Like a young George Washington with his trusty ax, a member of our youth group prepared to limb the felled tree with a chainsaw. M took in the sights of this local cemetery. He placed the saw on the ground and pulled the starter rope. Vroom! The chainsaw started. M was on his way to creating a more inclusive community – with the help of a chainsaw.

cemetary-clean-up-for-sanitago-blog-5.3.17.jpgYou might be wondering how this teenager got his hands on a chainsaw and why this was happening at a cemetery (more on that later), but first let me tell you what sharp metal teeth moving at high speed have to do with laying waste to racism.

Our youth have been well schooled on racial progress. They have read the compelling writings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They've learned about the Civil Rights Act. For most of their lives, their president was a black man. But though the progress has been real, our youth are troubled by the racial tensions in our country, by the injustices that cause millions of Americans to declare that black lives matter, by the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies, and by the hate speech of white nationalists marking its presence in our neighborhood.

Our youth don't want to go back to a time before the march of progress. They want to move forward. They feel the need to do their part to dismantle racism. They feel compelled to start that work at once.

To dismantle racism, we first have to unpack it. Unpacking racism with our youth is good, messy, challenging, and necessary work. The work starts with honest conversations about race and privilege – but it doesn't end there. Dismantling racism is the difficult process of learning (and unlearning) our history; of listening to stories of racism and reconciliation (or attempts at reconciliation); of unpacking the implicit biases and prejudices that divide us into ''us'' and ''them''; of making hard choices to create a more inclusive society. Dismantling racism is the work of justice.

We don't ''do justice'' because it is the hip thing to do. We do it because it is what Jesus calls us to do. Youth ministry is not simply about pizza, fun games, and conversations about hot-button issues. It is about loving our youth in a way that invites them to become disciples of Jesus with a heart for justice.

This work is not as hard as it may seem. The work of justice can at times be fun. I strongly believe that concrete, experiential learning activities work best for teens: hands-on projects, kinesthetic experiences, and so on. It is the type of work that is conducive to discovery and important ''Aha!'' moments.

This belief is what led us to participate in the cleanup of a local African-American cemetery this past weekend. A New York Times article about neglected black cemeteries in Richmond was the inspiration for the project. Conversations with inspired Christ Church community members and with our youth helped our preparation. We would join the spring cleanup of the Christ Church cemetery on Wilkes Street and on the adjacent Douglass Memorial Cemetery.

I'd be lying if I told you I did not have high hopes for this event. I had been thinking about it for months. I had done research on this neglected 19th-century burial ground. I had learned about the women and men buried in its graves – many were former slaves, or the daughters or sons of slaves. A large number of them were born during the Civil War.

I had a plan for the cleanup. We'd begin with a conversation about the history of race and racism in Alexandria – and a prayer for our ancestors buried in the cemetery. I had great expectations for that moment. I visualized youth having one of those unforgettable, connect-the-dots moments, when everything suddenly clicks. The moment when the thinking-cap burns bright and the heart burns with passion for justice. I imagined their faces. I heard their words of regret for the sin of racism and of excitement for the work of justice.

I got ahead of myself. None of these came to be. Competing with the Climate Change March in D.C. and with Saturday morning sports, we had a low turnout. As low as one. One is a lonely number. My excitement died fast. But God had a lesson to teach me about hope and the work of reconciliation that day. The moment my heart began to sink and to taste defeat, an unexpected thing happened.

A felled tree in the middle of the cemetery needed to be limbed. One of the volunteers had brought his chainsaw and the lone teen had the opportunity to use it to complete the task. M's face broke into a grin and his eyes grew wide with anticipation. He would have fun while helping to care for the resting place of forebears who were treated as second-hand citizens in life and neglected in death.

M got to operate the chainsaw with the experienced sawyer showing him the ropes. Over the next hour, these two bonded over the excitement of using a chainsaw and their commitment for a more inclusive world. And all of this without M buzzing off his leg.

After hours of preparation and visualization of what I thought would happen that morning, it was an unexpected connection between two strangers that made all the difference. At times, this is all you can ask in the work of challenging injustice today. You pray for eurekas and moments of hope, inspiration, and transformation, but sometimes all you need is a new connection over our passion for justice. The work of dismantling racism can be a lonely journey, but along the way, God gives us new companions for the work of justice.

In a morning where all my preparation seemed for naught, the lone youth participant bonded with a new companion and had fun along the way. In a neglected cemetery, two strangers learned that the work of justice is not about achieving great things but knowing how to do ordinary things with great care. And doing things with great care together. This lesson is what renews my hope and my commitment for justice.

Sometimes you need a chainsaw to create a more inclusive community. But more often than not, all you need is new companions "to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8).