I looked at the time on the blurry screen of my iPhone, but it was crystal clear that time was passing slowly. The minutes were moving at a glacial pace, similar to a Crock Pot simmering something warm and comforting. It was a cold and rainy day in New Jersey, and I was facilitating the last day of class at the Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry. Although the weather that week was as mercurial as a teenager, I was warmed by my excitement in anticipation of seeing everyone in class one last time.
With windows fogged from condensation, the students walked through the classroom door with smiles radiant enough to pierce the gloominess of the rainy day outside. I purposefully strived not to simply glance at each individual entering but attempted to actually see every person in order to appreciate the unique gift of each person and the radiance of the totality of their personhood—their face, body, voice, mind, soul, spirit, calling, dreams, fears, and hopes. In the hopes of discerning every person one last time, I intentionally endeavored to look beyond the exterior of each person’s body type, eye color, hair texture, skin tone, clothing, and appearance, in order to peer through the windows of their eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse into the condition of their souls.
Class began with a pedagogical activity using our eyes, bodies, and the soles of our shoes. I demonstrated the activity by silently walking from the dark entrance of the room to a well-lit corner encircled by cozy chairs which allowed us to face each other. After taking my seat, my face lit up with a genuine smile as I looked into each person’s eyes and asked for volunteers. Three enthusiastic students, who self-identify differently, volunteered to participate in repeating my actions. Under the watchful eyes of their peers, each person quietly walked from the doorway across the hardwood floor to one of the plush chairs. The community of learners had been charged with the discomfort of intentionally looking at each other while entering this comfortable and inviting space. We learned through our dialogue pertaining to this pedagogical activity that certain bodies are privileged more than others, bodies are objectified, bodies are dehumanized, bodies are positioned in social hierarchies, bodies intersect with collective identity, bodies are demonized, and bodies are honored or shamed.
Young people’s bodies can be privileged, honored, or shamed in church space as well, depending on the ethos of the space, the arrangement of the space, and who is invited into the space. As a consequence, some young people are admitted into the group while others remain on the margins, making them feel uncomfortable and viewed with an institutional hermeneutic of suspicion. Acclaimed educational theorist bell hooks rightly asserts that learning spaces are not neutral, nor are they devoid of power dynamics. I argue that the space of youth ministry is not devoid of power dynamics, whether socio-economic or racial (among others), and bodies are evaluated and judged based on standards of power and authority.
I have weighed in my mind, without conclusion, whether the mission of some of our youth ministries is to maintain power instead of empowering young people, and I have wondered if the majority of youth ministries prioritize social and cultural conformity over conformity to the image of Christ. Youth ministries prioritize bodies based on the ministry’s sense of mission. Accordingly, mission shapes the administration of youth ministry and how needs are prioritized. This creates an ethos of insiders and outsiders, as well as privileged and non-privileged. Non-privileged bodies (whose needs are not prioritized) may be present in youth group, occupy space in Sunday School, sit in worship service, and other youth activities but can be liminal and unseen. The ways we see bodies in youth ministry spaces are not neutral because bodies are perceived through the lens of culture, ecclesial ideologies, and individual beliefs about the “other.” Accordingly, the bodies of young people are like living texts that can be mistranslated when we see them incorrectly through the shades of our biases.
French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests that bodies tell the stories of “narratives of power” whereas power is inscribed on bodies. Non-privileged bodies in church spaces that are not acknowledged and affirmed are rendered invisible, as devalued persons whose disembodied souls are powerless under the gaze of collective normativity. Bodies intersect with collective identity within the broader tapestry of a collective narrative. Yet, churches sometimes have difficulty embracing new narratives, and young people whose bodily appearance and bodily actions do not fit the institutional narrative can be crucified with shame. I believe seeing is not merely a pedagogical activity but a spiritual act which is life-giving.
When we see other persons, we respect and acknowledge that they are made in the image of God. Accordingly, the value of young people is seen, their personhood is honored, and shamed bodies and lives are resurrected before our eyes. Toward that end, we closed this final class with an assignment that taught us to see every person in our midst. Each student looked into the eyes of another person, and they prayed for each other with their eyes wide open.