30 June 2014

I'm a Feminist (there, I said it)

I call myself a Mennonite, a hippie, a Philadelphian, a nerd and a liberal. But none of the titles I claim carry with them as much baggage as feminist does. (Well, Christian might, but that's a whole other blog post.) When Franconia conference asked to list my blog on their website, they asked for a short description of what I write about. I thought long and hard about whether or not I wanted to include feminism on that list. I AM a feminist and I DO write about feminism, but I was still hesitant.

When I was in high school, I began reading a lot of Barbara Kingsolver. She helped me to identify my own belief that women and men are equal and to see that that is not how our society functions. I saw this in the way the dress code was much stricter for me than for my male peers. I saw it in the way my girlfriends talked about their future in terms of marriage and my guy friends in terms of career. I learned quickly, though, that speaking up about these disparities will get you labeled a "feminazi." I learned quickly that feminists hated men and that I didn't want to be counted in their ranks.

It's become common practice for interviewers to ask young famous women whether or not they are feminists. Theoretically, I like that feminism is being talked about so publicly. In practice, however, this question simply serves to create ammunition to hurl back at these women. If she says yes, everything she's ever said or done before that moment will be scrutinized to determine if she is really, truly feminist enough. If she says no, she's a traitor to the sisterhood and will be lambasted as such.

Shailene Woodley recently said she isn't a feminist because she believes in equality, not the superiority of women. She was blasted by feminists for not getting it. Lana del Rey says feminism bores her and she has been criticized for embracing ultra-femininity. Beyoncé, a professed feminist, was called a terrorist by bell hooks because of her use of her sexuality to promote herself. A girl can't catch a break.

Roxane Gay wrote a book called "Bad Feminist." I haven't had the opportunity to read it yet, but I've read some interviews she's done and I really want to. In one interview I read, she talks about how for years she rejected pink "because it is so often mindlessly used to code the feminine." But then she realized that it made no sense to "not enjoy a color because of how it is misappropriated." This nails it for me. You can ask anyone who knew me five or more years ago and they can attest that I HATED pink. I refused to wear pink. I wouldn't buy anything that was pink. I judged people for liking pink. But then one day I got a free bag. The catch? It was pink. I'm a good Mennonite and not one to reject something free, so I started using it. And then, I started liking it. Not just because it fit all of my gym things or because it was the perfect weekend getaway bag, but also because it was pink. I like pink. (Saying that feels almost as loaded as saying I'm a feminist.) I realized that I had spent literal decades hating a color for crying out loud! 

It is in this same way that I have come to embrace the title of Feminist. Despite it's baggage and stereotypes of bra-burning, men-haters. I am a feminist because men and women are still not treated equally in our society. Because my body is still seen as a object and not a person. Because young girls are taught to be pretty rather than smart. Because we have too much work to do to fight over what we call ourselves. Because I believe we can only make a difference in this world if men and women are at the table together and on equal footing. I am a feminist. There, I said it.

20 June 2014

Stories From my Mother

The stories from our past help us to navigate the future. In college, I had the task of asking my mother to tell me some stories and to write them down. What follows is what she told me. If you haven't ever done something like this, do. I will cherish these stories forever. Stories of quiet strength and meek courage. Stories that shape me. Stories I'm proud to count as part of my story.

My Grandfather

My mother's parents were born and raised in the Amish church. They were married in the church and had had two children when my grandfather decided that they needed to leave the Amish church. He says that he “saw the light.” You see, the Amish church believes that if you do good works, then you might go to heaven; but my grandfather believed that it is through faith that one gets to heaven, not works. He could not reconcile his views on salvation with those of the Amish church, so he decided to join a Mennonite church. This was, for those of you who aren't familiar with the Amish, a very big deal. Once a person is baptized into the Amish church, leaving it would mean being shunned - deliberately ignored and distanced - by your entire Amish community, including your family.

My Grandmother

My grandmother followed her husband, as a good Amish wife does, and left the church regardless of the doubts she was having. One day my grandmother's family came over when grandpa wasn't there to convince her to leave him. I was shocked when my mom told me this because I know that divorce is unheard of in the Amish church. She told me that they were most likely not advocating a divorce, but hoped that if my grandmother left him, my grandfather would come to his senses and rejoin the Amish church. However, my grandmother stayed with my grandfather, but she still felt guilty and uncertain about their having left the church. She didn't have a lot of self-esteem, as most Amish women are taught to be modest to the extreme, and that might help to explain why she began to experience such torment. She felt that Satan kept coming to her and telling her that she was not saved. She worried that she wasn't really a Christian and that she wouldn't go to heaven. She became very depressed and grandpa got worried that she might hurt herself. Then one day she came out to the field where grandpa was working and - according to him - she was about beside herself. Grandpa took her into the house and together they prayed. After this, she felt that she was delivered from Satan's torment. Grandpa referred to it as her “victory.”

My Father

Before my father was a pastor, he was a carpenter. He was, however, very involved in the church and in the Ohio Mennonite Conference, as well. He and my mother were youth sponsors and they taught Sunday school frequently. Dad was also the chair of the peace and justice commission for the Ohio conference. He was invited to go to a conference in Kansas in the 1980s as the Ohio conference representative. While he was gone, Mom stayed behind and went to a women's retreat. While there, Grace Brunner, who pastored Beech Mennonite - the church my father would later pastor - with her husband, asked mom if she and my father had ever thought about going into ministry. Mom told her that they hadn't and she suggested that they should. Meanwhile, someone dad met in Kansas asked him the same thing. When dad returned home, he and mom compared stories and were startled to discover that they both had been asked the same thing. This started the process.

My Mother

Dad was excited about this call to ministry and they decided to pursue it. However, mom did not want to leave her family and friends in Ohio for dad to go to Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She had a lot of misgivings about uprooting everything to move halfway across the country. Dad wanted mom to be one hundred percent certain about it, and he said he wouldn't do it without her full support. One day, Grace Brunner invited mom to breakfast and mom divulged to her all of her misgivings. Grace told her, “God would not lead you and leave you.” At this, mom was given the faith she needed to believe that they could do this. When dad came home from work that day, mom told him that she was ready and tears came rolling down his face.

It puzzles me that a woman as forward thinking and strong as my mother could come from an Amish/conservative Mennonite background. I’ve often wondered why my mother chose such a different path from those of her sisters. She followed a liberal husband to seminary, which she also attended, and left her entire family – something few of her siblings had done before or have done since. I wonder if it is because the story of her mother following my grandfather gave her the courage to follow where God leads. It was not easy, but grandma did it because it was right. I know that, in many ways, she was just following my grandfather, but even that took a great deal of courage. Perhaps if she had had a story like the one she gave her daughters, she could have believed in not only what her husband was doing, but also in her place in it. In our culture, we often focus on the great sacrifices of those who lead and we don’t give enough weight to the courage it takes to follow. While my mother and grandmother may not have changed the course of history, they both followed their God (and their husbands) faithfully and courageously. It was not easy for either of them, but they learned to trust and walk in faith.

I have learned so much from my mother. These stories of faith are only a piece of the volume of wisdom she's given me. I'm proud to have been raised by such a strong and Godly woman. I'm proud that she's taught me so much. I'm proud to call her Momma.

Me and Momma on her most recent trip to visit me in Philly.

13 June 2014

It is exhausting to be a woman

Tuesday morning at about 6:45, I was headed to the gym. Since I work at a university, I use the gym there; so it's the same walk I take every morning to work. And I feel pretty safe and confident since I walk there so often. Well, as I was walking a car pulled up next to me suddenly. "AHH! Am I about to get abducted!?!" Is literally what went through my mind. I looked at the car, preparing to face my possible attacker. But, it was my neighbor friend Jeff who works out at the same gym as me. He had pulled over to offer me a ride. I declined, since I consider walking to the gym part of my workout, and he drove off. It wasn't until I was alone and walking again that I realized how insane that moment was. Because I am a woman, there is a constant, underlying anxiety that this could be the moment I get attacked.

It is exhausting to be a woman.

I feel like every day there are news stories about baby girls who are neglected and abused, young girls getting raped and adult women suffering violence at the hands of their lovers. Stories from far away of girls being forced to marry, forced to undergo female genital mutilation and forced to sell their bodies. Stories from nearby of women held for years in captivity, women who face serious medical, financial and psychological burdens when they are unable to get an abortion and women who starve their bodies under the pressure of an unattainable ideal.

It is exhausting to be a woman.

Lately, I've been very focused on my health. I've been conscientious about what I'm eating and how much and I've been exercising regularly. I have never been overweight, but had become unhealthy and desired to have a healthier lifestyle. My efforts were not for the purpose of weight loss, but I've lost 20 pounds in the last year and I feel healthier and more fit than ever before in my life. Needless to say, people have noticed. I've been getting a lot of compliments about my looks and have found myself overwhelmed. Not just overwhelmed in a happy way, since my hard work is being recognized; but overwhelmed in that I have no idea how to respond - I have no language for body positivity. 

It is exhausting to be a woman.

When I was young, I was taught in church and at school that my body was a stumbling block for men and that I needed to cover it up. The language I heard the adult women in my life use for their bodies was overwhelmingly negative. They would talk about all the things they didn't like about their bodies and how they couldn't change it. When the women in my life would talk about food, it was about caloric content and how the fat would "go straight to my hips." When I heard women get compliments, I heard them deflect them and accuse their complimenters of lying. I never heard the women in my life say "I am beautiful."

It is exhausting to be a woman.

Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cumi,” 
which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”
~Mark 5:41

06 June 2014

Listening for Grace

I, like many other Mennonites I know, grew up watching Ted Swartz. From "Armadillo Shorts" to "Fish Eyes," his videos were a favorite at Sunday School gatherings and sleepovers. When my parents were attending Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia we attended Community Mennonite Church and got to know Ted and his family. His humor and authenticity are the two things I remember most clearly about him. So, when I heard that his theater group, Ted & Company was doing a play that talked about same-sex sexuality, I was very interested to see how he would take on this complex topic. Lucky for me, my church decided to host a performance on May 31st.

I went to the performance excited, but also anxious. As I've stated before, I'm quite sensitive about queer Mennonites' exclusion from the church. I didn't know what the crowd would be like, what would be said in the talk-back and whether this old, white guy I admired so much could articulate the pain and struggle of queer Mennonites. But in the midst of all that swirling in my head, I did my best to enter the space without expectation.

It's a one-man show, except it isn't. Ted is joined by Justin Yoder on the cello and Patrick Ressler on the piano. Patrick has a few lines as reluctant pianist Luke and Justin never speaks; but both of them contribute powerfully to the emotion and depth of the show with their music. The main characters in the play are Daryl (played by Ted), a Mennonite father whose wife, Grace, died of cancer years earlier, his only son Jared (represented by Justin's cello playing), who is in college and has just come out as gay when the play begins and the piano (played by Patrick), which sets the mood and often finds a way to speak for the audience. Justin is able to communicate for Jared through the music in a way that doesn't feel contrived and has a depth and insight that words could easily have missed. The addition of instruments to this piece to lend a kind of voice for the voiceless was inspired.

The play begins soon after Jared comes out to Daryl. He is a father confused and mourning. He is still mourning the death of his wife, but now must also mourn the lost future that he had imagined for his son. He must face the fear that his son could now be excluded from something so important to both of them: church. He is wrestling with his own theology around same-sex sexuality and not finding satisfactory answers anywhere.

I recommend you go see the show, so I'm not going to recount it here in detail. But, I want to give an overview of the different opinions that this play gives voice to. Daryl first goes to his mother, who Jared had come out to first, and asked her how she handled it. She tells him that the thing grandmothers are best at is unconditional love. Next he goes to hear someone preach on the topic of sexuality in the Bible. This preacher emphasizes the fact that all kinds of deviant sex can be found all over the Bible (incest, rape, polygamy, etc.), yet we focus in solely on these few passages about same-sex sex. The next three characters we meet Daryl compares to Job's three friends. He reminds us that, while Job's friends get a bad rap, they were the only ones who came to sit with Job on his pile of ashes. Mel comes to Daryl first and offers a traditional interpretation of how Christians should handle same-sex sexuality: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Next is Steve, who isn't sure what the answer is, and remains open-minded. Then Daryl goes to visit his cousin Aaron who "left" decades earlier. The audience quickly understands that Aaron left because he is gay and, decades ago, it seemed that leaving was the only option for queer Mennonites. Aaron tells the story of his partner, Michael, whose parents tried to get Michael to stop being gay and, when he was unable, they burned all of his pictures and acted as though he had never been born.

I saw many things in this play: compassion, fear, honesty, love, heartbreak and healing. But, more than anything, I saw hope. Hope in an old, white guy who really could articulate the struggle of queer Mennonites and the church. Hope in a sanctuary full of people with varying opinions coming together to listen. This hope was most clear to me in the juxtaposition of what happened with Daryl's cousin, Aaron and what is happening with Jared. Aaron left. He chose or felt forced to leave his faith tradition, his family and his life because he could not conform to what was expected of him. While it is not stated explicitly, it is clear that Jared isn't going anywhere.

This is the real strength of the inclusion movement: queer Mennonites and allies are not going anywhere. Not only are they not going quietly into the night, as queer Mennonites once did, but instead are getting louder and proclaiming that they belong. I think Isaac Villegas said it best in his article "Easter in Emmaus" that appeared in The Mennonite when he said:

"I'm grateful for you who are LGBT, because you have stayed with us even though we have official documents written against you. Your steadfast love for the church, despite rejections, bears witness to a God who loves us despite our sins— a God who overflows with patience and long-suffering, a God who loves us with a stubborn love, refusing our refusals and rejecting our rejections. You—my sister, my brother—you love us with God's love."

So often when I think of the story of the prodigal son, I view myself as the prodigal. The one who has turned their back and now returns repentant. But, for once, I'm the father waiting at the door and watching down the road. I, and other queer Mennonites and allies, are watching and waiting for our church family to come back to us. And the father did not judge the prodigal or spurn him for leaving, he simply rejoiced in the reunion. I place my joy in the hope of this coming celebration. When we all will join together and rejoice in our unity as God's children. This play showed me, once again, that if we continue to listen to each other and love each other, we will get closer and closer to this glory.