The Resilient Disciples Podcast has been featuring the faculty of the Child Discipleship Forum. Recent guest and speaker is Eli Bonilla, National Millennial Director for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a Masters Fellow at OneHope. He shared what it was like to grow up being labeled and how kids take on the labels they are given. When these labels are not accurate or godly, or when they limit kids’ abilities to live as Christ created them to, it’s up to loving, caring adults to step in and provide redirection.
Identity and Boxes
“I’m as American as they come,” said Eli. “I was born in LA, but I was raised in south Texas. My mother is from the Dominican Republic. She’s an immigrant from Santa Domingo and my father is an immigrant from Mexico. They both moved to the United States around the age of 12; they met in college in Tennessee. And so my world view is all over the place.”
Eli explained that with his mixed background, he doesn’t “neatly fit into a box,” but is often told he must select one from a list of pre-determined identifiers.
“Once you pick [the identity] of that side,” he said, “you’re picking, in many ways, for the general public.” Calling these identities of race or political affiliation “superficial,” he says identifying with them begins to limit how you see yourself.
“We don’t allow conjunctions. … We either say you’re this or you’re that. We don’t allow ourselves to be this and that.”
Being a person of mixed race and ethnicity, Eli said he wrestled with his identity. “I’m Latino, but I’m not first generation. All of a sudden I felt this pressure to be perfect in my Spanish or learn all the Spanish songs that I never knew growing up to justify my Latino-ness or to accentuate all that people were throwing at me like, ‘You’re the Latino in the circles.’ First of all, I am two distinctive nations of Latino and they are not similar at all. And so very quickly I found I fell short.”
Eli explained that after marrying a Palestinian-American, the ethnic diversity of his kids is even greater. “Now I have kids who are “a quarter Dominican, Mexican, Palestinian and Anglo,” he said.
The Beauty of Revelation 7:9
One way he has found to help himself and his kids is to “lean on” Revelation 7:9.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, language, standing before the throne and before the lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
As he thinks about the culture they are growing up in and how they will shape the Church of 2050, he is concerned about how they will identify themselves. “Where are they allowed to land? What parts of them do they have to suppress to be tolerated on the side they choose. … The public discourse, the public square has become so binary, and yet the stakes of what we’re talking about are so high. We can’t let binary win the day.”
“It makes you wonder, okay [you] get to keep a couple of things when [you] go to eternity. You get to keep your color, you get to keep your language, your tribe that you were born into, your ethnicity. And so I think that understanding that God loves that about you, that God loves your skin color, God loves the language that you speak, God loves the culture that you come from.”
Understanding that God formed us all and put His image in us is key, said Eli. “The imago dei that is within all of us, we all share that. He put his hands on and formed us, but within that commonality, there’s also distinctives, there’s the diversity.”
Children, he says, need to be taught about their imago dei, that “God loves the way He created them, but that what they look like or where they come from is not the fullness of who they are.”
Three ways to help kids learn who they are in Christ.
1. Help them understand the difference between their identity and their identifiers. According to Eli, the world has become more prejudiced, and people judge others by their appearance, their social media posts, how they look, dress or speak. “We just silo them off and identify them by [an] identifier. If we’re not careful, we can allow our identifiers to become our identity. And then instead of developing a Christ character, we just become caricatures of other people’s labels on us.”
2. Help them have courage to stand up for character instead of identifiers. Recalling those moments when people assumed he was going to create an issue and, therefore, followed him around Walmart, Eli said. “I’ve had those moments where I didn’t get to choose to be labeled. These people don’t know I’m a credentialed minister. What you do with their choice is up to each individual, you can choose to buy into the narrative that culture has put on you because it’s easier or you can choose to have character, which is way more in depth and say, ‘Hey, I know the predominant view of people that look like me, sound like me or come from my background, my neighborhood … I don’t ascribe to that. I want my character to be built on something more robust.’”
3. Help kids understand the difference between uniformity and unity. Eli believes unity is handled poorly in the Church. “It’s just getting everyone on the same page to sing the same songs, think the same things to be passionate about … [be] asked the same things, [be] fed the same things.”
Calling that uniformity, he explains the difference. It’s “equal sacrifice among all involved parties.” He gives an example of a multi-ethnic church in which you can say, “I’m Latino and I do have African roots within me from the Dominican side. But I am not African-American, and so I do have to allow my African-American brother and sister to lead me into the unknown of their experience that I don’t have. And then, vice versa, them allow me to lead them into the unknown of the Latino experience.”
That, he says, is unity and diversity. “There is an equal shared sacrifice of, ‘Hey, we’re gonna create space for everyone that comes from a different place to lead us into what we don’t know.’ And not just assume we do or gloss over and say, ‘Okay. That’s too complicated. Let’s just all do the agreed upon thing.’”
As a Christ-follower, our job is to disciple.
Eli exhorts us all to “not underestimate how receptive and perceptive young children are and how open they are to hearing very complex topics and nuance.”
He says, “We have the unique opportunity to be the ones to do the discipling. And if we’re not intentional with our discipleship with our children, our tablets and our iPhones will be the ones doing the discipling. And in that, we don’t get to choose. Technology is what it is, and we can’t put our kids in a bunker … and hide them from the realities of the world.”
For those who are unsure they have the knowledge to disciple, Eli says, “The Holy Spirit is equipping fathers, mothers and pastors to lead the next generation, giving them wisdom in times of very gray areas … and conversations for revelation to spring up.”
Give Children Diverse Experiences
This is all possible, he continues, by being intentional to expose your children to diverse voices and experiences, and to take them to a variety of restaurants. “If you’ve got families in your church that are multi-ethnic, go to their houses, hang out with them; let your kids hear different languages. There’s plenty of opportunity for your children to experience a broad variety of people.”
Doing these things are “great opportunities to build up the next wave of Christians that are going to see the Gospel going into the future.”
You can hear more of the Resilient Disciples Podcast with Eli Bonilla by listening to A Revelation 7 Vision for Ministry and Culture. To watch his talk at the recent Child Discipleship Forum and view the sessions of other CDF speakers, order your access now.