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Recognizing, Realizing, and Re-radicalizing: the Idea of Being a Woman in Ministry

I have had the good fortune this week to revisit some amazing friendships with some amazing women. Besides sitting at home watching “Nashville” and “Orange Is The New Black” and cuddling with my cat (picture forthcoming), I have been able to Skype with two of my best friends and visit two more friends who are very dear to me, all in the course of the last four days.

            I’ll start by saying I love my friends (doesn’t everyone?!). I am blessed to have a large community of folk who I try to keep up with as our lives change; you might say I love my friends. I have many male-identifying friends whom I love dearly, but this post is about (and for) my ladies. I love my girl friends, my women friends, and my mother friends—these are the women who encourage me, celebrate with me, cry with me, fight for me, and lift me up with their unconditional love.

            So, I’m sitting at a youth ministry conference listening to one of the most amazing and prophetic testimonies I’ve ever heard. Claudio Carvalhaes spoke about the ways that youth in the United States, and probably all around the world, are not being seen and encouraged as humans; instead they are being controlled (by their parents, medication, outdated models of education, you name it…) and have lost (or it has been stolen from them) the ability to be subversive, to be radical in the truest sense of the word. This talk, or lecture, or sermon (indeed it was all three!), struck me incredibly deeply.

            I had been thinking for a while about my education as a young white Christian female from a small Midwestern town, considering the ways in which my gender affected my educational experience. I’m lucky to have parents who value education and a family that could help me afford going to an elite liberal arts school. For about three years of college, I thought that my presence at that school meant that I was privileged…the end. Nothing more to it. But as I proceeded through the fourth year of my education, I began asking questions I hadn’t even known I wasn’t asking and taking advantage of opportunities (inside and outside the classroom) that I hadn’t even known that I didn’t think were available to me. One thing I did was write a senior thesis—yeah, whatever, academic paper, blah blah…but really, it was a big deal to me. I was asked to write a paper about a topic that I cared about, even down to involving my personal theology. I was being told that if I did these things, somebody in academia would value me…and I didn’t even know that I wasn’t feeling valued as a person in academia before. Wow. Another aspect of me doing the things I didn’t know I wasn’t doing involved me preaching a sermon for the first time by myself, and, in the larger picture, meant me taking my call to some kind of ministry seriously.

            This year I’ve been wading through a lot of feelings about being a woman in ministry. I encountered my first female preacher when I was 18 and in my first year of college, and since then the women that I have seen preach firsthand is still sadly low. Going through the process of becoming a religion major, contemplating divinity school, and thinking about what my role really could be in ministry, I’ve been confronted with this question: are you going to be a pastor? My response was usually to brush it off and say, “Noooooo, I’m just interested in children’s ministry” or “I’m interested more in social justice ministry” or “I’m not thinking pastoral, just education” or something like that. But that was a lot of me not listening to myself and just giving a quick answer because the feelings that I was having about that question scared me…and they still do.

            So back to the youth ministry conference and Claudio. He was talking about prophetic witness in youth ministry, about the de-radicalization of our youth. I sat there realizing that I was one of those “our youth” who had been deradicalized…and I think in large part, for me personally, it was because of my gender.

            Because I was a girl, I was taught (not by my family or teachers, but by society) not only to value my appearance, but also to base my value on my appearance and attractiveness.

            Because I was a girl, I was always asked if I had a boyfriend, and when I was in a relationship, I’d always become part of a “_____&______” construction, where my name always followed the &. Always following.

            Because I was a girl, I was taught different things about my sexuality than male-bodied and male-identifying people my age. I was taught to fear my body, to hide it, not because it is MINE but because it is dangerous and because it is distracting to others and because it could be manipulated.

            Because I am a woman, there are lots of people who have told me (mostly subconsciously, but sometimes not) that I am not worthy of ministry. I am not qualified to hear God’s call and God’s voice and to share my experience of my relationship with God with others. Until this year, I did not realize for myself that God’s really cool message for humanity (which I’d been fairly convinced of for a long time) was also for women—was also for me. That God’s community was also for me.

            All of these thoughts were swirling around in my head as Claudio finished his sermon-speech-talk and we began dancing, a whole bunch of youth ministers and clergy, to “Happy.” Thank you, Pharrell, for the opportunity to break it down with a bunch of clergypeople.

            As I sat down again, after a good bout of shaking it with other Christian folk, I introduced myself to the woman sitting next to me. It turned out we were both from the same state…and the same area…and then she asked if I knew her friends who lived in my town (of course I did, it’s a town of 5000 people!) Her friends turned out to be the family of one of my best childhood friends—and indeed, we had met before! When my friend and I graduated from high school, I met this woman at his openhouse. It hadn’t even dawned on me that she was a female pastor. At age 18, I was still scared of studying Christianity, worried about finding something out about the Bible that would make it all “not true”! At age 18, I didn’t know that in a few years I would be feeling led to ministry of some sort.

            Now, four years later, the wonder of this woman’s life and work astounded me. We had dinner the next night and chatted for a couple hours about what it is like for her to pastor a church, her experiences in seminary, and my questions and wonderings from this end of divinity school. She promised to help me in any way she could.

            This past week, I went to visit her church and have lunch with her. What an amazing church she has. What an amazing ministry she is a part of. What a beautiful and Spirit-filled woman.

            This spring, she was part of a string of many women who have come into my life rather suddenly; who have listened to me ask questions about preaching and visiting sick parishioners; who have hugged me as I’ve cried over patriarchy’s far and insidious reach into my personal relationships as well as my faith; who have discussed with me where in the legacies of Biblical women they find the most strength; who have sat with me and pushed me to describe my understanding of community, and of call. These women have held me close to their hearts; with their black, brown, white, wrinkled, smooth, dirty, perfumed, small, and large hands, they have held mine, and lifted me up. 

Alone in the Garden

I come to the garden, alone.

The Earth is filled with the dark, pre-dawn smell of possibility.

Expectant waiting…isn’t that what I went through with you before?

Out of the darkness and into the world,

I brought you,

At once lesser and greater than I.

The garden is pregnant with the silence of waiting.

Is it true, what they say?

I believe you will come again…but when, who can know?

A gentle wind ripples the leaves above my head

And I feel the spirits of the dead around me,

Bowing their heads as I kneel and pray to my God,

“Bring back my Lord.”

A faint glow in the East,

Is it you?

A mourning dove sings out its morning song,

Soft and low,

Telling the tale of your life

That I know so well

But cannot share—I am drowned by my tears.

The flowers in the garden are closed,

Shivering against the chill of a world

Shrouded in fear of a future of darkness.

A gentle glow spreads over the dew-kissed morning,

Spreading gold threads of sun through the trees.

A soft footstep…or did I imagine it?

A whispered word…did I hear with my ears or with my heart?

I turn around…

The Son has risen.

(4/25/2011–Easter sunrise service, Oberlin, OH)

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Commencement and Pentecost

Two weeks ago, I graduated from Oberlin College. After four long years of reading, studying, writing, taking tests, living in dorms, sharing bathrooms and showers, listening to lectures, eating in dining halls and paying tuition, I have come to the conclusion that it all went wayyyyy too fast. In the moment, I know I dreamed of that day when I wouldn’t have to be writing this paper on Exodus or studying for my chemistry exam, and now I don’t exactly wish for those days to return. Certainly with the popularity of social media, I will be able to keep up with friends much more easily than past generations, but right now that’s really hard to be thankful for. What I miss is my community.

When someone knocks on my door, it’s not my friend bound for circus school who wants to go to the local bar and club. I can no longer walk over to my crush’s house just to ask him to come to dinner with me. I’m not able to be there for a friend struggling with anxiety, able to hug her and tell her that her life is going to be ok. Evenings don’t hold swimming in ponds and secretive bonfires in the woods and singing cowboy songs; instead I’m in front of the TV. The kids that I get to watch grow up will not be the adorable grandchildren of my pastors that I have colored, played, and danced with. When I go home at night, my friends and roommates are not there to cheer me up with dancing to Taylor Swift’s “22” song on the kitchen counter. Past are the days of singing Gillian Welch on a front porch with people far more brilliant than I am. When I’m overwhelmed with a complicated mix of joy and sorrow, my strong, intelligent, beautiful girlfriends aren’t here to sit on my bed and cry with me, exchanging stories of how they overcome internalized sexism every day of their lives. The people that I am used to lifting me up and holding me in the palm of their hand are not there. On Sunday mornings, I won’t be worshipping in a space where I feel completely at home and loved, having left behind the fear and shame of crying in public to embrace instead the beauty of being able to feel emotions in these wonderful peoples’ presence.

I have been more homesick in the past two weeks than I was my freshman year, when it physically hurt to be away from my hometown. Now there is an empty, dull gnawing in my chest. I long to fill it with cookouts with religious studies nerds, conversations about feminism and capitalism with my radical colleagues, and friends who make pottery, keep chickens in their dorm room, dance barefoot at midnight on the bandstand, cook home-style meals for upwards of 60 people a day, and who can quote lines of Rumi or Neruda on the spot. It’s safe to say that I feel landless—plucked away from the place where the roots that held me steady were those that I planted myself. My college town has become the only place that feels like home. Of course, I feel as if I’m home whenever I’m in the presence of folk that I love, but there is something definitely special about the geographic location of Oberlin, Ohio.

Fortunately, the past two weeks back in my hometown have been a time of rest and relaxation—something that I rarely did fully over my college career. I have been sleeping a lot and watching a lot of mindless television (though I do argue that since I am moving to Nashville, the new-ish show about Music City USA is “research.”) I have been spending time cuddling with my cat and laughing with my brother. I’ve been spending time reflecting.

This past weekend I was fortunate to be able to travel back to Oberlin for a dear friend’s wedding. This friend was the reason I made it through my freshman year of college. Upon a painful breakup with my high school boyfriend right as I was getting acclimated to college life 200 miles from home, this friend scooped me up and set me right. She cooked me dinner, sat me down with a box of tissues to listen to my story, and gave me a Jane Austen book. I love her so much, and it was a complete honor to be able to be a part of her wedding day. Her wedding so fully expressed the individuality of her and her partner, as well as the grace and unity of them as a couple. The bride and groom were fully embraced by our beloved church community, and there was an amazing envelope of love all around those of us that shared in that sacred time.

Also this weekend, I was able to witness a thoughtful and moving sermon delivered by another Oberlin alum, Kathryn. She is currently in Divinity School, and I’d heard many stories from our beloved pastors about her. Today was Pentecost, and her sermon was just what I needed to hear as my reflective and emotional post-grad self was overwhelmed with the situation of being back in a town that I had just left…and was having trouble leaving again.

Pentecost takes place several weeks after Easter, and is the official time when the Holy Spirit comes down among the people of the Earth, a little bit after Jesus ascends into heaven. This “little bit” of lag time is really important, according to Kathryn. The disciples, who had been through so much in three or four years, were suddenly plucked out of the world they had come to know and forced to reckon with a world they were not sure they were prepared for. They had listened to Jesus, confided in him, questioned him, traveled with him—they had stored up an immense amount of knowledge from his teachings. But when he was taken up into heaven and the Holy Spirit didn’t come down to earth right away in an easy switcheroo, they must have felt awfully lost…and awfully scared. They had entered into a strange limbo where they had to turn inwards toward their community to collectively remember the lessons and teachings of Jesus which they hoped had prepared them for whatever uncertain future was to come. They were in a holding space where they were not yet embarking on the path which they were meant for, but were waiting…but for what? The disciples had to strengthen and support each other before they could turn outwards empowered by the Holy Spirit to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

Similarly, senior week and commencement weekend were a time for us graduates to turn inwards before we turned outwards, hopefully towards what we are meant to do. I feel like I am in limbo just like the disciples, stuck between graduation with both head and heart knowledge and getting to a place where I can use them. I find this time between graduation and moving on to the adventures to come in Nashville scary and frustrating and sad—I’m used to being busy and so I just want to jump into more projects and preoccupy myself such that I don’t have any time to miss my friends and my church and what feels like a “real life” that I left behind in Oberlin. But the disciples must have used this sacred time to re-collect themselves, to feel and process the things that had come to pass between Good Friday, Easter, and the ascension. Reflection time is one of the best things that we can give ourselves, though it is by no means easy. But it is entirely necessary if we, if I, am to continue on this path—towards what, I can’t claim to know. I do know this: the Holy Spirit is not only waiting for me with tongues of flame that will help me speak the languages of peace, solidarity, and justice, but the Spirit is traveling with me every step of the way.