This year’s theme is “The Life….” Today we continue that theme with…..

The Life of Someone Else

Zachary Helton is the Youth Pastor at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, TX. He writes curriculum, stories, and film reviews at
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-”
“-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
-Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee, 1960
In the weeks leading up to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) taking home the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of 2017, Saturday Night Live ran a revealing sketch in which a regular guy (Aziz Ansari) is arrested and interrogated in a small room by two hostile cops (Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett) because he was caught on camera speaking ill of La La Land (2016). During the interrogation, Ansari mentions he liked Moonlight better, and both of the cops melt into obligatory comments about how it’s so good and important. When asked if they’ve seen it yet, they begrudgingly admit that they haven’t, with Bennett weakly saying, “I just can’t get myself to go…” and Strong defensively agreeing, “Yeah, just ‘cause I know it’s gonna be a whole thing…” then hastily changing the subject. In this fictional exchange, SNL revealed a sin each of us are guilty of: avoiding the stories of people that aren’t familiar, that aren’t like us. Asked to comment on Moonlight’s Oscar win, one film critic and social activist said it deserved to win because it asks one of the most important questions you can ask in the midst of this cultural moment: “What is it like to be you?” If we can’t learn to honestly ask that question and be non-judgmentally present to hear the answer, then our work of love and peacemaking won’t go far beyond self-gratifying piety.
This is a moment of deep division in politics, race, gender, and nationality, of carefully curated echo chambers and unexamined biases, with few putting in the work of trying to understand those who are not like us. Without that work, without trying to glimpse into the life of someone who experiences the world differently than you do, how will we know how to best enter into Christ’s work of love and reconciliation?
As youth workers, we have the opportunity to help our students engage stories that take us into the lives and experiences of people who are not like they are. We can help teach them to engage the most popular form of storytelling that exists in our culture: movies. By cultivating a healthy diet of stories through film, we can learn as a community to be more empathetic and compassionate, to love more like Jesus did, and to become more aware of our own, often unexamined place in the world which we have always assumed is normative. Good stories slip past our ego to show us when we have played the role of oppressor or perpetuator of injustice. They help us find a starting place for engaging in diverse relationships and beginning the long work of loving reconciliation.
Youth workers are in a place to help our students engage stories of people of color or stories of systemic racism, like the ones told in Marshall (2017), Whose Streets? (2017), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or even Zootopia (2016). Or women’s stories like the ones told in Battle of the Sexes (2017), or Mulan (1998). Or LGBTQ+ stories like the one told in Moonlight (2016) or Rent (2005). Or stories of people trapped in poverty like the ones told in The Florida Project (2017), or The Pursuit of Happiness (2006). Youth workers are in a place to help teenagers ask the questions: Where are you in this story? What does this story say about us? What does it say about God? What stood out to you or left you with questions? Of course, you know your youth group, and you know what kinds of films their level of maturity can handle before it becomes distracting or flies over their heads.
Youth workers are in a place to claim movies as the powerful agents of communal and spiritual formation that they can be. We are in a place to teach our teenagers to approach all stories, whether scared or secular, not as occasions to shut down and mindlessly consume, but as opportunities to better love God and their neighbors.
After all that, if people in your congregation still need convincing that movie nights are worthwhile endeavor, you can always watch Pulp Fiction and call it a Bible study on Ezekiel 25:17…