Tuesday, July 07, 2009

part 2: the place I went

With no place to go, I went as far as possible.

As a sophomore in college I had, actually quite unintentionally, been audience to a missions workshop presentation on the possibilities of teaching English in mainland China. All that was required was a college degree, a native accent, and the ability to raise the airfare. Conspicuously absent from the list of qualifications: maleness. I thought it was perfect.

Within a few weeks of my arrival, a unilateral attempt to homogenize our house church practices with regard to the conduct of women was initiated by one zealous colleague. Showing up unannounced at the home of our hostess one Sunday morning, he delivered a sermon which enumerated precisely what women could and could not do. Proof texts for word studies of the Greek laleo and ekklesia were cited; in possession of the only Greek NT in the room, I searched diligently only to find that those words did not appear in the cited texts. The consternation on my face and page-flipping in my Greek NT flustered our unannounced guest preacher, who stumbled and lost his focus just as I figured out the problem: he'd gotten the citations mixed up. Desiring to reassure him, I began to say, "It's okay, I got it"--and then realized, that would probably count as laleo in ekklesia. Oh well.

For awhile I hosted church in my living room--it seemed like a practical and concrete contribution, and moreover, entirely uncontroversial. I cleaned house every Saturday and rearranged the living room furniture to seat as many people as possible. On Sunday mornings I made the communion bread in my tiny narrow kitchen, and baked it in the toaster oven. Having suffered through some Sundays choking down manifestations of the body of Christ that were truly inedible--stale, or tough, or worse, one time somehow slimy--I was determined to make it good. It took a few weeks to get it right, but finally, a pastry-like bread made with the only margarine available, "Mother's Choice," evolved from my earnest experimentation. One Sunday, inspired, I threw a pinch of sugar into the flour mixture; the bread that morning was flaky, baked to perfection, and just faintly sweet. I thought, now this is the body of Christ. After church someone complimented the bread: it's the best communion bread I've ever eaten, he said. Thanks, I told him, see, I put a pinch of sugar in it this morning. A few minutes later, I was summoned to my living room, and sat down on my couch, and rebuked. Sugar doesn't belong in the communion bread, Jennifer. Don't do that again.

Frustrated, we women instituted a Tuesday night women's bible study, and my centrally located, easily accessible apartment was an ideal spot. Almost immediately we began to outgrow the space available--we packed ourselves like sardines on the couch, perched on the arms of chairs, even sat on the floor, which I scrupulously cleaned every week. We had, after all, come to do mission work, and we could do it on Tuesday nights among ourselves without the boys around. The singing was marvelous. The discussions even more so. The prayer time got so long that we exhausted ourselves with it. After awhile the men started their own Tuesday night study, and after it concluded, would drift over to my apartment to hang out. Sometimes they would arrive before our study was done, and we would close the door to the living room and, conscious of the male presence in the apartment, would try to hurry up and finish.

One evening, after all my students had said good night and drifted away, two girls approached me and asked if I was a Christian. Yes, I said, surprised at this directness. One of them wasn't my student; she was a friend of a student, and had come to my class specifically to engineer this moment and ask this question. She had been a Christian for two years, she said. She wanted to ask me about baptism: what was it, and why were people in the Bible always doing this mysterious thing she couldn't find a satisfactory definition for? I invited her to Tuesday night Bible study, and went home and wrote a whole new lesson plan for it, on baptism. After the study she approached me with eyes shining, and said, "God has answered my prayers in your words. Now, I think I understand, and I want to be baptized. ...But...you never said...how do I do it?" Overwhelmed, I assured her that was the easy part. (If only that had been really true.) We could do it now, I said, if she wanted to. Yes, she said, and we called the man in our group who held the membership card to the swimming pool in the luxury hotel down the street. "She's ready," we said, "we need the pool card," and he replied, "I'll get my swim trunks and be right there." When he arrived, swim trunks in hand, we were ready to go. But he wasn't. Leading us back into my living room, he sat my friend down on my couch, and let us know that if he were going to perform this baptism (no one asked him to!) he needed to be sure she was ready (we had already told him that!). I watched, feeling absolutely helpless, as he reduced my friend to tearfully admitting that she was not, could not be, a Christian yet, despite her years of faith, because she was not yet baptized. Only then was she ready to be baptized. By a man she'd never seen before who had just reduced her to tears, in the uncomfortable intimacy of immersion in a public pool, wearing a borrowed swimsuit.

A few months later, another friend arrived at my doorstep to spend the night, as she routinely did on Saturday nights, fresh from Bible study. It was an uncomfortable friendship, full of unwanted intimacies I hadn't asked for: I discovered in retrospect she'd been borrowing my toothbrush for months, and she was either lacking in standards or adequate facilities for personal hygiene. That night, she told me that she had decided to be baptized, and she wanted me to do it. Um, okay, I said; but knowing this would be controversial within our group of Americans, I said, what did [her Bible study teacher] say when you told him this? She answered, with a puzzled look, "He said, 'isn't God a man?'

I like to tell people that I went to China to be a missionary, and became a feminist. This is why.


TKP said...

So, give me that communion bread recipe. Jeanne, a missionary I adore in Japan, says that Crisco is the secret ingredient to hers.

I love that China of all places made you a feminist. And the story of the Greek NT is so ridiculous it's comical, but unfortunately I have my own and other women's similar stories to sober me up.

One of the most meaningful church experiences I had was baptizing my husband (then fiance) at our church on Easter. I doubt that would have been even possible at most churches of Christ.

JTB said...

I blogged about the communion bread story before, and there's a recipe in that post. Not the one from my first year, but an even better one.


kel said...

i love your stories, but irritatingly, they are making it impossible not to join in the conversation ;)

i have a sugary communion bread story too, but there's no rebuke or theological point to it. it was just a nice memory. the guy mistook sugar for salt and we munched on it all through the "devo" at echo point in new mexico. i guess i could make some point about getting one's fill or something.

this post reminds me of your "sometimes communal discernment sucks" post from a few months ago. i've thought of it often. maybe that would be a good tattoo.

it may be even more ironic to go to china and becoming a feminist, but i feel like i had a similar sort of experience by going to acu and becoming a...i don't have a one-word description for the end of that sentence. maybe feminist is the right word for me too.

did i already tell you that you should read china road by rob gifford? i might not have because i know how busy you are and i never want to add guilt to anyone's life, but someday you should read it.

over the last couple days, i keep thinking of a couple stories to tell you about all this. i'll do it soon. thanks for cleaning off the floor again here to make a place for everyone to sit and speak.

kel said...

also read "southern fried divorce" sometime when you need a laugh and some recipes.

capnwatsisname said...

Thanks for posting these, JTB. Wasn't able to be at CSC (with barefoot BBT), so I'm eager to read the ongoing conversation.

Anonymous said...

As the father of two little girls (and future feminists), I just want you to know that I really appreciate these posts.

jocelyn said...

I love these posts. And the spirit behind them. It has gotten me thinking about my own experience as a woman in Churches of Christ. I may want to share some of my experiences on here...

I wish we had gone to CSC this year. I had no idea this would be part of the program. I'm glad that someone is finally recognizing how absent women's voices have been and continue to be from the conversation about women's roles in churches. Hopefully these types of conversations will become more and more prevalent in churches and among Christians. Thanks for sharing and for making space for continued conversation.

Jared Cramer said...

JTB, both of these posts have been fantastic.

Thank you for your voice, I still have deep affection for my former tradition... and an even deeper desire for her to find and fulfill her potential by recognizing the giftedness of all of her members.