such action happens in conjunction with communities of color and economic hardship, not in place of them.
In other words, this is not a statement of regret that I did not act as the “white knight” riding in to save our poor little brown brothers and sisters, incapable of helping themselves. Nor is it an effort to ease my guilt. It is my confession that I did not do nearly enough to help the children in our community. It is a lament that I did not listen, learn, and act in unison with those who struggled so hard against the hardships that life brought to their doorstep.
What a great story we could have presented to the world if we had helped Deebo Samuel overcome his struggles, rather than just “allowing” him to come to church. But it’s not about getting on the Super Bowl pregame hype. What a great story of redemption and the power of Christ we could have offered, if we had done everything possible to help all the youth of our community to escape the dangers and temptations that life presents.
I can only hope that Deebo and his classmates will accept my apology for not doing nearly enough. And my promise to listen and learn in an effort to find out how to be better and do better in the future.