They were all staring at us, with our babies on our hips.” Lisa (name has been changed) came home to tell me about their outing to McDonald’s. She and two other teen moms had decided to go out for lunch that day. They all lived at New Creation Home, the residential program for teenage mothers and their children, where I was serving as executive director. Lisa came home distraught, feeling the weight of the stares from judgmental strangers. She felt no shame in choosing to raise her son herself, so she could give him a better life than the one she had experienced. But even with her confidence, she knew that others still judged her for being such a young mother.
The young women who are served at New Creation Home are socially and economically vulnerable. They are also resilient, strong, determined, and generous. They are excellent mothers, doing what they can with what they have for the sake of their children. They work in community with one another, sharing what they have and helping each other when they can. They influence and change not just their children, but everyone around them, too. I believe that if we empower and support them, teen moms can be agents of transformation in their communities.
Unfortunately, teen moms are often seen by Christians, and the general public, as perpetual sinners. As long as they have a baby on their hips, they carry the evidence of their sexual misdeeds. I caution that we should not reduce the sexual activity of teen moms to a simple matter of resisting temptation. Teaching people to “just say no” or wear purity rings are reductive answers to complex questions of sexuality. These practices also assume that all girls have enough agency to make those decisions for themselves. For low-income young women, their power to choose what happens to their bodies is often minimized by their social locations, family lives, family histories, histories of abuse, and many other factors. What would it look like if we viewed teen moms in a redemptive way that honors their choice to raise their children and encourages them to pursue healing and growth for themselves and their families?
My work with teen moms is why I have come to love Mary in a new way. When I read about Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1, I no longer see the obedient and docile image I grew up learning about. Instead, I see a teen mom that God purposefully placed in a precarious and dangerous position to carry out God’s plans. I see a young girl who came from a poor family with little power. There was nothing immediately special about her. Before she would be known as the mother of Jesus, she was Mary without title, Mary from Nazareth, Mary who was betrothed to Joseph. Mary was unknown.
By first-century cultural norms, Mary also had very little power. While some feminist scholars debate whether Mary actually had a choice, Luke 1:38 recounts Mary humbly accepting the call, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant.” I can then imagine the young Mary changing her posture as she stands taller, draws her shoulders back, and readies herself for her new future. Mary may have found a new Spirit-filled confidence as she owned her new role saying, “May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38).
God called Mary to something much greater than her social location. I find it comforting to note that she was called “highly favored” before she said yes to God. It wasn’t her obedience that made her highly favored. Her significance was in her insignificance. Because of who she was and where she was from, she was chosen to bear God’s son.
The message God has for Mary is good news right from the start: “Mary, you’re one of my favorites! That’s good news. It means you didn’t have to do anything special; you are just you, and that’s enough for me.” Before this announcement, we don’t know what kind of person she was, if she cleaned her room, or if she was a good daughter. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The angel didn’t say, “Mary, because you were so good and perfect and faithful to God, you are highly favored.” She was favored before she knew what was about to be asked of her.
It is important for us to realize that Mary was favored even before she agreed to carry the Son of God. People often think Mary was perfect, and that’s why she was chosen to be Jesus’ mother. This idea creates a conundrum for teen moms. Mary becomes the impossible standard by which many young women are held, especially Latinas and others from predominantly Catholic cultures. Mary has become the icon of the perfect mother who is paradoxically a virgin—an impossible standard for all other women, especially teen moms.
But Mary would not have been seen as the perfect pregnant woman during her time either. If we view Mary through a first-century lens, we see her share a similar conundrum to teen moms today. God purposefully chose her to become pregnant by someone other than her fiancé before she was married, which could have been a punishable crime. She could have been tried as an adulterer and returned to her parents by Joseph if he thought she had become pregnant by another man. This would have caused an economic burden to her family because they would have to give back her dowry and feed and care for her again.Mary’s optics were not good. Yet this is the miraculous way God chose to work with this vulnerable, young, brown girl.
On the day Lisa and the other girls came home feeling judged at McDonald’s, they voiced their awareness of how people see them as teen moms. Like Mary, their optics were not good either. But I also believe that, like Mary, teen moms are chosen by God. Throughout the Bible, we see God’s affection for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. The modern-day teen mom is often all three. God imparts to God’s people the need to care for the vulnerable and marginalized. The way society looked at Mary was the same way society tends to look at teen moms. But God sees both Mary and teen moms in a different light. With Mary, God did not just care for her—God favored her. Mary’s pregnancy during her betrothal left her in a predicament very close to that of teen moms.
Equity for marginalized women, like teen moms, must be seen in light of God’s choosing a marginalized young woman, like Mary, to carry out God’s plan. In the self-emptying act of the incarnation, Jesus answers the problem of injustice to the young, marginalized teen moms. God empties God’s self out and becomes a fragile being, at the mercy and care of young Mary. Jesus laid down power and privilege to be held and nurtured by a teen mom. Mary’s participation in the co-creation of the incarnate Christ was not a matter of Jesus needing a womb to prove his humanity. It was God’s example to humanity of what it looks like to share in abundant love, humility, and social justice to the poor and marginalized.
Teen moms need a new narrative that includes them in the story of God—more specifically, the story of God in relationship to marginalized women like Mary. Their stories need to be validated on their own terms rather than be explained and affirmed by those who have traditionally held power over the biblical narratives. The story of Mary needs to be seen through the eyes of other women who have been economically, socially, and legally vulnerable.
We need to do more than give teen moms our charity. We need to see them in a whole new way. If we viewed teen moms as more than sinners, we would see the powerful young women they are meant to become. Marginalized young women need the space to share their own stories, in their own voices. And we need to listen respectfully. When we do, we might even hear them sing a new song. I wonder if it might sound something like this:
My soul glorifies the Lord, the God who sees me,
My spirit rejoices in God who chose to enter humanity in the center of my being.
Holy is God’s name.
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
Those holding onto white superiority will walk away empty.
Patriarchy will be dismantled.
The homeless will find refuge.
The abused and oppressed will be lifted up.
The hungry will be fed.
The orphaned will find family.
Those in pain will be healed.
The depressed will find joy.
The marginalized will be centered.
Righteousness will be restored because God chose to break into
humanity through a young brown teen mom and moved into our neighborhood.