Having grown up in the church, I had already been well-trained on my understanding of God—my theology—by the time I was a teenager. What I knew about God is what I was told or “talked at” about. There was no way around that; no room for my own voice in my early Christian journey.
As a young Black woman, I wasn’t introduced to a theology that spoke to my everyday experience in my Black body. A Black body whose curves do not fit mainstream societal beauty standards but still demand respect, honor, and acknowledgment. I realize now that my daily lived experience has many layers of consciousness, yet as a teenager I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain this. All I knew was what I was taught: God was “in the sky;” right from wrong; prayer, praise, and confession of my sins.
My theological understanding while growing up was smaller than I ever knew.
Not until I was an adult attending seminary—towards the end of my graduate career—was I taught about Black Liberation Theology and introduced to Black theologians who spoke and taught from the perspective of Black culture, Black feminism, Black history, and our experience within our Black bodies in this foreign land—one we built for free, but with devastating costs. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like I needed to reach outside of myself in order to understand who God was. Through this theology, God met me where I was in my experience as a Black woman, in an unapologetic and unashamed way.
Black theology made me feel seen, heard, and honored.
Elevating four Black theologians
Hoping others will feel just as seen, heard, and honored, I want to highlight the work of Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon, Rev. Dr. Neichelle Guidry, Dr. James Cone, and Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. They are important Black thought leaders, theologians, and authors who can play a strong role in youth leaders' conversations and curriculum (year-round and not just for Black History Month in February) in order to help guide and transform Black teenagers’ theologies according to their daily lived experiences. These thought leaders bring God from the sky to their doorsteps and bedrooms. And this is a gift.
Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon
We begin with Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon. In 1974 Rev. Dr. Cannon became the first African American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian USA denomination. The founder of The Center for Womanist Leadership and known as the mother of womanist theology and ethics, she lectured and taught nationally as well as authoring and editing numerous recognized staples in womanist work.
According to Dr. Cannon, womanist ethics seeks to “know and do justice to the moral resources and tradition of Black women’s lives; to help Black women remember, redeem and reproduce the moral wisdom that they utilize; and to engage Black women and other feminists of color who have given up on the community of faith so we might gain new insights concerning the reasonableness of theological ethics in deepening our character, consciousness and capacity in our collective struggle for survival.” Cannon’s work helps us connect to God in our bodies, dismantle patriarchal norms, encourages us to establish a higher level of consciousness, and love ourselves deeply along the way.
In my own life as an adult, Rev. Dr. Cannon’s work affirmed my experience as a Black woman in my job, in seminary and higher education, in my church, in my family, and in my relationships in a way that made me feel like she and God were speaking directly to me. Her words continue to strengthen and uplift me in my daily life. I only wish I would’ve known about her work as a teenager! How much more self-assured and confident I might have been in my struggles and journey! Black women uplifting and affirming other Black women in this way is so powerful and necessary.
Ways to incorporate Cannon’s work into your youth ministry:
- When talking about the cultural burden of the Black female body in American society and the need for self-love and celebration (as a form of resistance), please read Chapter 6: The “Loves” and “Troubles” of African American Women’s Bodies in Womanist Theological Ethics.
- When encouraging the importance of storytelling, writing, and reading Black and Brown female authors’ works with your youth, especially when one of your teens is having trouble with writing; let her know that her ancestors left a legacy for her and that her story is already within her. After that, you can both read Chapter 4: Moral Wisdom in the Black Women’s Literary Tradition in Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community.
- Further online learning: For more about the legacy of Womanist Theology and Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon, check out this video!
Rev. Dr. Neichelle Guidry
Dean of Chapel at Spelman College and Director of Spelman’s WISDOM (Women in Spiritual Discernment of Ministry) Center, Dr. Neichelle Guidry is a counselor, coach and motivator who is helping form Black young women in faith and ministry. She follows in the footsteps of Reverend Dr. Cannon’s womanist principles by empowering young women to find their strength and power within themselves and their sisterhood communities.
In her current work, Guidry encourages young women to question God and “mine their faith” because God is big enough to handle their questions. Her podcast, Modern Faith, is for the spiritual nourishment of today’s young women of color as Guidry discusses the contributions of iconic Black female authors like Toni Morrison; strategies for spiritual wellness; and the power of sisterhood. Pivotal to Dr. Guidry’s teaching is the power of our ancestors and their sacrifices in order to pave the way for women of color today to accomplish the dreams their ancestors were not able to realize. Her work encourages young women of color to believe in themselves and in each other, and to ignite their passions and do work that makes them come alive.
Ways to incorporate Guidry’s work into your youth ministry:
- Introduce Dr. Guidry’s work to your students when talking about following their passions and the calling God has on their lives. Encourage them to dream boldly, unashamedly, and unapologetically! Visit Dr. Guidry’s website to listen to her podcast Modern Faith and sermons in the Audio section.
- For your students who have questions about their faith but are scared to ask them out loud, please point them to Dr. Guidry’s videos on her website to watch some of her powerful sermons and panel discussions.
- Do you know a young Black or Brown young woman who feels she is called to be a pastor? Please have her visit Dr. Guidry’s shepreaches website. Dr. Guidry is the founder and lead curator of shepreaches, where young Black women are being empowered, uplifted, and formed in ministry.
Dr. James Cone
Dr. James Cone is known as the father of Black liberation theology and Black religious thought. An author, professor, and theologian up to his death in 2018, Dr. Cone helped us understand the difference between Black and White reflections on God, which was a matter of difference in the lived experiences of each. “As white theology is largely defined by its response to modern and post-modern societies of Europe and America, usually ignoring the contradictions of slavery and oppression in black life,” he writes, “black religious thought is the thinking of slaves and of marginalized blacks whose understanding of God was shaped by the contradictions that white theologians ignored and regarded as unworthy of serious theological reflection.”
According to Dr. Cone, the five themes of Black religious thought that were birthed from slavery and the ongoing marginalization of Black people throughout history are justice, liberation, hope, love, and suffering. In Black liberation theology, the justice and love of God is “made known through divine righteousness, liberating the poor for a new future.”
Black people consistently live in the “now and not yet,” joy and pain, and the hope and faith in a God who is liberating us for a new future. Dr. Cone’s work affirms Black history and culture and the experience of the oppressed. His work empowers Black and Brown people to reject White normative culture and theology, and to embrace a God who created us for freedom. Cone urged, “Let us hope that the revolution in liberation theology will change not only how we think about God, but more importantly what we do in this world so that the victims might make a future that is defined by freedom and justice and not slavery and oppression.”
Ways to incorporate Cone’s work into your youth ministry:
- Introduce Cone’s work to students when talking about a justice rooted in Jesus. Please read with your students Chapter 6: Who is Jesus Christ for Us Today? and Chapter 7: The Meaning of Liberation in God of the Oppressed.
- For your Black and Brown students who are feeling discouraged and weighted down by White supremacy both in the church and society, have them read Chapter 4: God in Black Theology and Chapter 5: The Human Being in Black Theology in A Black Theology of Liberation and Chapter 3: The White Church and Black Power in Black Theology and Black Power.
- If you want your students to educate their teachers, parents, and fellow classmates and dispel the myths that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was “better” than Malcolm X, that they were adversaries, or that one was bad and the other was good, I implore you to have them read Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? Both figures were justice-fighters together and warriors in the same fight. Don’t listen to the hype—educate yourselves.
- Further online learning: Hear a conversation with Dr. James Cone about Black liberation theology and why and how he created it here!
Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman
“Unlike most black ministers concerned about racial justice, liberation, love, suffering, and hope,” writes Dr. James Cone, Thurman did not become a political activist; he took the "inward journey" (the title of one of his books), focusing on a "spiritual quest for liberation beyond race and ethnic origin. He was able to develop this universalist perspective without ignoring the urgency of the political issues involved in the black struggle for justice.”
Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was an iconic Black pastor who wrote countless books, articles, meditations, and sermons. Thurman believed in the power of the individual mystical and intimate inner experience of God that would in turn project outward to help change communities. According to Dr. Katie Cannon, he emphasized the sacredness and the imago Dei in every person. She writes that “this built-in sense of the Creator provides oppressed people with ultimate meaning and the ability to transform circumstances.”
Howard Thurman was a predecessor of Dr. Neichelle Guidry at Spelman College as Dean of Chapel. She discusses the importance of his work, most especially his book With Head and Heart, where he “talks about stewarding our intellectual capacities and nurturing our questions as acts of stewardship of faith.” It is said that Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited was the only book Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. carried with him at all times, next to the Bible. Thurman’s work reminds us of the importance of community relatedness, our intimate relationship with God, and how the power of those two experiences can help transform our communities and shape our world.
Ways to incorporate Thurman’s work into your youth ministry:
- Consider Thurman’s work as you plan or evaluate a community outreach program. He was a prolific writer, but one staple book I would encourage youth leaders to read with your students is Jesus and the Disinherited.
- Introduce his work to your students when emphasizing the importance of spiritual practices and community engagement. I recommend Meditations of the Heart, The Inward Journey, and The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman. You may also try using some of Thurman’s prayers and reflections in your worship with students.
- Further online learning: Direct your students to this video
when they are wrestling with their goals, desires, and purpose in life. Thurman discusses “What do you want, really?”
Wisdom for the journey
I am filled with gratitude that my life intersected with these scholars’ work over the years. My charge is to continue to find BIPOC thought leaders, theologians, and practitioners to glean wisdom and growth from.
My deepest hope for you is the same.
I pray this blog post would only be the first step in your journey of learning from these thought leaders, and many others like them, so you can continue to lean into important conversations with your students. This is why we wrote Talking about Race with Teenagers, in order to help facilitate these important conversations and give you language in order to create better understanding.
Navigating these waters with your students is not easy, but it is a necessity in order to celebrate the imago Dei in each of us and create a beloved community together.
Tweet this: Black theology has so much to teach us about celebrating, uplifting, and empowering the imago Dei in the Black body and lived experience. Here are four Black theologians who help our young people feel seen, heard, and honored.
Engage a diverse generation in faithful and caring discussions about race.
Help young people faithfully explore issues that are important to God and relevant for a diverse generation. Talking about Race with Teenagers gives you the steps you need to lead caring conversations about race, culture, immigration, and power.
Image by Suad Kamardeen
 Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon in Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, “Katie’s Canon: Enfleshing Womanism, Mentoring and the Soul of the Black Community,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring 2019): 102, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jfemistudreli.35.1.12.
 James H. Cone, “Black Theology in American Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Dec., 1985, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Dec., 1985): 756, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1464274.
 Cone, “Black Theology in American Religion,” 758.
 Cone, “Black Theology in American Religion,” 771.
 Cone, “Black Theology in American Religion,” 760.
 Katie Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics, (Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1988), 160.
 Dr. Neichelle Guidry, “Neichelle Guidry: Leading the vocational journey through the lens of sisterhood,” Faith & Leadership, February 9th, 2021, https://faithandleadership.com/neichelle-guidry-leading-vocational-journey-through-lens-sisterhood.
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