Black Women, Faith, and Sexuality

An Interview with Olivia Kamil Smarr

Black Queer Public Theologian & Spiritual Movement Artist

Describing the Work

The overarching theme is seeing the body as divine, and I explore that through a variety of ways. And I think what keeps me centered is that if I come from a place of seeing the body as divine, there are so many avenues through which to explore that and to invite other people to do that as well. So, with movement, I really like to help people through classes, or through training, or through guided meditation. I like to help people embrace their full bodies and really understand the interconnectedness of our bodies because I think that the society that we live in compartmentalizes us. So, we think of the brain as something completely separate from the body, and I don’t think that’s the case. And we think of the spirit as something that is this either external or internal thing, like it’s not fully a part of us and I don’t believe that either.

So, the work that I do, whether it be through movement or doing spiritual counseling, I always want to approach it from a place of seeing the body as divine. And then also not just seeing the body as divine but seeing and understanding the interconnectedness of us, our bodies, with everything else. So, for the past year I’ve been really exploring eco-feminism and eco-theology and queer eco-theology and understanding how we are connected to the cosmos. I actually have a background in astronomy. Before I went to seminary, I was in the sciences, and that’s like what my degree is in. So, I’ve always been interested in the cosmos, and now I’m incorporating spirituality into exploring the cosmos as well. So, when I work with people to help understand the body as divine, I also approach it from a place of seeing the body as an extension of everything else in the cosmos and seeing ourselves as being just as majestic and complex and divine, like supernatural, as everything else around us.

The Journey to This Work

It’s been a long one. I think that now I’m finally settling into my vocation and my calling, what I want to do, but it’s been a lot of just kind of wandering and being pulled and pushed in different directions and learning what I like and what I don’t like. And in retrospect now, I see the things that I struggled with were to push me in the direction that I needed to go. I am kind of a perfectionist. I’m like very ambitious, like very achievement driven and so, when I was growing up, I got straight A’s, Honor Roll, got scholarships, like merit scholarships, got internships, because that was what you’re supposed to do. Like you’re supposed to be really smart. You’re supposed to get into the schools. You’re supposed to, you know, excel academically, and then I also have that approach to everything else in my life, including my spirituality.

I grew up in the AME church, and that has been a very complex experience because the AME church isn’t LGBTQ affirming, but it is very rooted in liberation theology, like literally the foundations of the AME church are intertwined in liberation theology and what that means. I wouldn’t say that was drilled into me, but that has been a foundation of my faith as well, just the power of Black people, our history, and embracing all of that. So, I grew up with that thread of being very empowered and seeing my spirituality as really being rooted in my cultural identity.

And I also grew up dancing in the Church. I was in the liturgical dance ministry, but there was something that never felt right to me. I remember so many times how in a dance ministry, we were told not to move a certain way or not to wear like red lipstick or like red nail polish, not to wear distracting earrings because there was this idea that we would tempt the men, or it was unholy for our bodies to be seen. And even the garments…so it’s different in some churches, but in our church, we would have to wear long tunics that went to mid-thigh level and then these big fluffy skirts and then pants these like wide-leg pants [palazzos] under the skirts. So, we were fully covered and the movement that we were supposed to do was very big but didn’t really focus on any type of hip or core movement which for me, it didn’t feel right. Something didn’t feel right about it. And even within the dance ministry, we had an African dance component and an African dance ministry and even that movement had like no hip anything, no pelvic movement. It just felt restricted, and that didn’t feel right to me.

And then, when I got to high school, I think maybe my junior year, I started training professionally in African dance, and that’s when I was like “this is completely different from what we did in church.” Like it’s all rooted in your pelvis and if something shakes, then it shakes. If something jiggles, then it jiggles. It’s very full bodied, embracing your body, embracing all the different forms and ways that it moves. And when I went to college, I studied Congolese dance, and West African dances, depending on what region, it can be, very big arms, jumping, or footwork. Congolese dance is all focused on your center and on hip movement and on pelvic rotation, like it’s so hippie, and that type of movement was what we were explicitly told not to do in church. So, for me, the movement aspect of everything has been a journey of embracing my body and my culture at the same time. And seeing that if my body is divine, then the movement that I do is also divine, like my hips are divine, like everything about my body is sacred, including my sensuality. And so movement-wise, that’s been really the core focus of what I’ve been embracing.

And seeing that if my body is divine, then the movement that I do is also divine, like my hips are divine, like everything about my body is sacred, including my sensuality.

And then also seeing or exploring well if the body is divine, then the body is divine in all forms, regardless of ability or illness. Like the full body is divine, so that’s when I started integrating more disability focus into the work that I do and exploring chronic illness and seeing that as also being centered on the body as divine which, for me, was in direct opposition to the professional dance world which was based on technique, on your ability to jump this high, to move your leg this much, to train as hard as you can. So, coming from the place that I wanted to come from of seeing the body as divine, that’s what made me shift to a more accessible way of movement.

And in 2017, I did a panel at the National Women’s Studies Association conference. II got invited to do the panel, because for the previous years, I had been writing about my experience in the church, dealing with the whole Black women’s bodies are not embraced, our sensuality is not embraced. I have been writing about that for a while, so I got invited to speak on a panel about religion and sexuality, and so I spoke. The title of my presentation was “Church Hats and Club Dresses,” and it was about the way that even though, Black women may have been in a club on Saturday night and then came to church the next morning in the same clothes that they were wearing with a church hat on, like that’s still okay; that’s still spiritual; that’s still divine in a way. And I remember after the panel, (I was the only black person on the panel. I was the only non-professor on the panel) one of the panelists, who is a professor of religion or something like really elite, came up to me and was like “you should write a book” And I was like “what?” But she said that because there was someone who asked a question in the in the audience during the panel about what resources are there for Black girls growing up in the church who are exploring sensuality and have questions about what that means in terms of their spirituality. So she was like you should write a book.

And at the time, I was not working in religion at all. I was not doing any type of spirituality work. I was just working a 9-to-5 job. But that stuck with me because everything I have been doing professionally just started to fall apart, like I got laid off, funding got cut, projects got cut…and I’m like what’s going on? I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I did everything I’m supposed to do. I grew up in the Church. I did everything right. I was really smart, went to an elite school, graduated, got a 9-to-5, went into the workforce…everything just started to fall apart. And that’s when I realized that it was time for me to pursue a different calling, and so in like May of 2017 or 2018, I lost my job, like no warning whatsoever. I was just laid off, and I had been thinking more about spirituality and what that person said about writing a book was still in my mind. But when I got laid off from my job, I was like, I think this is a sign that I should just take the leap. So, I was still applying to jobs, thinking that I will go back into the workforce. That next year, I enrolled in seminary, and I sent my application in literally at the day of the deadline because I was just like I don’t really know if I should do this. I only applied to one school because I knew I wanted to go to a progressive seminary that was LGBTQ affirming and that had a flexible coursework plan and all of that, so I only applied to one school, and I got in with a scholarship. And I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m doing this now.”

But I was still holding onto the idea that there is this particular path that you’re supposed to follow in society. You’re supposed to do a 9-to-5. Once you graduate, you make money, and then you have a family, and you follow this like very rigid path. So, I was still working, while I was doing my degree. And I continued working, but I got laid off from another job, and it still wasn’t coming together. But my coursework was going pretty well, and I was taking classes that I was just really excelling in and interested in. I applied for another job, got laid off, and once that happened, that was when I was like “Okay, I need to pivot and just commit to this fully.” So, I did my program full-time, and I switched from the MDiv to the MA because I felt like getting a Master’s degree was better suited to what I wanted to do and what I was interested in, which is exploring spiritual concepts and theological concepts from a more academic perspective as opposed to a ministerial perspective.

And so, once I started doing my program full-time, all these opportunities popped up. More people started to recognize the work that I was doing, and things just started to really accelerate. And so I started to teach dance classes and explore that more and really believe in myself more, really dive into my coursework, and into writing my thesis and committing to what I now see as my vocation: which is helping people explore spirituality and their bodies and seeing our bodies as connected to other bodies, like bodies in space, bodies on the planet, and just seeing the sacred nature of our own selves and then also recognizing that if we’re seeing our divinity as connected with everything else, then we see our divinity also is connected to our ancestry and so understanding that there is a living spiritual connection that we have with our ancestors and exploring the African roots of our faith more and exploring these concepts of the supernatural that exists in the faith practices of Black Americans in the US who are descendants of enslaved Africans. So that’s kind of where I am now, really doing that work and exploring it through different pathways but just being committed to it and being very focused on it with no hesitation.

Advice For Those Beginning This Journey

I struggled for my first two years in seminary because people were telling me what to do. People were telling me what they thought I should do and when you hear it from a spiritual leader that you trust, you’re like “Oh, you see that in me? Well great I’ll do that,” but I caution people against doing that. Now that I’ve gone through the experience, I didn’t really get into what I was really interested in until my last year in seminary because I was still following the path that people told me I should follow. And yeah, we tend to trust spiritual leaders, which is cool, but when it comes to trusting your calling and discernment, that’s between you and God. That doesn’t involve anybody else.

God may have a plan for you, that is something that is completely different and innovative that no one has ever done before, but if you privilege what other people tell you, then you won’t find that.

Like that is something that you have to find an explore within yourself and that takes a lot of discipline because you have to, like for me, it really required me to isolate myself, which people don’t want you to do. You know I had to stop going to church and just explore and develop my own spiritual practices, but in Christianity you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to go to church. Church is really, really important but, for me, I needed to block all of that out and just have it be me and God, and you know my encounters with the divine and going through a process of discernment that was focused on my own personal relationship with the divine and exploring my personal calling. So, the advice I would give is to focus on yourself and not feel obligated to pursue a path that people tell you that you should pursue because the people who are telling you what to do may be coming from a perspective of this is what other people have done, but you might not be called to do other people have done. God may have a plan for you, that is something that is completely different and innovative that no one has ever done before, but if you privilege what other people tell you, then you won’t find that. And if you’re someone who’s growing up in the Black Church or in the Christian Church and various denominations, then you may be familiar with people saying like “God told me to tell you,” or you know people prophesying that “God gave me this message for you,” and sometimes that’s good, but you shouldn’t prioritize that over what you feel called to do.

And if you don’t know what you feel called to do, then you need to work on that first and on discerning that first. At the beginning and end of the day, at the beginning and end of your life, it’s just you and God, like it’s just you and the divine. If you’re someone who is into the Bible, then you know that Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, so maybe that’s what you need to do. Maybe that’s the approach that you need to have. And then even exploring other faith traditions and how they viewed isolation as something that’s really important to spiritual development and to receiving spiritual messages, and there’s a ton of that in the foundation of the Christian Church as well, people who did the same thing, like went into the desert and lived a life of isolation in order to get closer to God. I don’t think that you should necessarily do exactly what they did, but I think that there is immense value and importance in using a method of blocking other people out in order to discern what God is telling you to do, and it doesn’t have to be extreme. It doesn’t have to be permanent, but I think it’s very, very important, especially if you’re someone like me who is used to doing what other people tell you to do or following the path that people say that you should follow.

I will say that what was helpful for me is figuring out who I’m doing this for, and who my audience is. Who are the people that I want to engage with? And I have been thinking about doing a PhD for a long time, and I’ve decided not to do one. Maybe I’ll do it later on, but at the moment, I’ve decided not to do them because I thought I should do a PhD because people told me I should do it, because people said that I had something really important to contribute to the Academy, into this body of theological knowledge, but then when I thought about what a PhD entails, and all of the people I know who have suffered through PhD programs, I started to think about, do I really care about the Academy? Do I really care about what the Academy thinks of me, or like who am I doing this for? And I settled upon not choosing to do a PhD right now because my work is community focused. I don’t care about you these white male theologians who tend to have a lot of sway in the Academy. I don’t care what they think about me. Those credentials aren’t important. The people I work with in the community don’t care if I have a PhD; they care about the work that I do, and how I am able to engage with them, and what knowledge I have. You can have knowledge without going through the trauma of a PhD program, and one of my incredibly wise friends told me when I was considering not pursuing the PhD (I was telling her about how I decided not to do it because I didn’t care about these people in the Academy, but I cared about what my community thought), that’s great because even if you do a PhD, and even if you contribute your research to this body of knowledge, they may still not even recognize you. Like they may still dismiss you.

And when I thought about it, I was like “wow, that’s true” because when I was doing my thesis research so much of the scholarship around African-based religions was not in theological or religion journals. It was considered like a cultural anthropology or like folk religion. Like it wasn’t even considered something that was in the body of foundational theological texts. There, of course, are some like liberation theology, like womanist theology, but a lot of even movement based spiritual traditions are not a part of the main theological journals or theological databases. So then, there was that perspective. I was like “oh, that’s like really, really true.” I could still follow the path that everyone was telling me to do and do everything right and they may still dismiss me. So, who am I doing this for, and what is what is my purpose in doing it? What are my goals?

I realized that just because I don’t have a specific credential or didn’t follow a specific path doesn’t mean that God hasn’t called me to do something.

A few years ago, I had a consultation with someone who had been working with me during my period of discernment on my spiritual life, and she asked me to write a journal entry from the perspective of someone in your audience, like someone who you want to reach with your work, and when I did that, I realized that the Academy didn’t really have anything to do with who I really want to reach. And you know, who knows if I do write a book and do this work, maybe, eventually, it will get incorporated into like foundational theological databases, or you know people may include my books or my work in my classes. Like maybe that will happen, but I have to think about right now. Who do I want to reach, and who am I doing this for? And it’s a pandemic, and I don’t have a whole lot of energy to be doing multiple things and to be doing things that I’m not sure about or I’m not fully committed to.

So, yeah, I would say, think about who you’re doing it for. Who are the people that you want to reach? And once again, discernment. Like focus on yourself instead of thinking about what other people are telling you to do because they are speaking from their own experience, and sometimes even well-meaning people can project their own experience and what they went through on you. But you are your own person, and only you can make the decision about what you’re going to do in life. And only you have to live with those consequences of what you do in life, so that’s the advice I would give.

On Cultivating and Creating Space to Do the Work

It has not been easy. Creating your own path is so much more difficult than following the path that someone has set for you or that has already been established, but I’ve just been thinking about how much I’ve been suffering by following the path that people set for me or that people want me to follow. And I came to the conclusion that the suffering that I was going through is not worth doing, because even though it’s difficult to create my own path, the joy of that, the joy and peace that will bring me, is more important. Even though it’s going to be challenging to do, I will say that I have a great support system, and that has really carried me through it. There are professors that I’ve had who have become mentors to me because they see my potential, but they also see my creativity and they believe in my vision of doing things differently.

So yeah, with a great support system and also with seeking out resources and believing in myself and believing that, even though I don’t have a PhD, that I’m still qualified to speak about what I know and to share and engage with people and to help people. That has been really helpful, and it’s kept me grounded. And then also realizing that these credentials that exists that we’re told to pursue, those weren’t set by God; those are set by people. Like those are human made standards that don’t necessarily align with any type of spiritual life foundation, like organic spiritual foundation so with a lot of discernment. I realized that just because I don’t have a specific credential or didn’t follow a specific path doesn’t mean that God hasn’t called me to do something. So, now I’m just believing in that more, trusting in that more, and really recognizing that it’s me and God and if I can have the faith to, you know, just step out on faith and follow my calling, it will work. It will come together.

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