As quiet as it’s kept I’ve been teaching college students for 20 years and doing youth ministry even longer than that. I fell upon teaching right after I finished seminary, still in my twenties, a bit naïve, not sure what I was doing but always up for adventure. A private Christian college hired me to direct their college prep program for urban high school students, help connect college students to city ministries for volunteer work, and teach one course each semester. The student population was majority white, middle class, suburban and evangelical. I thought it would be a cake job, but it was one of the hardest jobs I’d ever done in my life. No one told me that my physical body would be a source of anxiety in some students. After all, I was black, female, and had an urban affect. Yea, I was a Baptist from Philadelphia and wore that more than I realized.
The day a white male student in one of my classes assumed two things about me was the day I began to plan two options 1) my departure from what I started calling “that nasty white evangelical world,” or 2) stay, get tough, and do some real education. That student told me I must have grown up in a “ghetto” since all the black people he knew were from ghettos; and his dad was tired of affirmative action taking all the jobs from white people and giving them to unqualified black people. He asked if I thought I got my job due to affirmative action.
Twenty years later my body is still causing visceral reactions in some students, even before I say a word. After twenty years of unintentional research and seeing similar patterns; I have become confident and accustomed to using my own experiences as research fodder. Bodies matter, race, gender, class and space matters, even in theological dialogue; especially in theological dialogue. I’m a cultural anthropologist and youth minister who studies global youth cultures, particularly youth from the peripheries of the world. They are poor, yet mighty in spirit. Their bodies, voices and experiences matter.
My contribution in this space is to highlight the voices of not only young women and people of color, but all young people living on the edges of society. The ways they understand and experience God are distinct and unique to who they are and where they find themselves socially. Many resist external constructions of themselves, and the fear provoked by their brown bodies; they carve out their own identities via the arts, media, music and hip-hop. I’m curious about the ways God is using indigent young people who have been left on the world’s trash heaps by the religious institutions around them.