Recovering the Imago Dei: The Need for Youth Ministry to Embrace an Embodied Pedagogy

 Lord, Lord,

Why did You make me Black?
Why did You make someone
The world wants to hold back?
[1]

I was introduced to RuNett Nia Ebo’s Lord, Why Did You Make Black by a group of Black teenage girls wanting to perform the poem for a Black History Month presentation.  This poem consists of two parts: the first illustrates negative images of blackness as the narrator questions God about her black body; the second part portrays positive images of blackness as God responds and affirms the narrator that she bears the very image of God.  As we discussed the first part, I learned that as some of these girls struggled with what it meant to be Black and female, they too had asked that very question of God.  As we moved from discussion to a performance run through, I was deeply concerned by the interpretation given to the second half of the poem.  The young lady portraying the voice of

God came stomping on to the stage, moving her hands wildly, before placing them squarely on her hip as she yelled and scorned, “Why did I make you black? . . . I made you in the image of me!”  Perplexed, I stopped the rehearsal and asked her why God looked like she was about to hit the girl.  “Because it’s a stupid question,” she responded.  “Yeah, God is mad when you complain about how you were made.”  I went back to the discussion we had just had about the difficulties of being a Black girl and she responded, “Yeah.  It’s hard, but you have to just deal with it.  Why are you asking God?” 

 

Image by Oladimeji Odunsi at Unsplash.com

In their short lives, these girls had learned that while they struggled with negative images they had internalized about their bodies, the very question they wanted to cry out to God is a question that God is not interested in hearing.  Instead, they ought to “deal with it” painfully, silently, and on their own. This is problematic thinking for it not only allows girls to despise the body they possess, but teaches that suffering silently is inevitable.  This conversation is the consequence of girls internalizing distorted views of Black bodies given by secular society and the Church.  This experience raises several questions for me as a practical theologian interested in the spiritual formation of girls.  They picked the poem. They wanted to verbally affirm the beauty of Blackness but did not know how God fit in to all of this.  Why did God’s affirmation of the beauty of blackness (the main focus of the poem) not seem to register?  What is the root of this cognitive dissonance?  Why did they find secular affirmation acceptable, but theological affirmation suspect?  The girls performing the poem didn’t struggle with the idea that they should love their hair, skin, and hips (whether they did or not is another question). Nor did they struggle with the idea that God loved them.  Yet, they struggled with the idea that God loved their hair, skin, and hips.  How can the Church help Black girls reverse the idea that positive notions about their bodies must be kept separate from God?

Image by Mohamed Lammah at Unsplash.com

Largely due to the history of chattel slavery, the history of Black bodies in the U.S. and throughout the Caribbean begins with a distorted image of what it means to be Black. We still see today how Black bodies and other bodies of color are automatically seen as bodies of suspect. In our ministries, this ought to be combated; yet several Christian traditions seek to separate soul and body and treat the soul as positive and from God while the body is seen as negative. Our flesh is something that needs to be subdued or overcome for it is a barrier. Our bodies are treated as an obstacle to Godly living.  Yet we are embodied beings and our identities are woven with our physicality. A theology of social justice, therefore, must wrestle with societal views of race and body. So, to help girls embrace all of themselves and all their identities requires embracing the body and incorporating an embodied theology and embodied pedagogy.

One such theology would be a theological imagination that would prayerfully be fueled by the Church. With society painting the image of the black female with a distorted brush, the question must be raised, what is the role of the Church?  What the role of the Church should be and what it has been may receive two separate answers.  For at times, the Church has not been a part of the solution but has helped fueled the problem. Theological anthropology serves as a helpful theological starting point, for it focuses on what it means to be a human being created by God in God’s image.  The very study of the body assumes that God cares about the body.

Image by Iiona Virgin at Unsplash.com

Navigating body politics with girls in no small feat. We want girls to love their bodies as an extension of the imago Dei within. However, faced with several million-dollar enterprises built on making girls not accept their body, where to do we even begin?  One answer is making sure our youth ministries embraces an embodied pedagogy, a teaching and ministry philosophy that helps girls feel comfortable in their bodies. In order to honor our embodied identities, I propose six principles for using an embodied pedagogy. This is not an exhaustive list, but a beginning list to center the conversation. This list worked within my context, but in each context, those in the group should create their own list to address the need of their community.

  1. Self-care is how we honor our Divine self-worth.

We must care for the body that houses the imago Dei. The answer to a culture that overemphasizes the appearance of the body is not to ignore the body entirely. Instead, we ought to focus on a healthy body and listen to our bodies.

  1. We celebrate the great tradition of using our body to praise God.

Christians have a long tradition of embodied worship. Many people position their body differently for prayer, reading of scripture, singing, and other aspects of worship. Within Black Christian traditions especially, there is a longstanding history of embodied worship though dance, whether it be liturgical dance or dance celebrations. This tradition honors the body by realizing that it is a great tool of expression and is a vessel for praise and prayer. An embodied pedagogy takes cues from an embodied worship and uses the body as an expression of learning. In learning environments, we can do more than sit. We move and demonstrate concepts with our bodies.

  1. Know that you control the use of your body.

There are many societal messages that tell women and girls that their bodies exist for the aesthetic and physical pleasure of men. Unfortunately, there are Christian messages that echo these societal messages and tell girls and women that their bodies belong to their fathers until they belong to their husbands. An embodied pedagogy is mindful that girls ought to always be in control of their bodies. No girl or woman should ever feel that the use of her body is under the dominion of someone else.

  1. Spaces must welcome all body types.

I echo one of Dori Baker’s embodied pedagogy principles from Doing Girlfriend Theology by saying that bodies must be comfortable. Rendering a body uncomfortable signals that it ought to fit only one particular mode, and further, that it fails to fit. In the setting of a learning environment practicing an embodied pedagogy, the physical space should be welcoming to a variety of body types and concerns.

  1. We honor the body. We neither shame it nor treat it as a separate entity or something to be tamed.

We ought to be in partnership with our bodies. Our flesh is not something that we need to be afraid of, distance ourselves from, or be in tension with—even when it causes us pain. It is difficult to love a body that causes one pain. But we work with our bodies, not against them. An embodied pedagogy provides room for caring for our body in pain and keeping it out of pain and teaches girls to honor their body.

This embodied pedagogy works best when rooted in community. Whether it be fellowship between women and girls or community-wide conversations where we talk about these issues. I invite everyone to come up with your own list that fit their contexts. How do you help girls in your ministry feel comfortable in their own skin?

 

[1] RuNett Nia Ebo, “Lord Why Did You Make Me Black” in God Has All You Need: Because All You Need is God. (Self published through Lulu Distribution Services, 1996), lines 1-8.


Dr. Annie Lockhart-Gilroy is a womanist pedagogue and practical theologian who writes and teaches on emancipatory pedagogies and the spiritual formation of youth. She is Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to numerous articles, and posts, she is the author of the forthcoming Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth.  To find out more, visit www.lockhartgilroy.com.

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