by Anne Eggebroten
It was supposed to be just a gathering, a reunion of friends who have worked for biblical feminism for twenty or thirty years—and in the case of some, even forty years.
But the 2012 event in Indianapolis turned out to be a power-packed conference with speakers and workshops to rival any of our past landmarks in Pasadena, Seattle, Norfolk, Saratoga Springs, San Francisco, and Chicago.
Jann Aldredge-Clanton, a newcomer from Dallas, gave the keynote address, “Sharing Our Stories, Healing Our Lives.” The author of ten books, she holds a doctorate from Texas Christian University and an M.Div. from Southwestern Theological Seminary.
Her story as a biblical feminist began when her husband gave her a copy of Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation in 1976.
“I had never heard of The Feminine Mystique,” she recalled. “The call to gender justice could reach me only through the Bible.”
Kendra Weddle Irons and Melanie Springer Mock started out the weekend with a hilarious-but-awful catalogue of current evangelical messages to women: breast augmentation is good for Christian marriage; yoga is evil; pole-dancing to Christian music is good; feminists hate both motherhood and stay-at-home mothers.
“How can we change the face of feminism among evangelicals?” they challenged us, putting us in groups to grapple with how to deconstruct the messages we got in our youth, how to speak to young evangelical women today, and how to change the way people interpret Scripture.
Their blog, Ain’t I a Woman: De/Constructing Christian Images, reflects these issues, and they invite women to share personal stories on these subjects. See also FemFaith, their intergenerational blog with Letha about connecting faith and feminism (on the EEWC-CFT website).
In her plenary talk, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott tackled the parables of Jesus, starting with their reputation as “bewildering, irritating, confusing” and with a reprise of the parable of “Pansy, the profligate daughter, and Denise, her elder sister” from her Sunday sermon at the 2010 gathering.
That parable is all about learning to cease judging others, she said. “Can we see our opponents as brothers and sisters? …I must let Christ be my vision if I’m going to live peacefully and joyfully. I must look through them with the conviction that ultimately love will triumph.”
This year Virginia chose three parables about workers and payment as most problematic: Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 16: 1-12, and Matthew 20: 1-16. She researched just about every commentary on them, including the Jewish Annotated New Testament and German scholar Luise Schottroff’s The Parables of Jesus. Virginia’s main conclusion was that these three parables confuse us because we don’t know about “the economic system then that was so horrible.”
In the Matthew 25, she reads the third slave who doesn’t invest the money as a whistle blower, noting that usury is cited as a sin in Torah. Like that slave, we should not oppress others by serving the interests of the 1%. If we read only on a literal level, however, we have a God who is harsh. On a metaphoric level, “Those who trust, invest; those who are afraid, bury their abilities and as a result their lives are full of darkness, misery, and the feeling of being deprived.” Those who bury talents can also be seen as those who fail to act with compassion.
Luke 16 is all about economic solidarity, Virginia reported. In a system of exploitation, we must “use whatever resources we can to reach out to others.” The estate manager decides to remove excessive interest charges—his own cut—to gain support in case he loses his job. Metaphorically, God’s grace extends to everybody, “so we do our part of the covenant by extending compassion.”
In Matthew 20, Virginia warned us against equating God with the wealthy landowner who disappoints the all-day workers by paying them the same as the late-comers. Of course we react against “this cruel trick on needy day laborers” being paid barely enough to survive, Virginia said. At a literal level, we are being warned to be unlike this owner. For this owner to view the land as “mine” and behave unjustly is to defy Torah, which says that God owns all land. On the level of the denarius as grace, however, “We should give thanks to God that we were invited into the vineyard in the first place.”
Alena Amato Ruggerio’s plenary, “In the Presence of the Holy Word,” compared Bible reading to “digital telepresence,” in which our viewing of films and computer screens creates the illusion of a firsthand experience. Just as we often forget about the layers of mediation in our digital world, a plain reading of the Bible also obscures the many inevitable layers of interpretation. Alena reminded us that as Christians, we should not be afraid to acknowledge those layers, or the variety of different biblical interpretations they create.
Also valuable was the “Feminist Women of Faith” panel. Rebecca Bender of Indianapolis found three fascinating women from other faiths who live nearby and were willing to share with us: Ellen Silverman McNutt, Mary Ann Fadae, and Diana Ensign, joined by Reta Halteman Finger representing Christianity. Ellen is a Reconstructionist Jew, Mary Ann is a convert to Islam after a complex interfaith childhood, and Diana is a Buddhist also participating in a Goddess Circle.
After sharing their faith journeys, the panel addressed issues such as current conflicts among people of faith and how we each can work for peace and understanding.
Memorial Service for Nancy Hardesty
The emotional high point of the weekend was Saturday night’s memorial service for our co-founder Nancy Hardesty, who died of pancreatic cancer last year. It brought tears to many with beautiful anecdotes from Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Linda Davis, and others, as well as a photo/musical tribute edited by Marg Herder.
Most moving were excerpts from a videotaped interview with Nancy on January 26, 2011, two months before her death, when she was quizzed by clinical pastoral education residents and medical personnel engaged in palliative care, who were seeking to understand the dying process. Asked about her support system, Nancy cited the nationwide EEWC network; her coauthor and friend of forty years, Letha; her friend Liz, a ten-year survivor of brain cancer; and her partner, Evelyn.
Letha, Nancy, and others in EEWC had prayed for Liz to recover, but Nancy mentioned that Liz had found that she could not pray for a cure for Nancy: “I kept getting the message back from the Spirit, ‘That’s not my plan for Nancy.’”
“Our times are in God’s hands. I’ve always had a sense that I’m in God’s plan,” Nancy affirmed.
Before Nancy had given her talk to the medical and pastoral education audience where the video had been filmed , she had sent them her article, “Some Thoughts on Living and Dying,” that she had written for Christian Feminism Today, prompting some of the questions she was asked.
To those who asked how she could have this trust of being in God’s hands yet have a less personal view of God, she answered that her concept of God had become less anthropomorphic… more “in whom we live and move and have our being,” yet still very intimate.
“I’m a fan of the mystics; I taught a seminar in the spiritual classics. To me, that [connectedness] is very personal—[but] not personal as in science fiction. Does that help?”
I had to smile: “Yes, Nancy, your words on the threshold of this last journey help us all.”
Designed by Claire Beutler-Cruise, a Certified Life Celebrant, ordained UCC minister, and longtime member of EEWC-CFT, the service concluded: “We give her body to the earth, and we release her life energy to the Divine Mystery.”
Music and Worship
Afterward Jan Clark, an ordained Baptist minister, led us in a musical retrospective singing beloved hymns and songs from our past conferences. That alone was worth the price of travel to Indiana—and by the way, among the 68 attending were 11 women from California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Hawaii.
Worship together on Sunday morning was fun because we discovered why Gail Ricciuti earns her living teaching seminary students how to preach. Based on the parables of the lost coin and the woman adding yeast to her dough (Luke 15:8-10 and Luke 13:20-21), her message was humorous, personal, moving, and centered on Jesus.
“Just as Jesus hallowed our bodies [being born of Mary], so he has hallowed the work of women’s hands,” Gail said. “God seeks the lost and uses the least to infuse the world with rising bread.”
“Baking bread is always a subversive act,” she declared. Three measure of flour are nine gallons—“it could feed a hundred people,” and it was “not status-quo bread—it was justice bread bringing joy.”
In the liturgy, planned by Janet Lundblad, we called out names of members who have passed on: David Abbott, Ruth Schmidt, Katherine Neufeld, David Scholer, Margo Goldsmith, Beth Suber, and others. “Presente!” we affirmed—because these biblical feminists are close to our hearts and continue to support us from God’s fuller presence.
This year’s workshops were outstanding. Reta Halteman Finger led us into the political and cultural life reflected in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: the patronage system, the poverty, the factions. Divided into four role-playing groups (slaves, rich, poor, ethnically Jewish), we argued over how to handle problems with the agape supper in Chloe’s house in Corinth. (Reta’s workshop didn’t end with the gathering but continues through her 1 Corinthian Bible study series on our EEWC-CFT website.)
Another newcomer, Shawna R. B. Atteberry, presented a workshop on “Women in the Gospel of John: The Johannine Community’s Response to Christian Communities that Limited Women Leaders.” Shawna is a younger feminist who emerged from the Church of the Nazarene and now attends Chicago Grace Episcopal Church. She blogs, tweets, and self-publishes; her first book is What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down.
Shawna explained that the Gospel of John was written in Ephesus in opposition to groups
of Christians elsewhere that were accommodating to Greco-Roman standards for women. (Views of these groups are represented in 1 & 2 Timothy, 1 Peter, and other places.)
Using PowerPoint, she outlined passages in John that contrast with the synoptic gospels: Jesus’ revelations to the Samaritan woman (but not to Nicodemus), Martha as the first confessor of faith (not Peter), Mary of Bethany as a prophet, Jesus choosing to appear to Mary Magdalene but not to Peter and John.
I never learned in Sunday school about this dialogue within the gospels and letters that make up the New Testament. The dialogue continues today, she noted: “The Church of the Nazarene has been ordaining women since 1903, yet people kept asking me if I was going to seminary to become a pastor’s wife.”
Another rising star, new to us, was Laura Grimes, a feminist theologian and spiritual director in Dayton, Ohio. Your average Ph.D. in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame is not likely to be the mother of four children. Laura, however, does have this experience, which she brings to her theology.
In fact, she leads a retreat program for women who seek healing from various pregnancy-related crises: termination, miscarriage, and stillbirth. This time for healing and retreat is unique in that it is friendly to both prochoice women and prolife women.
Laura’s workshop was titled “Wisdom’s Healing Words: Divine Feminine Resources for Christian Spirituality and Liturgy.”
Linda Bieze, Alena Ruggerio, and Letha Scanzoni gave a workshop on personal finance, sharing the ups and downs of their own journeys as well as their current approaches to money management as an important part of their Christian feminist outlook.
Linda Williams has gifted us often with workshops on poetry, and this year her subject was “Finding Healing through Reading Poetry.” She selected women’s poems from the 17th century. to now and showed us how these poets gave voice to their experiences of suffering, loss, and healing.
My favorite workshop was “Laughter Yoga” led by Claire Beutler-Cruise. After explaining the physiological benefits of laughing, Claire led us in various silly exercises with wigs and other props. Our homework is to laugh ten minutes a day—Claire does it while driving to work!
Shout-Outs and Laughter
All this laughter infected the rest of the conference, even the business meeting, with shouts of “Very good, very good! Yay!” Claire had trained us to extend both arms upward and back down with each phrase of this acclaim whenever something good happened, causing (of course) more laughter.
We also enjoyed two mother-daughter pairs—Alena Amato Ruggerio with her mom, Deborah Amato, and Betsy Baker-Smith with her daughter, Christy, who is working toward a doctorate in Education and Social Policy at New York University (both Betsy and Christy were first-time attendees).
Two husbands integrated the group gender-wise throughout the gathering: Howie Beutler-Cruise (husband of Claire) and Michael Campbell (husband of Susan Garrison), who showed off his splendid collection of t-shirts from past conferences (each with two additional conference t-shirts sewn on the back). Phil Coons, (husband of Liz Bowman), had been away on a mission for his church and joined us for worship on Sunday. All three men are members of EEWC-CFT themselves—very good, very good! Yay!
The loudest shouts of ‘Very good!” go to the planning committee who worked for two years to organize this memorable gathering: Becky Bender, Claire Beutler-Cruise, Barbara Crews, Jan Clark, Louise Davis, Sally Fenton, Jeanne Hanson, Kendra Irons, Wanda Lollar, Rita Voors and Linda Williams. A big thank you to each of you and to the Indiana Chapter as a whole for hosting their fourth conference in 10 years: 2002, 2008, 2010, and 2012.
Yes, there was sadness in remembering those who are no longer with us, but there was also much laughter.
Photographs by Jeanne Hanson, Anne Eggebroten and Marg Herder.