My mother and father had me baptized in the Lutheran Church when I was a baby. I was confirmed as a child and took my first communion at the octagon rail with the other children, eating the bread we had made in Sunday School class and drinking the juice from the small glass cups. I can still remember what it felt like to walk and kneel, waiting my turn, then taking the bread while Pastor W. put his heavy hand on my head. “This is the body of Christ broken for you, Jennifer.”
My family stopped going to church a little while after that. My mom was exploring other ideas about God and the universe. I was invited to my friend’s Nazarene church in fourth grade and found a community that wasn’t as reverent as my earlier years in the Lutheran Church, but very emotional and desperate in its need for Jesus. I went down to the altar and accepted Jesus there. My friend’s family supported and encouraged me in all my search and made sure that I wore a skirt or dress to church. My mother even came to church with us once, but her Methodist upbringing and lifetime of searching was not compatible with the emotional pleas from the pulpit.
I went onto the Presbyterian Church with a boyfriend in junior high. I remember being in a “new Christians” class with 2nd graders. I remember friends who were partiers on the weekends and devout Christians on Sunday. I also remember the first time I prayed out loud. It was in a prayer chain in a group of young girls. My heart beat so fast and I thought I might fall out, but the ability to pray and proclaim to my God in front of other people was humbling and exhilarating at the same moment.
I moved onto the United Methodist Church with a new boyfriend during high school. My experience was vast and full there. When the youth ran the service one Sunday, my friend Tara and I read the scripture and prayed from the pulpit. I was one of the teens who ushered and passed communion trays. We had a woman co-youth minister.
I met Jeff in 1996 and started exploring the Church of Christ. We were dating long distance. He was at Harding University (which I had never heard of) and I was at the University of Tennessee. I wanted to see what his “denomination” was all about. I went, on my own, to a local “progressive” Church of Christ, eager to figure out where I could be involved. As I sat in the pew I couldn’t find my place. I would gladly pass plates. I would gladly pray or read. I would gladly serve in a way where I could be involved in the worship service, but I couldn’t see a place for me, especially as a single woman. It bothered me, but not enough to leave. I thought maybe I was missing something and I wanted to know my new boyfriend’s perspective on Christ and his indwelling.
Jeff and I got married and we moved to Tupelo, Mississippi. We attended the “progressive” church that was really an old church that had been taken over by some of the mainline churches’ splits. It was a bit of a mess, but it was immediately our second family. We were on our own with our parents at least 6 -8 hours away. We became the de facto youth ministers in this very small congregation. One day Jeff asked for someone to lead prayer in the youth room. After none of the boys were willing, one very spunky young woman volunteered and then looked around nervously. Jeff and I enthusiastically encouraged her. After a few moments of silence she deferred until “maybe next week.” She also rebuked the boys for not taking part in this wonderful opportunity, one that she wasn’t sure she should participate in. Jeff asked the youth to come to us or to their parents if they had a problem with a girl praying in class and let us know. The next week she wouldn’t pray, and no one else would either. So I did.
The emotions still blind me. I cannot convey adequately the heartbreak, confusion and sorrow that both Jeff and I experienced in Tupelo. I cried a lot. I didn’t take communion one Sunday because I could not be in communion with this body. Jeff was required to attend the Men’s Business Meeting in which he had to defend me and my willingness to pray in front of these youth. Jeff asked fervently for our church and our preacher to study 1 Corinthians 11, especially the verses dealing with women praying and prophesying in the temple. The preacher said he would have to study on that. A month later when Jeff asked our preacher if he had looked into the verses the preacher said he had not been able to get to it yet. No one came to me except for one woman, my friend, who cried with me but then said that these issues were not such a big deal for her now in her older age.
We left Tupelo.
In Jackson, Mississippi we found a good church. A church that truly wanted to be the hands and feet of Jesus. A church in which we found some kindred spirits. A church that was bound by its tradition in deeper ways than I could fathom. In a “young professionals” class the role of women in the church came up. Surprisingly most of the men were very comfortable with the idea of women in leadership, although some of them said it might be strange to have a woman preacher. Even more surprising was that the women who had grown up in the Church of Christ were not remotely interested in using their gifts in a position of “leadership” or what they perceived to be leadership. I couldn’t understand the wholesale denial of the joy of serving in a worship service because it was in front of people.
In Jackson I also heard our gifted, wise preacher wonder aloud why women would want to serve communion when they would get a chance to be off their feet.
Now in Montgomery, Alabama, we attend the most gender inclusive Church of Christ available in our city. Men and women read scripture together during the service. I have read scripture by myself in a service. Women pray in class, even in front of elders. Men have joined the women’s class at times. We love the pastor (he even calls himself that). We love the elders, with whom we agree on some things we wouldn’t share with many people. The rub comes when our two year old daughter mentioned to my husband, “I want to throw the plates,” while watching men pass the communion trays. We’ve talked to our pastor and some elders about this. They sighed and said, “ah, yes” and suggested that for now that Kate accompany Jeff when he passes the offering tray. That was about six months ago. We have tried to encourage her to go with her daddy, but she refuses now. I have offered my services to be the “first” woman to pass trays and have been told that my offer is appreciated. I would be willing to be the first to pray, do the communion meditation and possibly preach, although I would need some good practice for that. Maybe if my daughters see me doing these things, they too will be able to imagine they will experience the beauty of serving God and serving His body in a moment dedicated to Him.
I want to participate fully in the worship service. I am so appreciative of the steps that have already been made. We are ready to make the next steps.
God bless us all.