By Josh Kinney
NEPTUNE – They’re here in our midst, and they’re stepping out in faith. Scattered across Greater New Jersey United Methodist Churches are bold, confident and courageous high school leaders who are committed to journeying together toward an understanding of racial justice in the U.S. and their lives. They’re called ‘The Joshua Generation,’ and they’ve embarked on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage through historical places, encountering the people that made equality happen and meeting those who continue the work in some of the most challenging spaces.
Thanks to a generous grant from The General Commission on Race and Religion, GNJ is sponsoring this pilgrimage for a group of 15 diverse high school students from across the conference who have already begun sharing their hearts, building bonds, and having deep, difficult and life-affirming conversations with one another.
Led by Rev. Brenda Ehlers, Associate Pastor for Children, Youth, and Educational Ministries at Morrow Church in Maplewood, the group began their first monthly meeting on September 15 at the Mission and Resource Center where they were given writings by some of the leading thinkers on race and civil rights. The group brainstormed, discussed, shared stories and opened up about experiences dealing with issues of race and social justice in their own lives.
“I think this is a fantastic opportunity,” said Vivienne Diaz of Sussex UMC. “I really do want to be a change maker who builds community in the church. I hope to grow as a person and remove my biases and prejudices and make myself a better person.”
Diaz’s mother first learned of the Joshua Generation through the GNJ Digest weekly e-newsletter who passed the information onto her daughter.
“I’m already a leader,” declared Diaz when asked how she could lead in her present context and circumstances. “I try very hard to make sure people get heard and have their say. I know I can do more. Now it’s just about finding people who can help me do that.”
In the Joshua Generation, Diaz has found a team of like-minded students committed to social justice.
“Imagine boarding a bus with a diverse group of other students to embark on a journey through the places of our country’s most significant Civil Rights events,” said Ehlers. “Imagine walking the grounds where middle and high school students held hands and protected each other from attack dogs and fire hoses and took bold steps forward toward their own and each other’s freedom. This is what the Joshua Generation Civil Rights pilgrimage is all about.”
From in-person and online gatherings to travels to the cities of Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Birmingham, Jackson, Selma, and Montgomery, students will come face to face with history and return supported in their own efforts to bring about justice in their schools, churches and communities.
“I hope from my experience I will become more aware of the history of our country, how the past has influenced the present, and gain confidence in being able to go out into the world looking at things critically,” said Jessica Canning of Morrow Church.
For Canning, having this unique pilgrimage experience before college was something she wanted for herself; heeding a call of “responsibility to be a change and a force for good in the world.”
Emma and Elizabeth Deery of Sparta UMC expressed their excitement to meet new friends from across GNJ with similar interests and a desire to “take charge of their lives.”
“I find hope and meaning in connecting with other people and hearing their stories and learning about their experiences,” said Elizabeth. She believes the best quality a leader should have is confidence.
“You have to be confident with who you are and with the fact that you can help other people branch out and change lives,” she said.
“I’m most excited about the travel,” said Emma. “We learn about Civil Rights in history, but we don’t actually get to go see what happened, and I’m so blessed to have that opportunity. I hope to grow as a person and make new friends but also learn more about myself. It will be a hard journey, but one that’s worth it.”
Nhammo Flomo of St. Mary’s UMC in Burlington expressed a hope to grow in his faith and character through the Joshua Generation pilgrimage as well as learn about the courage of Civil Rights leaders and activists. Colette Mutetke of Grace Union UMC echoed Flomo’s sentiment.
“As soon as I heard about it I thought it would be amazing because in the world we live today, learning about other cultures and societies and the ways in which they carry themselves and have been treated in this country and others is something I think is awesome to know and will get you far in life,” she said. “I want to come away from this experience with a new light. I hope I’ll be able to confront and talk to people in ways I never thought of before that will ensure the safety and respect of everyone.”
Wheeler was impressed after the group’s first meeting by how each student dove deep and stayed engaged.
“It really speaks to their commitment and the importance of this in their lives and faith and the work that needs to be done,” she said. “The students were so good at acknowledging where we are. Their honesty and willingness to take chances in a grace-filled way, especially within a new group speaks not only to them but to the work of GNJ, their pastors and their parents.”
Wheeler believes the group’s upcoming readings will speak to the students in different ways, putting them in a good place to think about what they want to do in their local communities.
Having always been interested in social issues, Myleah Estes of Hamilton UMC sought ways to connect her faith. That pursuit led her to the Joshua Generation where she hopes to learn from others and share with her church community.
“I’m white, so I don’t really have personal experiences dealing with problems of race but I have learned about it and I want to learn how to properly have conversations about this and fully understand it more,” said Estes. “I see hope in people rallying around the world and coming together to make the world better.”