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Baby Suggs, holy, is an enslaved, woman in the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison.  In the passage cited below, Baby Suggs, holy is preaching in the woods on a Saturday afternoon.  Baby Suggs, holy stands on a huge flat-sided rock, prays, and then begins to preach proclaiming the essential message of incarnation and liberation.  In her preaching, she portrays and invokes a power I want to wield in my classrooms.  It is the power of passion – the ability to love hard.  Baby Suggs, holy, says,

“ …. in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh….. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you…..hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize." (Beloved, page 88).”

This is a clarion call to love those who are enfleshed in my classroom.  Specifically, it is a wisdom message to learn to love myself, especially since I teach over “yonder.” 

Passion helps me teach better – teach for the long haul.  When I want to quit, when I get tired, 6a016301e4b359970d01b8d14a611e970c-120wiimpatient, or discouraged – my passion allows me to stick it out.  Like many people, I began teaching because I was passionate about learning.  I love ideas – new and old.  I love solving problems and being creative.  I want, in the classroom, to right wrongs, to better appreciate beauty, to challenge the status quo and disdain mediocrity.  Passion, having not waned, has helped me to move toward these lofty visions.

After years in the field of teaching, it is Baby Suggs, holy and those women like her, who keep my fires kindled.  I have only to remember the dreadful experiences of brutality she and the other women endured who lived in a world where flesh was owned by another human being. In the reality of chattel slavery, she dared loving herself. Baby Suggs, holy had the audacity to preach about love in a world where her love was met with children, men-folk and friends routinely sold away.  She preaches to love oneself because otherwise there is no one to love you, and you need love.

Loving my flesh, hard in my classrooms gives me leave to openly discuss issues of racism and oppression because flesh is the purveyor of all isms, i.e. racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc. I recognize that my body is not neutral in the classroom.  My body, like all bodies, is an indicator of power, authority, and status.  It is by viewing my body that students determine (accurately or inaccurately) my race, my class, my gender, my sexual orientation, and, in too many cases, my very worth. 

My love of my flesh in my classroom means helping my white students to re-decode/re-interpret the societal messages about the body and the politics of the body which exist within and beyond the classroom.  Racist, sexist society has taught them that my African American, female body is a display of such stereotypes as jezebel, superwoman, ghetto fabulous or mammie.  Unchecked, their imaginations would work to re-inscribe the presumed status of inferiority upon me.  I love my flesh hard when I wade into deep conversations about justice knowing I am educating the oppressor in my own classroom.

Occasionally, my students will be bowled over by my intensity.  Some few will complain that my curricular itinerary is “too much” or they will voice their preference for moderation.  When the students balk, I recollect the transformative passions of my people.  I remember the taking down of the confederate flag this summer from the grounds of the South Carolina state capital.  It took years to convince folks that this flag was a diabolical symbol of hatred unsuitable to be flown in places which housed the workings of democracy.  The long, tedious negotiations prevailed because of the unwavering conviction held by those who believe in equality – those who love their flesh, hard.  Passion over the long-haul is what made this flag furl.    

So I ask: How does one measure the personal risk of passionate teaching?  What would it take to create a more enfleshed experience in the adult classroom – classrooms which allow learners and teachers to weep, laugh and dance on bare feet in grass?


This is the 2nd post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

About Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D., is the fourth director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a home with family and extended family dedicated to public education. Her father was a school psychologist and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who, as a volunteer organizer, greatly influenced the school board of the city of Philadelphia. Lynne holds a BS in Agriculture from Murray State University, a MA in Christian Education from Scarritt Graduate School, and a PhD in Religious Education and Womanist Studies from Union Institute. Lynne, as a United Methodist clergy person, served on the staff of the Riverside Church (NYC) where she redesigned the family education program. From 1999 to 2019, she was on the faculty of Drew University Theological School (Madison, New Jersey) as Professor of Religious Education.
Lynne’s first book was a children’s book entitled All Quite Beautiful: Living in a Multicultural Society. Her second book was a publishing of her doctoral dissertation entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality. Her books written in collaboration include: Being Black/Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies and Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She also, for a brief time, wrote for the Huffington Post.

Reader Interactions


  1. Thank you for lifting the work, spirit and power of Baby Suggs and loving hard in the classroom. Loving hard to engage students to learn to journey beyond rather than through the expectations of educational institutions is a radical approach. You express the essence of teaching a whole being and not just a beautiful mind. You acknowledge that flesh has memory, is intelligent and is not without sight.

  2. Professor Westfield, I am amazed at your tenacity and to dare to take these steps that I do in the midst of the imagination. Using an approach to teach in the classroom in “real time”, the essence of dancing in the grass and getting to the cruz of loving oneself. I have come to think about how to use and live and bring this wonderful element into the classroom. Passion invites the truth of what is and to enlighten students with the truth until they can bring themselves into this awareness. How powerful it is to know that one has the passion and ability to move towards freedom of the spirit and the “flesh”. I discovered at the funeral of my best friend’s mom; she was owned by the oppenheimers in Puerto Rico. This Black Puerto Rican woman who passed at 93 years of age and studied to become a pastor at 57 years old after cleaning homes since a girl of l5 years of age never revealed her story of slavery. She was passionate with everything and everyone. Her words and behavior was consistent with her life; living in the projects for over fifty years with many of the African American youth speaking to her with respect “hey Ma Ma Ramona”, dancing on the grass would have been a relaxing moment in time. Your curricular is never too much but necessary for the work that is needed in ministry today. I think it would take a person such as myself planning and sharing stories while inviting others to share thier stories. Writing with a passion creates a sustained focus for the individual learner. Slowing down the pace to allow the group to experience how this this experience feels. This allows for human growth and progress not only with the mind but with the soul. This is not a radical consideration but a necessary teaching strategy that would bring wonderful insight in a classroom of children who live challenged lives. That includes all children today!! Thank you.

  3. Professor Westfield,
    This is a wonderful idea and something that happens once in a while in a classroom but if it could be an experience more often would lead to great things. These great progress moments would benefit all of the individuals in the classroom including the professor.
    This would promote trust in the space and growth in the soul.
    Thank you again

  4. I really like this turning back to flesh that you bring up Dr. Westfield. It serves as a reminder of my own limitations and the myriad limitations that we can project on one another. That risk of sharing in vulnerability with another person – particularly in a classroom – is often daunting. But I’m grateful for you encouraging creative risk in class and into our communities.

  5. I believe the way in which my previous Social Work classes were done was a good way to get the emotional and heart felt conversations going on topics that many consider untouchable; isms. To declare a safe sharing atmosphere where people can express themselves openly without judgement. That what is said in the room stays in the room. There are few that will share initially, but once that safety is proven then others will share too. The issue with sharing such intense and meaningful topics is that no one wants to be judged. If someone speaks in ignorance, others should not snap at that person, but calmly and collectively explain why what the person said was painful to others or misunderstood. We can agree to disagree on some matters, but for others there needs to be a way to express thoughts and ideas without feeling our own way is the only way to think. As a privileged white woman I can never feel what someone who is not privileged or discriminated feels. I will never in my life know what it feels to be a minority even in a group of minority people. I can always leave and gain back that privilege wherever I go. I do not have to worry if I walk into a store with a big jacket and big purse that a clerk will believe I may rob the place. I have witnessed clerks however treat people who are not white as if they are going to commit a crime just because of their appearance. So to have this conversation within a class and to have it be open and safe, people need to know that they can speak and that together we will help each other learn.

  6. Honest and fearless conversation is what the classroom needs. Educators and students alike, are afraid and far to concerned with self preservation and the others’ reaction and response to brutal honesty. Yet without honest sincere communication, the educator and student have failed to reveal their true selves and have allowed miscommunication to win the day. An unmasking must occur. We choose to see what makes us different rather celebrate the vast similarities.

  7. Dr. Westfield,
    For an educator/teacher to have “power of passion” it will invoke not only flesh but both soul and spirit as barriers are broken down and true knowledge is exposed, received and shared. Passion in our twenty-first century has lost some of its gusto, as the term can be used rather lightly in the areas of speaking, reading or even in the written text. As noted in the Oxford English Dictionary the word passion originates from the Latin word “pati” meaning to “suffer” and this suffering is deeply rooted in a strong belief system which not only energizes but empowers an individual in whom this passion is embodied. We do have to LOVE what we do! I agree that the element of passion electrifies an individual so much, that the person is transformed into acting and thinking beyond ‘normal’ comprehension. But what also has to be of concern for both teacher and learner is – what price has to be paid (the suffering part of passion) and what does the individual have to give up in order to reach their desired teaching and learning goals. Passion as it is personified through thoughts, gestures and words allows a teacher to encourage, captivate and hopefully cause the hearer to move towards action or reaction which can be positive or negative.
    If I may ask a question – can we learn to be passionate, can it be developed in a person who receives the necessary education or must we be born with it?

  8. What a powerful declaration in regards to standing up for justice: love of self with an intensity that sparks a deep passion. Thank you for resurrecting the spirit and soul of Baby Suggs, in your post. She ignites a passion for freedom and justice that is pure, essential, and necessary. This kind of passion I agree is a necessary component for teaching. When we can love our flesh with an assured confidence, then we can say with surety that we are free. The platforms for justice are open. Further, I think that all students, those that are the ancestors of the oppressed and the oppressor alike, can begin to feel a fire that burns from within. As an African American woman, this revelation speaks volumes to my soul. I too can say that I am free and can now voice my stance. The stereotypes of what my body looks like really doesn’t matter. My passion can cut through the forests of fear and doubts.

  9. This is very well stated. Thanks for your expressions. I am God’s Word made flesh. I am a walking, talking example of God’s love and the way to love hard through passion. Passion is truly a gift to all of humanity. As an educator, I understand what it means to teach for the long haul. I teach to leave a legacy and hope that my students will come to a better understanding of who they are and value their own self worth and ideas that they bring to the table and to be able to express it the same. Teaching adults is really no different. We must have that same approach and desire. I believe passion is key and passion drives us to embrace the enfleshed of the classroom.

  10. Thank you, Dr. Westfield, for your example of courage and commitment to expressing spiritual truths that are too often uncomfortable to ponder. Continue your mission to offer enlightenment to your students and co-workers that will assist all of us to reach a higher level of consciousness. You are a true embodiment of Baby Suggs.

  11. Dr. Britton – yes, I believe flesh has memory, is intelligent and has the ability to see/know. I believe the flesh has an awareness or at least provides our spirits with the needed awareness for knowing in multiple dimensions and a myriad of ways. We, trying to be “intellectual/brainy” disconnect from the parts of our minds which are lodged with our flesh. We have learned to ignore when our flesh “crawls” or when we get “goosebumps” or those experiences which give us “cold feet” or “butterflies.” The descriptors remain in our language about the wisdom of the flesh, but most of us have learned to ignore our bodies’ language and messages. What would it mean to re-conect or what would it take to re-kindle our intellectual relationship with our flesh? What movements of the Spirit do we miss because only our flesh knows how to see those activities of the holy? What is learning if the flesh is numb, dumb, or weak minded?

  12. Thanks again Professor Westfield for a writing that is an inevitable cause of much thinking. As I read the body of the text, I found myself saying … YES – YES – YES … first in reference to the beautiful quote about incarnation but also in relation to the necessity of passion and the energy which comes from tackling anything with passion. It made me think of the quote (a favorite) from Howard Thurman … “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

    For me, the art of preaching is what makes me feel alive and thus, as I consider your question, I reflect on the teaching and preaching I have and will continue to do within my ministry. And I can’t help but wonder if I have fallen short of going as far as I can for fear of personal risk? That’s a question I will sit with but as it relates to our classroom, the obvious response is the creation of a place in which each of us feels we can take a risk and freely express our fears, concerns, beliefs. But with that feeling comes a necessary ability to receive openly the expressions of our classmates, especially if they are directed at us in a critical manner. Perhaps being able to do that requires the undergirding of the body and blood of Christ? Is there something or someone (i.e. The Christ) that we need to agree surpasses our differences so that we can remain “together” while we work through what can be painful differences? With that said, it seems as if the challenge of any class and maybe more so this one (which meets just four times) is to establish a shared humanity and a unity in Christ that will then make possible the kind of openness necessary to weep, dance, laugh and even fight! Certainly, the full days we share together will help and if those days can be structured in a way (I think of the Sabbath Retreat class I shared with you and classmates) that allows a liminal kind of space, we may move closer towards this enfleshed classroom!

    Grace & Peace,

  13. Dr. Westfield…WOW. So much to chew, so much to marinate,so much to take in and let out. WOW. When I think about passion being the driving force for most it stand to be said that passion is the key to the ignition where purpose is the engine that drives the vehicle. It drives us when we are to weary to drive ourselves up the mountain and through the woods. The passion to drive ideas, the passion to drive conversation and invoke learning all create an environment for one to transform. A metamorphosis of the flesh (mind,body and spirit).

    The question was asked “What would it take to create a more enfleshed experience in the adult classroom – classrooms which allow learners and teachers to weep, laugh and dance on bare feet in grass?” This might be a case where it is easier said then done, but by creating an atmosphere of accountability and transparency can build the refuge that houses the flesh. This making it possible to grow, to weep, to laugh and dance.

  14. I thoroughly enjoyed this, a great read during my lunch period on what has been a hectic day…

    Dr. Westfield, I have always loved your freedom to speak and teach with passion. It has inspired me as an educator for over a decade. I felt your teaching was bold and unlike what I was conditioned to hearing. What amazed me (and to a degree, intimidated me) during my years at Drew was the fact that, in your teaching, you were not afraid to be critiqued or challenged. Most days I felt that you encouraged it. You were passionate and it was clear that you taught from a deep place. It wasn’t just scholarship; it was what you embodied.

    Often I sat quiet in your classes because while passionate about my beliefs and my ideas (or so I thought), I was not particularly open to critique. I felt that if I was challenged, and could not defend where I was, that it was a sign of weakness. This came from my perceptions of masculinity and leadership, and this position was not exclusive to my classroom experiences, but they seeped into my ecclesial and professional life also. I wanted those around me to be liberated – my church members, my families, my students in the classroom – but I was not open to being liberated. I am trying to get people to trust a path to freedom, but I refused to remove my own shackles. To a degree, I wanted to learn, but I didn’t want to change. Mostly because I was not secure in who I was. I had not found that “place” within me.

    This blog entry has helped me to reflect on how far I’ve come and all that I had to “unlearn” in order to learn and become a better teacher with a more authentic passion for teaching. I have grown to understand that passion as a preacher/leader/person is not just about my ability to pontificate my beliefs, or to generate excitement about what I deem as valuable or truth, but passionate teaching is about my ability to engage in discourse that while I am teaching, I can also be taught. Passion is having the same level of excitement, whether you are giving or gaining from a particular experience.

    The passion that drives my teaching and my leadership I believe has become “flesh” because I am more aware of who I am and I am honest with myself and others about the perceptions and biases I bring to the conversation. I am also more open to deconstruction in the presence of others. I have learned that lovely myself in community is having passion to promote change while also realizing that I may change (and may need to change) during that process.

    So I measure the personal risk of passionate teaching now in my willingness allow myself to become open enough to change and be changed in the classroom, to hear and be heard in community, to be confident in who I am, but to be clear that I still need to grow into who I can become.

    Looking forward to the journey!

  15. I think the better question is how does one justify teaching without passion? Without passion, there is no risk, and therefore no stake in success or failure. Without passion, teaching (or any other quest in life) is as dry as walking into the bank to make a deposit. Life is not meant to be taken with a “transaction” mentality that one simply completes a task and moves onto the next transaction. No, passion is absolutely necessary in the classroom. It demonstrates, to me, an authentic experience that learning is more than transactional rote.

    As one who spent most of my business career measuring and analyzing statistical data, I can say without hesitation that there is a cause and effect that comes into play with “performance”. Employees, for example, that were passionate about their jobs, generally had better statistics through which they were rewarded. But those employees that came to work with no more passion than a stapler had performance statistics that reflected such.

    As it relates to adult (read: mature) learning, the passion that is demonstrated from the leader (professor) is more likely reflected back than it would be from a younger crowd. Not that I’m planning on dancing in my bare feet in grass, but the experience is nevertheless appreciated!

  16. Dr. Westfield, it is the expression of compassion, the love of flesh in the classroom and having the “testicular-fortitude” to take risk that makes teaching effective. I am encouraged and reminded that it is essential to also love self and to love hard. I look forward to this creative journey of teaching.

  17. Dr. Westfield, I will admit here that I am one of those students who secretly pushes back at the amount or reading, papers and projects that your courses require. But I continue to choose your courses, to choose to experience your sharing of life, and I buy the books and read them! That is because I know that this is not merely accumulating knowledge but rather it is an evolution of me. The books from your courses are the ones I remember, the discussions in your classes are the ones I take with me into my life, the questions we ask are the ones that help me to find my voice and to use it. Thanks for the opportunities to weep, laugh and dance in bare feet in the grass!

  18. I believe passion is grown from within. Yes I do believe nurture can influence a person, but I believe nature is where it really comes from. I can want to have a passion for music, but no matter how much I appreciate it there will be no true undeniable passion and success for it if I do not naturally have the right tools to accomplish that passion. I have a passion for helping others that is just in me. I cannot explain where it came from, but it has always been there. I have others around who say they have this same passion, but cannot achieve the ability through classes and workbooks. I on the other hand am able to tweak and polish my abilities because of that passion. I believe passion is more than just a yearning. It is also the ability to achieve in whatever facet that passion lies.

  19. Dr. Westfield, this Blog confronted the form of my teaching and how my approach to the learning community with my people, society or any other environment what I am involved for is totally passionate? Those lines presents the passion and desire to expose to our class in vivid and interactive experience from our own realities and oppressions. The measure of passionate teaching is assuming the risk to show our vulnerability and weakness in the learning process with the student and we are part in reconciliation with ourselves. My responsibility as an educator in life have to be active and engage the experiences, intersectional issues, and stories. We could formulate questions not really to be resolve, and this process would be painful, overwhelming and discomfort.

  20. Dr. Westfield I chuckled in delight as you share boldly your expectations of what can be done in the classroom and passion as the fuel that keeps you going. I thank you for that, because of my own transforming experience in your classroom and how your teaching influenced my own desire for learning, curiosity, and critical thinking! I believe passionate teaching in the classroom requires just that, a vision that what is wrestled with in the microcosm of the classroom, will transform the universe. That the passionate teachers by surrendering it all “even if that means losing their own lives” (as Nouwen suggests), inspire passionate students to do the same.

  21. Thank you for your beautiful state, that was exactly I have been experiencing in here. At the first year in here, I was excited to getting an English name, studying in English, and everything is related to English language. However this American society was getting recognize me that I am Korean. Even though I like American movie, music, food, or culture, it does not mean, “I am American.” Also people recognize me as Korean. I wanted to part of American society, but it is not easy. Sometimes I feel depressed, disappointed, and hopeless.

    Now, I am re-recognizing who am I. I was really impressive by your article saying, “Love oneself.” That is the great starting point to recognize your self. I love my flesh, my Korean identity, and my passion to keep facing the long haul. My goal is not becoming an American, but finding myself and loving hard. Who is American? Who is Korean? Even though I was born in Korea though, my body is keep changing from societal message or politics. My identity is keep re-interpreted by many different influences. The identity is not defined simply by a culture. My life is like a journey that seeking power of passion and experiencing liberations from a culture. Ultimately, my flesh will beyond any stereotype.

  22. This post is so well written. I think sometimes we forget that teachers come into the classroom as ready to learn as we are. This post is a bold statement about what it means to enter into that space with a willing heart for making sure that every voice is heard, that even if we have presuppositions about someone based on the way they look or act if they prove otherwise, being willing to accept that not all stereotypes fit every person, in fact most stereotypes are wrong. I think that we sometimes forget that learning is happening all over the classroom and if someone is willing to take a risk and say something out loud, we have to be supportive, and not judgmental about it. That the risk around being creative in learning makes the space open for all kinds of new experiences to flood in.

  23. Thank you for the post. I have witnessed many teachers, facilatators and professors, express publicly their eagerness to learn from their students. In loving oneself it requires having passion. As you stated Dr. Lynn it helps you teach better.teach for the long haul.”
    I commend teachers and those who impart knowledge, information as it can transform the heart and mind. In addition, everyone who enters the space of learning or being taught, should have an opportunity to have a “voice.” There are many ways to learn and as teachers, creativity is essentia.

  24. After reading such a daring and deep narrative, I would have to answer your question by saying transparency and authenticity (with some boundaries) is what I believe it will take to create a more enfleshed experience in the classroom.

    Teaching should never be so robotic that it does not leave room for compassion, insight of students and mutuality of respect. I say that to say, we recently hired a teacher who had never worked in an urban classroom before. When she was hired, it was presumed that because she identified with the ethnicity of the students she would be teaching, that she was able to identify with the community of the students which she would be teaching. Since she started, she has had several complaints about her from both parents and students. During “Back to School” night, she began talking down (degrading) one particular student right in front of his father. She stated “I left Wall Street to give back and work with the underprivileged. She student reacted by using profane language in front of his father because he felt insulted. What the teacher did was insult the parent as well as student…in fact, the entire community. What she lacks is passion!!! If passion for teaching is not evident at the very beginning, then how could this teacher maintain passion for the long haul? It is impossible.

    Measuring personal risk of passionate teaching I would have to say is immeasurable. People, who are passionate about their callings, careers, jobs, etc., infuse personal risks without measure because it is passion that fuels their vocation and that is what keeps you ticking.

  25. Professor Westfield, I applaud the intensity and passion you exhibit while teaching. It is this precise passionately intense teaching Jesus modeled over 2000 years ago. This level of teaching is a result of a call which manifests itself through deep conversations, wisdom, and risk taking between student and professor. Whether preaching in the woods like Baby Suggs, holy, or teaching from the front of the classroom, the lessons taught and learned can be liberating for all.

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