“Appropriate” Embodiment

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.


What’s Appropriate?

In my last blog post, I wrote about undressing the dress code. I ended that post by exploring the coded word, “appropriate.” What do we really mean when we say something is inappropriate? How do we define it? Theologize it? And how do we speak to our youth without theologizing what are simply cultural norms?

I am concerned about the psyche of the middle school girl who is growing into this new body that she does not recognize. I am concerned about the teen girl that still doesn’t understand the body she is in. I am concerned about the only Black girl in her youth group who wants to wear what her friends wear but doesn’t understand why this popular outfit seems to be problematic only on her body.

Shortly after writing that post, pictures of Patrice Brown, an elementary school teacher, went viral. In these pictures, Ms. Brown is seen in her classroom wearing different outfits such as a sheath dress, an A-line dress, and t-shirt and jeans. Someone narrowed in on particular pictures taken in the classroom and #teacherbae was born. Comments roared in about her unprofessionalism and inappropriate work outfits.

Because of her dress, some questioned her ability to do her job well. You might wonder, how is an A-line or sheath dress inappropriate? What I failed to mention is that Ms. Brown has a curvy figure. So, while the outfits may be in the career section of any woman’s clothing store, they take on new life when seen not on a size 2 mannequin, but a real human body.

Clothes and Bodies

While the initial reaction discussed her inappropriateness, I think the real issue is something deeper. The problem people have is not with her outfits; it’s with her body. I must admit that I write this with hesitation. I don’t want to be yet another voice discussing this woman’s body. But this post is not about Ms. Brown per se as much as it is about the many women and girls who constantly hear the message that their body is inappropriate.

I am concerned about the psyche of the middle school girl who is growing into this new body that she does not recognize. I am concerned about the teen girl that still doesn’t understand the body she is in. I am concerned about the only Black girl in her youth group who wants to wear what her friends wear but doesn’t understand why this popular outfit seems to be problematic only on her body. My goal is to create nurturing and liberative spaces for these girls who live in a world that is constantly telling them that their bodies—which they did not choose and cannot change—are inappropriate.

Burgeoning Inappropriateness

When I was a teenager, I was told by an older gentleman that I should stop wearing one of my favorite outfits because my breasts were too big. He had seen me wear the outfit a few times and finally thought that he had to tell me to stop. He meant no harm, but helped cause quite a bit.

In short, I’d heard the message loud and clear: My body was problematic. So I had to find ways to fix it—and by extension, fix me. I internalized that for a very long time.

I really began to hate those blasted things on my chest. It was bad enough that these large breasts had seemed to develop overnight and change the way I had to do different physical activities, or that I didn’t know why all of a sudden I was popular with the boys who would never again look me in the eyes. Now I couldn’t even wear clothes I liked? I had already given up anything that showed even a small amount of cleavage, but now even being fully covered was not enough.

I began to find ways to minimize my breasts in ways that were not healthy. Had I been aware of duct tape, I might well have taped them down. In short, I’d heard the message loud and clear: My body was problematic. So I had to find ways to fix it—and by extension, fix me. I internalized that for a very long time. I realize that I still internalize it in the present tense, such as when, after trying on three outfits for a work event, I ask my husband “Does this make me look too much like a hussy?” (despite being an arguably conservative dresser). I ask this jokingly but also in part seriously, because it is hard to silence the voices that that have taken up residence in my head. I want to help girls evict these unhealthy voices before they get a chance to unpack themselves and stay a while.

Is This Really a Problem?

Some may read this and think: “Is it really that serious? Just dress for your body type!” The issue is actually more complicated than that. Curvy women are often taken less seriously in professional or formal settings, simply for being curvy. This is even more the case for Black women, who live with the legacy of having their bodies exploited and considered “exotic” or seen as a vixen merely because these bodies differ from what is considered to be the norm. Simply relying on the “what not to wear” discussion misses the mark.

We, as a society, like to pretend that it is about agency—why does she choose to dress like that? But it is actually about denying agency—it’s her body, not her clothes, that is the issue. She has little control over her body. There are embodiments for whom society holds there to be no appropriate clothing. I lived decades of my life in oversized baggy blouses which made me look sloppy and supposedly unprofessional, and still did not hide the size of my chest. It is also, perhaps, not a coincidence, that we are also talking about women who are under-valued by society in other ways as well.

I believe that an embodied pedagogy is imperative if a ministry with girls is to be liberating. Important in this pedagogy is that we appreciate our bodies. We do not shame them, but honor them for the God-given gifts that they are. There is a line to walk here. I realize that people make quick decisions about a female due to her body type, which is a reality over which she has little control. Therefore, it is beneficial to discuss this reality with girls in order that they know how they are being perceived in any role. But then each girl has a choice to make: She can go along with the status quo, cover up, and hide her God-given body. Or she can disrupt the space, realize that God chose to house the imago Dei in her curves, and live into that reality.

Am I saying she should wear whatever she wants? No. I am saying that we need to stop pretending that the conversation is simple.

 


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

Providing Different Images: Why Youth Ministry Needs #BlackGirlMagic

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.


Over the past year, #BlackGirlMagic has populated my social media feeds. Coined by CaShawn Thompson, it is a celebratory hashtag that applauds the achievements of Black girls and women. As a youth minister and scholar whose work focuses on ministering to girls, I am drawn to anything that encourages girls to celebrate who God created them to be. I am especially drawn to avenues of celebrating a group that rarely see positive images of themselves because hurtful images are forced upon them by society and Christian traditions. This is why #BlackGirlMagic is not only good for society, but good for youth ministry.

We need #BlackGirlMagic because Black women and girls are often bombarded with negative images of themselves. In her text, Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hills Collins calls them “controlling images” and contends that these images are socially constructed to maintain Black women’s subordination. She names five main archetypes: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother, the Black lady, and the jezebel. All of these images exist to dissect and control African American women’s sexuality and understood femininity. The mammy is the asexual happy woman who cares for the children of the White family she works for more than her own. On the other hand, the matriarch is the bad Black mother who has children out of wedlock and emasculates men. In fact, all but the asexual mammy are seen as emasculating men. All are seen as being part of the reason for the lack of strong Black families. All of these images are juxtaposed to a more feminine image of the White counterparts of these women. These images further tell women that whether they are the wanton jezebel or the educated and hard-working Black lady, they are an abnormal section of their gender.

That’s why we need #BlackGirlMagic. Not only does it combat the controlling and limiting images by celebrating the positive examples that exist; it also supplies examples that are wide and deep… These ladies are not the exception. They are the rule.

Many of these images take on similar, but distinct, forms when speaking of Black teenage girls. When manifested in pint-sized forms, the “welfare mother” becomes the “teen mom” or the “baby mama” who is seen as a drain on the larger society. The “matriarch” becomes the “lil’ momma,” the bossy girl who tries to take care of everyone and is often called womanish. The “Black lady” is morphed into the “mini diva” who is always organized and involved in numerous activities and clubs, while maintaining a picture perfect appearance at all times. The image of the “jezebel” becomes the “little hoochie” or “ho” that is talked about and blamed for the rise of oral sex in middle and high schools. Like their adult counterparts, these images point to real concerns, but place all of the onus and blame squarely on the shoulders of those who bear these images.

And before we shake our heads and berate secular culture, it is important to realize that many Christian traditions have theologized several controlling images and presented a few of their own. As one example, let’s use Collin’s analysis to look at another image being taught in churches—“the Proverbs 31 woman.” First, it must be noted that referring to a “Proverbs 31 woman” right away ignores half of the chapter. So, we are already on exegetically shaky ground. This image is not unique to Black women, but the passage can take a particular twist when paired with the other images that have been used to control U.S. Black women. She is often presented as a controlling image that is a combination of the capable and docile mammy that cares for everyone else and the educated upper middle class Black lady that has done everything right. The only difference is she has learned the roles well enough to earn a husband whom she makes proud.

My issue is not so much with the proverb itself, but with the way the proverb is taken out of context (what mother doesn’t want perceived perfection for her son?) and used to create a controlling, cookie-cutter image into which all Christian women are compelled to try and fit. Placing Proverbs 31 (and other poems and stories of women in the Bible) in the context of these controlling images should help us see how easy it is to theologize controlling and unhelpful images.

To help girls discover healthier images we need to analyze what controlling images we are placing on them in our talks, our activities, and our relationships. Even when we think that we are presenting healthy images, we may need to check ourselves. There is nothing wrong with being a lady. But by saying that one has to live into a particular understanding of what that means and what that looks like is how we get the controlling image of a Black lady and how we then force women to say that they are not ladies because they don’t like high heeled shoes. Controlling images come with such a long list of dos or don’ts that there is no freedom to discover the nuanced selves that God has created us to be.

That’s why we need #BlackGirlMagic. Not only does it combat the controlling and limiting images by celebrating the positive examples that exist; it also supplies examples that are wide and deep. We celebrate the scientist, the gymnast, the historian, the community service volunteer, the book collector, etc. They all carry themselves differently and choose different looks, but that is not what is mentioned. It’s not about what they are wearing or what mold they fit. It’s about celebrating what they are doing and who they are―about realizing that there are many more like them. These ladies are not the exception. They are the rule. The controlling images are the exception. In fact, the controlling images are lies; lies we have been convinced to believe.

Let’s move away from the lie into the truth of #BlackGirlMagic. Let’s post and publicly celebrate our own achievement. Celebrating the accomplishments and many different images of girlhood is celebrating the beautiful complexity of the imago Dei and realizing that it cannot be pinned down to look one particular way. God has created each of us differently, so God’s image manifests itself differently within each of us. May each girl know that however they are made, their best self is magical.

 


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

Where Do I Belong?

I moved quite a bit growing up. Five moves before high school translated to seven different schools. For a young person that meant that I wondered a great deal about belonging. Youth tend to do that anyway, but that was complicated in my life not only by the regular moves but also my sense of ethnic identity.

You see, I am Puerto Rican. I lived on that sacred island until I was nine years old, but even there I was one of only very few Puerto Ricans in my elementary school. I attended school inside an American military base and so my classmates were the children of soldiers from across the US. They spoke English at home, not Spanish. They lived in homes with central air conditioning, a phenomenon I found both fascinating and odd. This sense of being dislocated continued throughout my youth. In our several moves, my sister and I were usually the only Latinas/os in the whole school.

But in denying who I was, in denying the language I spoke at home and the food I ate, in denying my culture, they denied a critical part of who God made me to be. In providing me one place to belong, they denied the other places I called home.

In these serial moves, I always wondered if I had a place where I belonged. I knew that my family loved me. I knew I belonged with them, in a warm home where we spoke Spanish and ate plantains and rice and beans. I knew what belonging felt like and what it tasted like. But those markers of belonging evaporated when I walked out my door and went to school. This was my dilemma. I belonged at home but seemingly nowhere else.

My faith had much to say about my dilemma, but my faith also taught me a lie about my identity. The churches where I grew up gave me many gifts, but they also pointed me in one particularly problematic direction. I was taught that in Christ I was just like everyone else, that the ethnic and cultural differences I felt constantly were mere diversions from the true meaning of Christian faith.

And so I was adaptable. I figured out how to blend in so much so that my friends growing up would eventually say, “You know, I don’t even see you as Puerto Rican. You’re just like us. You’re one of us.” As a teenager, I was relieved to finally fit in!

But now I see things differently.

My friends were trying to be generous and welcoming and loving. They wanted me to feel at home, to feel like I had a place where I belonged. But in denying who I was, in denying the language I spoke at home and the food I ate, in denying my culture, they denied a critical part of who God made me to be. In providing me one place to belong, they denied the other places I called home.

Here’s what I wish I would have been taught.

God does not create generic people.

God created me. God created you. God created the languages we speak. God created the cultures where we find meaning. God created our differences. God loves our differences. God does not want us to be the same at all. Your God-given value is in the unique, particular, beautiful way that God created you and you alone.

We are not all the same and that’s okay. In fact, God made me and you and everyone else in the world different and beautiful.

Our differences are a gift from God. God wants us to be different because our differences are reflections of God’s creativity and God’s grace.

And indeed, the Bible teaches us exactly this.

At the upcoming Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we will turn to Luke-Acts and the letters of Paul to see how we can read the New Testament and thus think theologically about our differences.

But why start with Scripture? It is not because the Bible will provide us a rulebook discerning the importance of our differences or because the Bible can teach us how precisely to grapple with each and every difference we might encounter. Instead, the Bible is a source of imagination for young and not-so-young alike. The Bible helps widen our imaginations about God and neighbor, about others and ourselves.

That is, the Bible will not give us easy answers for the racial and ethnic tensions our communities face today. Nor will Scripture provide a step-by-step guide for multiracial young people struggling with their identities. But what Scripture can do is imagine new possibilities beyond mere tolerance of difference and wholesale denial of the realities of our differences. It is to that imagination that we will turn in April.

It is in that imagination where God makes all things new, even our differences.

 


Eric D. Barreto is Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and an ordained Baptist minister. The author of Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16 (Mohr Siebeck, 2010), the co-author of New Proclamation Year C 2013: Easter through Christ the King (Augsburg Fortress, 2013), and editor of Reading Theologically (Fortress Press, 2014) and Thinking Theologically (Fortress Press, 2015), he is also a regular contributor to ONScripture.org, the Huffington Post, WorkingPreacher.org, and EntertheBible.org. For more, go to ericbarreto.com and follow him on Twitter (@ericbarreto).

Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish and the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

I love the first chapter of Genesis. The first thing we see God do is speak light into existence! If I were writing the story, that would be the climax. I mean, God speaks light into being. But for this story, it’s only a first step. First, the creation of light. Then, the creation of an entire universe. And the actual climax? The creation of humankind. This is the climax because humans get something that no other created being gets: we get created in the image of God. Referred to as the imago Dei in theology, the image of God within humans is what makes humans unique from the rest of God’s creation, and it’s present equally between males and females.

One does not have to look too far to see that, while our culture tries to put different images on our youth, many of the images presented do not look like anything divine… Therefore, one of our jobs as people who love youth is to be journey partners helping each girl to refuse any limiting images that diminish the imago Dei within her.

Theologians disagree on what exactly the imago Dei refers to, but most agree that we are not created in God’s physical image; instead, there is something else that makes humans unlike other animals. It may be the ability to reason, the presence of will, the ability to think and act creatively, or the ability to imagine. I choose to think about the imago Dei as the ways that The Divine is reflected in us. In my mind, it is paired with the assertion in 1 Corinthians 6:19 that our bodies ought to be temples of the Holy Spirit. So, however one sees the image of God, we know that there is something Divine that lives within us and that we were crafted to bear that image.

Yet, one does not have to look too far to see that, while our culture tries to put different images on our youth, many of the images presented do not look like anything divine. For adolescent girls, there are unique challenges stemming from popular culture, the educational system, and church traditions, just to name a few. So many want to place different images on girls: the mean girl, the loose girl, the top dog girl that would stop at nothing to get what she wants. These images can be confining, unhelpful, and dangerous. They are more closely related to the snake in the garden than the image of God.

Therefore, one of our jobs as people who love youth is to be journey partners helping each girl to refuse any limiting images that diminish the imago Dei within her. How do we do this? This series will examine various challenges girls face and address them theologically by asking one question over and over again: Are we honoring the image of God that exists within every girl? It will focus on general principles and persistent issues as well as address current events viewed through the prism of teenage girls. While talking about girls, it is important to note that no group can be painted with a wide brush. So, this blog series will use the idea of intersectionality as a key part of its approach.

Coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a method of studying the relationships among multiple socially and culturally constructed identities such as race, class, and gender. Intersectionality examines the complexities that exist in one person’s identity and how discriminatory practices against different populations are related. The concept of intersectionality is also needed as we continue to push for social justice, for it has always been rooted in social justice. It calls for people to work together fully. Through the lens of intersectionality, social problems can be analyzed more fully, more effective intervention can be created, and inclusive advocacy can be promoted. Without an understanding of intersectionality, those who fight for girls may forget the many different identities being spoken of. It is easy for people to fall into the trap of thinking that people who have one aspect in common have all aspects in common.

What does speaking up for gender without intersectionality look like? Well, in Patricia Arquette’s 2015 Oscar acceptance speech, she called for gender pay equality in the United States. A noble and important cause, but some of what she said later in the press room (around the 2:30 mark) rubbed me the wrong way: “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” When I first heard that, I thought, “Did she just divide me into two categories since I am both a woman and person of color?” While I agree that different groups ought to fight for the rights for groups they’re are not a part of, we need to always remember that identity is complex and that separating groups rigidly can isolate those who fall into more than one. I don’t mean to harp on Arquette for what she may or may not have really meant; I am more concerned about a sentiment that her words symbolize—viewing social justice issues without the lens of intersectionality.

A discussion about girls that ignores race, sexuality or class issues, also ignores girls. Talking about different social justice movements as if there are no overlaps ignores portions of the population one is advocating for. It also places social justice issues in competition instead of in harmony. I seek harmony. So, as I write about girls, I remember that gender is not the only identity factor at hand. Sometimes, I will place gender in conversation with race, or class, or sexuality, or ability, or geographical context or the many other identities that embody the imago Dei. And I look forward to going on this journey with you.

 

Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

3 Things Christians Can Learn from the TCK Experience

3 Things Christians Can Learn from the TCK Experience

At an international primary school in Hong Kong, a first-grade teacher made a bulletin board on which students labeled their home countries. A pair of American parents were shocked to see their blond-haired, blue-eyed son marked on the board as from Taiwan. After that incident, the father decided to make sure his son understood that even though he was born in Taiwan, he was actually American and “from” the United States. As that child grows up, he has choices about where he declares “home” to be — is it the United States where his grandparents live? Taiwan where he was born? Hong Kong where he is going to school? This is the life of a “Third-Culture Kid” (TCK).

 

TCKs are generally recognized as children or teenagers who have spent a significant part of their formative years living in a culture outside of their parents’ home culture. These young people — often children of diplomats, business people, missionaries, or military personnel — live in a highly mobile and transient world. They have a relationship with multiple cultures while not fully belonging in one. The key difference between immigrants and TCKs or expatriates is their perspective on the idea of “home.” For the immigrant, they are moving to a new place to make it home; there is no expectation that they will return to their homeland. For the expatriate, there is an expectation that one day their family will return “home.”

 

The TCK experience, while developing unique world-views in the young people who live it, also holds lessons to teach Christians living in a multi-cultural and increasingly pluralistic society.

1. There’s no place like home.

Unlike Dorothy, who only wanted to get back to Kansas, the concept of “home” becomes diffused for TCK’s. There are no clear answer to the questions “So, where’s home? Where are you from?” This diffusion may leave a sense of longing for home, even if it’s for an unknown place.

Though Third Culture Kids may feel it in an earthly sense, as Christians, we are also a people longing for “home.” Paul expresses this longing in 2 Corinthians 5, as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, “Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, and our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less…When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming” (2 Cor. 5:4-5, 8, The Message, emphasis added).

 

2. God is with us.

The same longing for home is seen in the book of Exodus as the Israelites journey from a land of slavery to an unseen, unrealized, promised land. As the Israelites are traveling through the wilderness, God reveals that God is a faithful provider for them. God provides food and water and leads the people in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Through these tangible encounters with God, the Israelites learn that God is a faithful provider no matter where they find themselves. Unlike other understandings of the gods in the Ancient Near East,

 

“God is not like the gods who remain at some remove from a messy world, enjoying their own life, often uncaring and oblivious to the troubles of the creatures. God leaves the mountain of remoteness and ineffable majesty and tabernacles right in the center of a human community” (Fretheim, Exodus, 273).

 

Centuries later, God again demonstrated a willingness to encounter the messiness of human life through the incarnation. As “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Even as Jesus Christ prepared to leave the world and return to the Father, he promised the Holy Spirit to his followers to remain with them wherever they are (John 14:15-17).

The mobility inherent in the lives of TCKs — whether their own travels or their friends’ — can find stability in a God who enters into life with them. This God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is a God who lives in a tabernacle, who dwells among God’s people, and who is not limited by a remote physical location.

3. We cannot limit where God may call.

Researchers Jeffrey Keuss and Rob Willett describe the TCK experience from a theological perspective, using the phrase “sacredly mobile.” When seen in this light, they describe the experience of the sacredly mobile adolescent as a journey in following God’s vocational call. More importantly, the sacredly mobile adolescent reminds the rest of the Christian community that our identity and vocation in Christ are not physically located in a “home” but can be anywhere in the world.

For TCKs who have roots in multiple places, and for whom physical boundaries of location do not define them, the world is open. The idea that God might call them to leave the place they are living and move around the world wouldn’t be a surprise. Can the same be said of you or me, who have staked our lives in a physical location? Do we believe that God could call us elsewhere?

 

Franke_KristinKristin Franke is completing her M.Div degree at Princeton Seminary this spring. Prior to attending PTS, she served as the youth director at Union Church in Hong Kong for 5 years. 

 

 

 

Books and Articles to check out:

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition — David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (2009).

 

“The Sacredly Mobile Adolescent…” Journal of Youth Ministry, Fall 2009, Vol. 8, Issue 1, p. 7 — Jeffrey F. Keuss, Rob Willett

Youth Ministry With Third Culture Kids—Who’s Hiding in Your Youth Group?

One of the worst questions you can ask a third culture kid

“Where are you from?” I began. Jeanne rolled her eyes a bit and stared back at me, “I hate that question,” she said. Not realizing the hole of ignorance I was digging for myself, I kept pushing: “Well, where were you born?” Another eye roll. The problem? I was talking to a Third Culture Kid- and I had no idea what a Third Culture Kid was, let alone the secret code of acceptable and unacceptable questions I might ask of a “TCK.” Throughout that conversation, I continued to probe and pry into Jeanne’s experience in an effort to help her construct who she was.[1] It wasn’t until two years later that I’d get the chance to redeem those questions.

Searching for Connection and Belonging

 I was serving as a youth minister in two international churches in Lausanne, Switzerland that year. Neither church had a particular working model for youth ministry with Third Culture Kids. In fact, both churches shared a new intern each year that they’d fly in from the United States. This meant that every year a new person would try new ideas with (often) new kids. So much for consistency. Jeanne was one of a handful of consistent kids in the youth group. Her parents had moved to Switzerland before she was born, and they were working on their Swiss citizenship. Because Jeanne stayed, she faced particular struggles as a TCK. Every time she came to youth group, she’d ask for prayer about school and friends. “No one understands me” she said, “Not my teachers, not the stupid people I go to the Swiss school with, not anyone. I feel like the only person I can hang out with is my brother.” Every Sunday, Jeanne would make sure to steal some time with me, and tell me just how alone she felt. She’d always tried to make friends with the girls who came to youth group- and often successfully did- but after two or three years, those girls were off to another country with their families, and she’d be alone all over again. It was the same thing with her youth directors. Jeanne had no one, and she knew it.

One night Jeanne was the only one who showed up for youth group. I’d planned on introducing an ancient form of prayer to the group: Lectio Divina. Since it was only the two of us, I checked to see if she wouldn’t mind praying together for a while. She timidly gave me the “OK”. We lit a candle, and read a psalm together. We made the practice our own: reading through the psalm out loud, reading it silently, focusing on images and words from the psalm, and then ending by allowing for a long stretch of silence, where we would intermittently speak prayers to God by lifting up words and phrases that aligned with the prayers on our hearts. 

After about forty minutes had passed, I drew the prayer to a close. Jeanne looked up at me with a bit of a start and said

“Woah! I feel like I just woke up from a dream. That was so weird.”

I was curious. After some silence, Jeanne started to clarify,

“I never prayed like that before,” she said. “It was almost like for the first time, I actually felt…God.”

What is a Third Culture Kid?

Jeanne is one example of what authors David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken would call a Third Culture Kid. Pollock and Van Reken penned the first comprehensive book on Third Culture Kids in 1999, assigning a category, name and acronym (TCK) to the experience of children who spend a significant portion of their adolescent development outside of their parents’ home culture(s). TCKs include military brats, refugees, missionary kids, and children of diplomats, foreign service workers, educators and (the list goes on). You don’t have to do youth ministry in Switzerland to have a third culture kid in your youth group. Youth ministry with third culture kids happens all over the world in every cultural and denominational setting one can imagine. Is there a TCK hiding in your youth group?

Jeanne is categorized within the TCK experience as a hidden immigrant, which (Pollock and Van Reken argue) occupies the most challenging relationship between cultures in adolescent development: “When [TCKs] grow up in countries where they physically resemble the majority of the citizens of that country, they appear like those around them, but internally these TCKs view life through a lens that is as different from the culture as any obvious foreigner.”[3] In other words, no one in Switzerland would’ve been able to pick Jeanne out of a crowd as a foreigner. Some TCKs might experience this positively, because they can essentially “take a break” from being a foreigner in the place they (for the moment) call home. Hidden immigrants can relish the fact that they have the power to go unnoticed. In many cases, however, this makes it difficult for hidden immigrant TCKs to find each other. There is no obvious person with whom they might connect. There is no built-in identifier for their other-ness. There’s no immediate community to which they might belong.

The Need to Belong Transcends Culture

A need for belonging is not relegated to Jeanne’s cultural identity. Belonging is crucial for a young person’s spiritual formation. Through establishing an emotional state of belonging, Jeanne will be able to move beyond what theologian James Loder identifies as a state of spiritual isolation. Loder argues that “the most powerful intimacy comes from the presence of the Spirit of God.” Jeanne may not have willfully entered into every relationship around her. She expressed anxiety over the fact that any one relationship could be taken from her—at any time—based on another’s physical or cultural re-location. Despite this fact, she was awakened to a relationship with God through the Spirit’s presence in Lectio Divina. This “powerful intimacy” was one that defied time, space and culture. This shared moment of prayer kept her calling me on the phone a year after I’d left my job at her church to ask and share about the God she’d encountered in Lectio Divina. It kept her heart open to sitting with me and wrestling with the tough issues of identity formation, two years later. For once, Jeanne could see that she was not fully isolated. This begs the question of what powerful youth ministry with third culture kids might look like.:

How do we serve TCK’s?

How do we minister to a TCK who wrestles with the emotional isolation of being a hidden immigrant? How do we minister to hidden immigrants who hide themselves behind a wall of isolation caused by anxiety? These questions are simply the tip of the iceberg that the spiritual formation of TCKs demands.

Two years after our first conversation on the shores of Lac Leman, I flew back to Switzerland to visit. Jeanne and I walked down from her town to a restaurant by the water’s edge, where we’d replay our first conversation. Both of us were better prepared this time.

“What place feels like home to you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Jeanne answered.

After thinking, she continued, “I guess both Switzerland and America feel like home to me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else than here, but I think when I grow up I’ll want to move to America.”[5]

To minister with TCKs is not to approach their cultural or spiritual development with a rubric for faith. To do so would be to utterly negate their experience of cultural dissonance. Our call as youth ministers to TCKs is to stand with them in the liminal space of their cultural and spiritual identity. (Click Here To Tweet That Last Sentence!) The call of the church is to place-share and place-hold. We witness to the presence of Jesus in our lives when we do things like break bread and drink wine—whether we’re in a missionary church plant in India (okay, they’d use grape juice) or the American Church in Paris. Some highly liturgical traditions have found an interesting niche for the globally mobile. After all, what is more connective for an Episcopal family than the predictability of Anglican liturgical worship found in 165 countries around the world? We are called to hold fast to that which identifies us as the community of Christ — sacramental practices, prayer, acts of justice and Christian witness — and we are called to point to the One who stays put.

When we minister to youth, we testify to a God who has staying power- a God whose covenantal relationship with us sets the stage for our development and discernment. TCKs know all-too-well what abandonment feels like. The good news is that the story of who we are doesn’t begin with the city in which we were born. It begins with the story of the One who called life into existence, the One who dwells together with us in our rootlessness and restlessness, the One who would beckon us to “follow him.” Perhaps TCKs are better prepared than most to take Jesus up on his offer: to follow him into the world, to testify to the grace found on the cross and all the while, to be “rooted and established in [God’s] love.”[6]

Do you have any experience working with TCK’s? Please leave a comment and tell us what do you think are some best practices for youth ministry with third culture kids?

What can youth ministry with third culture kids teach us about youth ministry with monocultural kids? Please, leave a comment and tell us your thoughts!

 

Abigail Visco RusertSince starting her journey in youth ministry as a summer camp counselor, Abigail Visco Rusert has had the chance to work with youth on three continents and in six churches. Ordained in the PC (USA) and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she served most recently as the Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. When she’s not chasing after her toddler, Abigail enjoys drinking strong coffee and affirming her Lutheran husband’s excellent cooking skills. She is the IYM’s Assistant Director.

 

[1] Though my methodology wasn’t specifically geared towards helping Jeanne construct who she was/is as a child of God, my actions here mirror a type of relational ministry that Dr. Andrew Root outlines as a relationally that utilizes a “third thing” in the relationship between adolescent and youth minister. This “third thing” is an assumption that the relationship is formed for a reason outside of the knowing and being known by another. He states, “To assume that there is a third thing, that a relationship with an adolescent is the means to another end, is to deny both the transcendence of the adolescent and the transcendence of the person of Christ.” (Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, 116)

[2] It could be argued that Ruth Hill Useem coined this term in a paper entitled, “Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study” in 1993. I would argue that Pollock and Van Reken popularized the term and introduced it to a more mainstream audience.

[3] Pollock, Third Culture Kids, 54.

[5] Pollock and Van Reken highlight the difficulty that many TCKs have with the idea of home: “Home connotes an emotional place- somewhere you truly belong. There simply is no real answer to that question for many TCKs…No matter how home is defined; the day comes for many TCKs when they realize it is irretrievably gone.” (Third Culture Kids, 124)

[6] Ephesians 3:17