Someone asked me what the highlight of my weekend at youth retreat was. I had an answer. It was not a very pastoral answer. I thought about lying, but that didn’t seem very pastoral, either. So I said, “When they stayed up past curfew so they could keep singing ‘Trap Queen,’ using nothing but a piano, a single drum, and their voices.”
If you don’t know “Trap Queen,” you are either very white, over 35, or have been out of the country for the last eight months. I won’t defend it as a great work of music or innovative lyrical genius. I don’t herald it for outstanding behavior teenagers should emulate. At face value, you could call it a ready-made rap single promoting promiscuity and drugs.
But it’s important. It’s urgent. It’s excellent. It’s an ode to unapologetic blackness. It’s a celebration of living when everything conspires toward your death. It gives visibility and centrality to the lives of economically depressed black women. It’s one of the most revolutionary songs you can hear on hit radio.
As the pastor of a predominately white church, I’m grateful for the annual Illinois Conference winter retreat. It’s the most diverse event of the year. Mennonite churches from across our region–St. Louis to Chicago, suburbs and farm towns, come together. Youth from black churches, youth from white churches, youth from predominately immigrant churches, youth from churches with no clear racial majority… they’re all together and unlike many adult gatherings, they’re not just doing it out of a sense of institutional obligation. The youth want to be there.
It’s is not that glamorous. Mostly, the lunchroom is still segregated by church, which means it’s segregated by race. They all struggle to get outside their comfort zone.
The moment was so quiet I almost missed it. I had already gone to bed, but woke up after curfew to round up the straggling teens in my group. When I tromped across camp in single-digit coldness, when I opened the door and saw a group of mixed-race, black, white, biracial, African immigrant kids, when I realized the piano’s slow and tumbling melody, when I saw the circle of heads pressed close together, when I heard the mumbling cloud “50-6o grams prob’ly hunnerd grams tho…,” when the lyrics finally settled in a familiar spot in my sleepy mind, my heart lifted. The church is going to be okay. This is the kingdom of God. A handful of segregated churches stumbling toward common ground. Taking familiar lyrics and using the tools available to sing, even when that means the secondhand upright piano is now the crux of a rap song.
If Fetty Wap is our unifying factor, we’re doing okay. At least they are not gathered around the piano like they were yesterday afternoon, just a duo of girls singing songs by white artists that actively critique the value of a faith community while idolizing a destructive model of relationships (*cough cough Hozier cough*).
Six months ago I stood in a bar in California blasting “Trap Queen” with dear friends and acquaintances, a racially diverse room, unified by this song, where we showed up for the anthem of it, where we only danced when the lyrics took us toward the people we wanted to become, and I wondered why I have to go so far from church in order to find this church-like space of hope, celebration, solidarity, self-love.
In that moment, the teenagers proved a theory I’d always hoped for the church. They’re inheriting a more diverse church, and they’re more equipped to clean up white supremacy’s messes than even adults ten years their senior. They will do it better. They know what to do with “Trap Queen.” They know you can take that song to church because it is already theology in the classical sense of Anselm–faith seeking understanding. They know how the secular becomes sacred. They are staying up past their bed time to make sacred spaces.
I went on and called my youth to bed, doing my best to force them to be rested, self-regulating individuals. But that was the highlight of my weekend.