On Friday, this is what I heard:
a panel of women--academics, ministers, teachers and other professionals, wives, mothers, grandmothers--talk about their experiences as women in the Churches of Christ. The purpose of the panel was explained briefly and simply: while we do a lot of talking about the "issue" of "women's role," and while that talking has utilized scripture, and reason (at least some form of it anyhow), and tradition (defined as 'how we've always done it'), experience, women's experiences, have been glaringly absent from our considerations. The panel was convened to address this gap, to create an opportunity for women to share their experiences. The first question was, "when did you first realize that your gender mattered in your church, and what was it that made you realize this?" This question generated answers ranging from early exclusion from brothers' childhood church roleplaying to "not until my 40's." These experiences were not uniform, except in one respect: at some point in their lives, each woman was forced to the realization that being a woman limited her ability to participate in the kingdom of God in the ways she knew herself to be capable of, in ways that she knew to be needed. And the responses to this realization were not uniform, except in one respect: each woman refused to listen to the message that she could not be the Christian, the fully empowered agent of God, the imago Christi, that the gospel itself proclaims she is. Whether she continued her work by creative accommodation of restrictive boundaries, or sought alternative spaces where she could serve without restriction, each woman's life testifies to the inherent power of the gospel as good news, for everyone, despite the ways our human flaws and blindnesses restrict it. The emotions present were not uniform, except in this respect: every one of us in that room wept at someone else's pain, whether it was generated by that first shock of discovery, or the backlash against stepping out in faith to serve, or the sense of fear and failure that accompanies these attempts. We all wept. Because these stories, which we have so long refused to allow to even be told, are about courage and fear and pain, survival, and hope that maybe things will change for the better.
At the end of the session, the woman sitting next to me, whom I'd never seen before, dabbed at her eyes and smiled at me, and gave me a hug. She, older and never married, native Tennessean and CofC her whole life, read my nametag: Jennifer Thweatt-Bates, Princeton Theological Seminary. "Good for you," she said. (And, "are you related to...?") I thought, this is who sits in our churches' pews, silent and with so much to say.
On Saturday, this is what I heard:
three ministers, all formerly of the Churches of Christ, currently "disaffiliated." Their experiences were not uniform any more so than the previous day's panel, other than that each one of them had remained in the Churches of Christ for as long as possible, and each one of them left sorrowfully. Each one of them, it was clear, still grieved the necessity of departure--whether it was decades ago or still fresh. Disaffiliation is too neutral a word. Divorce would have been better. The Churches of Christ divorced them, on what it self-righteously considers to be biblical grounds.
At the end of the session, a man I'd never seen before walked up to me and introduced himself. He'd been watching me watch them, he said, from his unseated vantage point at the front of the room facing the back, where I'd been lucky enough to snag an extra chair in that packed audience. He'd been watching me weep through Micki's recount of her preacher refusing to recommend her for divinity school, because she was a woman. He'd been watching me weep as Katie told how they'd told everyone they were preparing to leave the Churches of Christ for months and months, hoping someone would say to them, "please stay," make it possible to stay, and no one did. He'd watched me smile wryly as Andre told about the pink-haired tattooed girl in his ACU preaching course, who stunned everyone in her initial sermon with insights they'd never heard before, because "we never had a pink-haired tattooed girl before." He'd watched all this, and said to me, "These stories are your story right now too, aren't they?"
On Sunday, this is what I heard:
a youth minister, emceeing the baptism of a 15-year-old girl, rhapsodizing about the intimacy and spirituality of the experience for a father to baptize their child.
a sermon illustration comparing the experience of the Spirit to falling in love: the passion of the process of courtship, all the silly things guys do to woo their loves. You know what I'm talking about, don't you, guys?
an introduction of a missionary couple, in which the man was congratulated on finding himself such a great wife.
Afterward, no one said anything about any of that at all.