From Silenced by Church to Outspoken Advocate: A Feminine Journey

My eldest child, a woman of 31 years, is a rocking Social Justice Warrior, and I couldn’t be prouder. She is one aspect of the woman I wanted to be, a woman who had the courage to strike out on her own path early. Bravely. And with enough humility to learn what she didn’t know. She is learning daily to listen; she’s teaching me to listen, too. Her causes are civil rights. For People of Color. For the LGBTQ+ community. For women.

I was a kid during the Women’s Movement that championed the Equal Rights Amendment. To my young mind, the idea of a woman being paid less simply for being a woman was incomprehensible. I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now. Because ours was not a political household, I didn’t get these radical ideas from my parents, so the only things I know to credit are Helen Reddy singing about roaring, and television. It never occurred to me that Mary Tyler Moore’s single reporter was revolutionary. She was just a young woman who was funny while doing a job she was good at. Neither Lieutenant Uhura’s color nor her gender made me question her placement on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Laverne and Shirley worked in a beer factory and had their own apartment. I guess I was too young to be aware of the radical new ideas that were being depicted. These were women who did not stay at home wearing petticoats and cooking, anxiously waiting for their men to get home so they could bring them a cocktail.

Then there was church. At church, women only got to talk in front of boys thirteen and younger, or a segregated group of just girls and women. Women could work in the nursery, teach Sunday School, wash the baptistery robes, or cook and clean up for potluck dinners.

Women could not pray aloud in a mixed-gender setting, they had to let the men be their conduits to God.

What does that do to a young girl who has deep thoughts and a gift for leadership but not so much for cooking?

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (I Corinthians 14:34)

This is the scripture that has, more than any other, served to keep the women of Christianity silent. Now, I don’t have any desire to get into a deep theological debate about the inerrancy of scripture, because my own journey is probably not going to be enough to open the mind of a die-hard believer who is sure that the Christian Bible is the “holy, perfect, inspired word of God,” as though the writers were simply taking divine dictation while God spoke directly to them through a Dictaphone. Thus arguments of first-century cultural patriarchy and the historical passing around and editing of the gospel and epistolic writings before the scripture was codified in the third century C.E. may not matter to others. But those things matter to me.

Because, for all intents and purposes, my church put a gag in my mouth; my mouth, and the mouths of every wife, sister, mother, and daughter. And you know what? Most of us capitulated because we believed what we’d been taught. By the men. The men in our churches and the men in the Bible.

I attended a church college where I sang in a chorus that traveled all over the country to sing hymn arrangements. As young women, we were allowed to step forward and sing in solos or small ensembles, but only sing. We could not use our speaking voices. In daily chapel, women were allowed to talk if it was during a secular assembly, but the moment a church song was sung, it became worship and the women had to hush up.

My husband entered ministry after we graduated. To be a youth minister’s wife in this world was definitely a challenge for me. I chafed against the muzzle, I had things to say, experiences to share, a gift for words and presentation and I had to wait for a man’s permission to say them; in a literal sense, not a figurative one. My husband would have granted me every permission in the world, but his hands were tied by the conservative elderships who signed his salary checks.

Some of the churches we worked in were more progressive in their thinking- they were willing to talk about grace and even sing contemporary worship songs, perhaps even with a praise team! Even so, the women were mute. In one of the most puzzling examples of this subjugation, our tradition was to have a weekly communion service.

Usually, after the congregational singing but before the sermon, a group of six to eight men marched soberly to the front of the church and lined up behind the communion table, hands folded in front of them in that classic man-coach stance. One of them read a scripture, most likely from one of the gospel accounts, a prayer was recited, then they solemnly passed the little silver trays down the pews. There was a system: one man on each side, alternating rows, front to back. If the church was large, the B string of servers would come in the back and the same process would continue from rear to front until the men all met in the middle. You heard the “snap! snap!” of tiny little bites of matzo cracker being broken off as each church member took a portion. Then the whole process was repeated with grape juice.

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Women were utterly excluded from passing the crackers and juice because even though the only words spoken were by the scripture reader, it was still seen as an honor. A designation of leadership. Once, in the second church where my husband was a youth minister, I challenged an elder: Why were women prohibited from even this silent ritual? He mocked my question: “Sure, you’re willing to pass the communion, but are you willing to actually make the trays behind the scenes?” For the record- I was willing to do either. The subtext of this comment, made by one of the town’s wealthiest citizens, was made clear: Don’t ask questions if you want your family to make the mortgage. Woman, know thy place.

In a break between churches, we spent a semester in graduate studies at Abilene Christian University, and in this setting, I flourished. I was accepted as a student, right alongside my husband, and I reveled in ancient Greek declensions and Dr. S’s class in Church Leadership. Ensconced in an academic religious setting, my intelligence was encouraged, my ideas and observations given credence. We all understood that I was studying to work in a ministry for women, I was equipping myself for a task I would love to do. My professors created an environment where my reticence could be shed and my voice could be heard.

We eventually made our way to what would be our final church ministry, at a church that had been, on some issues, more forward-thinking and open than any congregation we had been in since we had left college. There was a co-ed worship team that sang on the stage, there was a children’s musical with instrumental accompaniment tracks, produced at every summer’s Vacation Bible School, there was even a female Children’s Minister. But…

I have to tell you about Bible contest, an event where thousands of Christian kids get together at a huge city convention center and try to win medals by showing each other up in events like memorization, preaching, and puppetry. I guess Jesus’ admonition to the mother of James and John about competition and prestige didn’t apply when gold Jesus medals were on the line.

My daughter decided to enter the traditionally male preaching competition. It threw the organizers for a loop, but there was not a rule specifically against it, so they let her compete. I guess they figured she could grow up and lead ladies’ Bible class. Now, my daughter is a gifted writer. No lie. She’s good. She’s also a skilled performer, she grew up to earn a theatre degree. Those kernels of talent were there in 1999 when she was ten years old. She won a gold medal.

At the following Sunday night worship service, all the students who had competed, not just those who won medals, but simply competed, got to read the sermons they had written and presented at competition. Well, not all of them. Not my daughter. She was relegated to reading in the gym after service. She stood at a podium with about ten listeners, and we strained to hear her over the several hundred people who were loading up their plates for the hot dog supper. Because she was a girl.

When I look back on it now, I know something in my faith, in my love for church, was irrevocably broken that night. If our very livelihood had not depended upon my compliance, I would have marched to that podium after H’s speech, and I would have told that group of oblivious, hot-dog-loving people to hush. I would have told them that they had, in that moment, the spirit of a young woman who was Divinely created and loved by God in their hands, and they discarded it. I didn’t say it then. I am saying it now.

In her book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd describes a collective feminine wound, one that all women share, and its origins go all the way back. All the way:

“If she sees few women in places of real power, hears few female voices of strength, and witnesses little female creativity, then despite what is said to her about women’s equality, she experiences women (and herself) as absent and silent.”

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I vividly remember the day I read that the ancient Hebrews had a word for the feminine aspects of the Divine Creator, Shekhinah. I was sitting at my kitchen table, stunned, barely breathing, for about five minutes. Even better, do you know how Shekhinah is made manifest? Joy.

Joy.

The religion which lay the foundation for the faith I would grow up in acknowledged that when it comes to gender, the Divine One is neither and both. A lifetime of prayers to the Father were incomplete. All the years of being told “God is like your daddy,” only told half the story. All the questions about being less than were suddenly invalid. The Divine One’s own Chosen People understood that joy, sisterhood, Shekhinah, were all equally holy. If I were to find a church that prayed to the Goddess/Mother as often as to the God/Father, I might be able to feel safer. More valued. In tune.

“The feminine wound is created as we internalize all these experiences-the voices we hear at church, school, home, work, and within the culture at large suggesting (in ways both bold and subtle) that women and feminine experience are ‘less than.'” (Dance of the Dissident Daughter)

We carry the wounds of mothers and grandmothers. I carry my own wounds, too: being allowed only to listen, never to speak; all those times when I was banished to the four-year-old classroom, where my teaching voice was not a threat to the men of the congregation; repeatedly being shuffled to the back in praise team so that the worship leaders could sing or let their wives sing, and when I questioned it, being told by a man who barely knew me that I was ruining the group with my ego; and seven years of being expected to bake cookies when my real gifts of leadership and speaking were lying fallow and rusty.

I also carry the wounds of my daughter who, on that bright spring day, was shown how little she mattered to her church and to the God they proclaimed.

I am so grateful that her journey to the Divine Creator did not end in that gym packed with people who completely ignored her. I am glad that her heart was open. She made a few more trips to church camp, then set out on her own quest to meet God. She spends time with the Goddess daily, she marches and produces work that is inclusive and awakened. She leads. And she is not silent.

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