The Justice Conference 2013

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by Marg Herder 

The Justice Conference 2013EEWC-Christian Feminism Today’s Marg Herder attended the 2013 Justice Conference, held in Philadelphia, PA.  Her impressions and presentation summaries are provided below.  Additional content was made available on the EEWC_CFT Twitter and Instagram feeds.  

As always on EEWC-Christian Feminism Today, your comments and questions are welcome (scroll down and enter them below), particularly if you were involved in the conference and would like to share additional observations.

Visit the Justice Conference website by clicking here.

Content Index:

Introduction to The Justice Conference

Thursday  
On the Journey – A Commentary

Friday
Expectations – A Commentary
Starting from the Wronged – Pre-conference Presentation by Nicholas Wolterstorff
A Messy Theology of Justice – Presented by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil

Saturday
Half the Sky – Presented by Sheryl WuDunn
The People You Meet while Waiting for Sheryl
My Friend Aaron Fisher: A Voice For Justice
Enjoying Dinner and Fellowship with Christians for Biblical Equality

Right Here, Right Now, Right Thing – In Conclusion

Introduction

What is the Justice Conference?  Here’s how the organizers describe it on their website:

“The Justice Conference is a two-day annual event to promote dialogue around justice related issues such as human trafficking, slavery, poverty, HIV/AIDS and human rights, featuring internationally acclaimed speakers, hundreds of humanitarian organizations and dozens of pre-conference workshops.”

Organizers expected over 5,000 attendees.  Well over a hundred organizations participated as exhibitors.

The 2013 conference featured many compelling speakers, including Sheryl WuDunn (Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and co-author of Half the Sky), Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff (Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University – his wife, Claire, a minister, was a member of EEWC at one time), Brenda Salter McNeil (Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University), Dr. Kimberlee (K-lee) Johnson (Chair of the Urban Studies Department and Director of the Center for Urban Youth Development Eastern University), Eugene Cho (Pastor and Co-Founder and Visionary of One Day’s Wages), and Shane Claiborne (author and Christian activist). There were also several musicians and other performers making presentations, a poetry slam, and a film festival.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

On the Journey – 

Watch the Gap - Photo by Marg Herder
Philadelphia Train Station

I’m not a big fan of flying, and our plane to Philadelphia was a relatively small one.  But I didn’t feel too nervous, in part because I was really looking forward to diving into a delicious bag of spicy cheese popcorn I’d purchased right before boarding.  The flight attendant (there was only one on our flight) remarked on the popcorn as she came by to make sure the overhead bins were closed.  I offered to share with her (something I’m trying to get better at – when it comes to delicious treats, anyway), and she took me up on it.

During beverage service I filled up the plastic cup she offered with popcorn and we chatted for a few minutes.  She was a very compelling spirit, with an easy big smile.  And what an interesting person!  Iman Washington is a visual artist, a painter (see her work here), and a doula and Maine State Coordinator for Postpartum Support International.  She is completing her studies and soon to be certified as a midwife.  Read about Iman’s doula practice here.

She stopped and chatted some more during the “collecting the trash” pass.  Iman lives in Maine, but spoke about visiting and learning in countries all over the world.  We ended up with a gracious invitation to stay at her house next time we ventured north and east.

This was such a pleasant reminder of just how rich and full and deep we all are.  For the rest of the journey I found myself looking at all the women around me, on the train,  working at the hotel, chatting with friends in the lobby, and I could just feel the compelling stories they carried around with them, even though they were tucked away, just out of my sight.

I guess our normal state is to feel a distance, a gap between ourselves and the people we encounter.  But today I was reminded that sometimes all it takes to create a bridge between souls is a smile, a few words, and a deep appreciation for someone else’s journey. Oh, and a little cheese popcorn never hurts.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Expectations – A Commentary

Textures and Patterns of the Justice Conference 1
Patterns and Textures of the Justice Conference

When EEWC held their conference in Indianapolis in 2002, I was hired to to provide audio engineering services. About the only thing I knew about the organization was the name, Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. I had expectations. Church ladies. I suspected the people in the group would be concerned with women’s issues in some watered down way. I knew the group was a Christian organization. I expected, since it was a women’s group, that my very obvious gender non-conformity would probably be politely ignored. I was prepared to sit quietly in my corner, do my job, and go home. However, I admit to walking into the venue with some trepidation.

But what happened defied my expectations. I met people who would become fundamental in my life. I was seen. I was accepted. I was appreciated. Without any questions, without any judgment. I was lifted up on the wings of Spirit in a way that would change my entire understanding of why I am here on this planet. My definition of myself shifted because of my interaction with this group.

I’ve told this story before. But I just can’t seem to tell it enough. Because it illuminates the transformational power of radical hospitality and devotion to love as modeled by Christ/Sophia.

So here I am today, at The Justice Conference. A conference put on by evangelical Christians devoted to social justice issues. I am listening to what is said, and also closely listening to what is not said. I know from EEWC-CFT’s treasured teacher, Dr. Alena Ruggerio, that what is not said is just as important as what is said. I came to the conference to be a flashlight. I came with my eyes peeled, on the lookout for information that would help EEWC  to shine a light on the gender injustice that permeates our world and permeates this spiritual expression we refer to as Christianity.

I had expectations.

When I heard about The Justice Conference I thought it would be important for our organization to participate. We are a Christian organization actively involved in advocating for what might be the most important social justice issue of our time, that of gender equality. Additionally, many of our members have devoted a great deal of their thought and effort toward the struggle for LGBT equality. Many of us see these two issues as being directly connected, because they both emerge from our society’s (and Christianity’s) blind subscription to the binary gender construct.

I expected gender issues to receive a great deal of attention at this social justice conference. I expected to find myself among like-minded individuals who understood that gender inequality is at the root of so many other social justice issues throughout the world. And I expected to meet other people concerned about the damage being done to LGBT individuals in the form of Christian oppression of gay people.

And so far, The Justice Conference has defied my expectations. But not at all in the way that my introduction to EEWC-CFT did.

I was very disappointed to find only a scant 75 people (of the many hundred here) in attendance at Mimi Haddad’s excellent presentation on gender equality. Another disappointment, more wrenching to me personally, is that there is no visible LGBT presence among the presenters or attendees (except for me and my new friend Aaron), no workshop or plenary about these issues, and most disturbingly the term “LGBT” doesn’t appear anywhere on The Justice Conference website or printed materials, nor have any of the presenters, with one exception, mentioned the term “gay” in all the events I have attended thus far.

During today’s Evangelicals for Justice panel discussion it was not mentioned, and Aaron’s attempt to bring it up to the panel in the question and answer period was nearly thwarted. When it was announced that time had run out, and he had not been called on to speak (despite being acknowledged twice), he jumped to his feet and spoke out anyway. He told the room about his own personal hurt and disappointment at his reality being ignored or suppressed, especially at a conference he had so looked forward to attending as a young man with a passion for social justice. I spoke very briefly also, sharing my observation regarding the total lack of LGBT recognition in anything pertaining to the conference despite the fact that LGBT issues were one of the most important issues currently confronting the country and the church.

Afterward several people came up to us and thanked us for our courage (I didn’t feel very courageous, I was shaking like a leaf and and crying) in speaking up. They included Mae Cannon, one of the panelists, who came over immediately with a hug and kind words, and another attendee named Robin, a beautiful woman who held me for a long time and thanked me for addressing an issue that was tearing her family apart. One man came up to me and thanked me for speaking up and said, “I want you to know I heard you.” I found out at the Friday evening plenary session, when he took the stage, that this man was Ken Wytsma, the founder of the conference.  Several other people have since approached me to express their thanks.

Many EEWC-CFT members may not be surprised by the seeming lack of interest in “our” issues. Many of you have been doing this work for years. You understand that to admit LGBT people are oppressed would be to admit that Christians are first among the perpetrators of this oppression. It’s much easier to simply make no mention, to keep it out of one’s awareness, consciously or not. Those of you who have experienced similar situations, already understand that to admit women are oppressed would mean that men would have to acknowledge their role as perpetrators. And for people of conscience, admitting that one is complicit in oppression is a very difficult thing to do.

The awareness I have gained over the last 16 hours by unexpectedly coming into direct contact with hundreds of my own caring and unwitting oppressors, a group that I have very intentionally avoided in the past and had no expectation of encountering, is life changing in a way I will be coming to terms with for months to come. But more on that later.

Additional Information –

Of interest may be conference speaker Eugene Cho’s remarks to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as reported here and quoted below.

“Gay rights, he said, are such a complex topic for evangelicals to work through that any short statements on the subject are open to misinterpretation from all sides.
‘Its a rapidly changing conversation. Whether Christians want to have that conversation or not, they have to learn to interact, not just react,’ he said. ‘It’s not up-down, left-right. It’s a lot more complex, and the major framework we have to start with is one of love.’ ”

Additionally, readers may be interested in this Open Letter to Eastern University and The Justice Conference by Sabrina L. Valente, MA.

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Starting from the Wronged – Pre-conference Presentation by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Nicholas Wolterstorff

The first pre-conference session I attended on Friday was Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “My Story: Starting from the Wronged in Thinking about Justice.”

Dr. Wolterstorff, currently the Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, has a personal connection with EEWC-CFT through his wife, Claire, who was an active  member in the past.  I expected to hear an interesting and thought-provoking presentation, and I was not disappointed.

Dr. Wolterstorff began by explaining that he was brought to a social justice activism by personal encounters.

His first encounter was while he was attending a conference in South Africa in 1975.  The conference was not about apartheid, but even so, it was the constant topic of conversation! So organizers added a discussion about the subject to the agenda.  The conference (including this session) was attended by “coloreds” (mixed-race individuals), “blacks” (people of primarily African descent), and  Afrikaners (the white ruling class minority).  Dr. Wolterstorff listened as the blacks and colored poured out their hearts, speaking with sadness at the daily indignities, and speaking with passion about their desire for justice.

And after hearing their words, and seeing their pain, he felt called.  “Fidelity to God required me to speak up for justice.”

The second encounter was at a conference on Palestinian rights.  At the conference, he listened as Palestinians “poured  their guts out in flaming rhetoric.” Rhetoric too hot for most to handle.  They spoke of having their lands confiscated, their orchards destroyed, and their houses bulldozed in the middle of the night with only a few minutes given to get out.

And again he felt called.  He felt if he didn’t participate in the work for justice he would be deeply disobedient to God.

As a philosopher, he found it only natural to begin to wonder why these two experiences were so moving.  He had been involved with both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war.  But he had never felt called.  Why was his response so different in these other two cases—the conference in South Africa and the conference on Palestinian rights?

“I was face to face with the wronged.”

He was not dealing with statistics; he was not reading  books and articles about what was happening.  He was looking at the faces and hearing the voices of the victims of oppression.  And he empathized.

The remainder of his presentation was a fascinating discussion of his attempts to understand and explain this in terms of what I can only explain as various theories of justice, described as “Right Order Justice” (the top down way of thinking—God, the government, or some other power creates and dictates the standards of what is just) and “Inherent Justice” (the bottom up way of thinking—each person, by virtue of being a person, has certain rights to life and a certain autonomy).  He discussed ancient philosophers and John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice.   And it was a fascinating, deep, and understandable presentation.  I loved it!

The takeaway for me—and I believe for EEWC-CFT as an organization—is that he was moved to do justice by looking at someone’s face and hearing their voice as they spoke of injustice.  The face and voice of the wronged.

So as an organization that attempts to motivate people to act to mitigate gender inequity and become aware that the binary gender construct is nothing more than illusion, our best tool may not actually be our capable scholarship, but instead may be our fearlessness in sharing our stories.  The tears, pain, and anguish we have experienced as an oppressed segment of the population may cause those in power to “start from the wronged” and feel irresistibly called to engage in our struggle.

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A Messy Theology of Justice – Presented by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil

Brenda Salter McNeil
Brenda Salter McNeil

The official conference began Friday evening.  There was some great music (the house band is excellent!), the winner of this afternoon’s poetry slam, and several spoken presentations (Shane Claiborne, Ken Wytsma, Leroy Barber, Noel Castellanos) who were all interesting enough.

But for me, the person who rocked the house down was a woman named Brenda Salter McNeil.  She was the last person to appear on the stage, and fellow EEWC-CFT member Betsy Buck and I both greatly enjoyed her delightful, wild-ride performance.

Dr. McNeil was, in turns, a dynamite preacher, a learned professor, and a trusted friend, all from 300 feet away— just one woman on a very large stage.  She entertained us.  She made us think.  She compelled us to interact with her.  And, most impressively, she captured the full attention of a few thousand people and dialed right into their hearts like it was the easiest thing in the world.

She asked us to consider how we think about God when we find ourselves in messy situations.  Like hurricanes.  Situations when people are killed and hurt.  Times when stuff happens that we just don’t get.   She suggested that we need a new theology to understand these kinds of situations.

She used the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate.

Here’s this guy, a wounded traveler lying in the road, all messed up.  Bleeding, knocked out. Wrecked.  That’s the scene the Samaritan happened upon.

Now when we see someone messed up, don’t we ask ourselves, “How did THAT happen?”  And don’t we wonder what the person did to bring it on? There’s something in the human psyche that wants an explanation for trouble.  The homeless man took out too big a mortgage and should have known better.  The man with AIDS engaged in risky sexual behavior and brought his illness on himself.  The addict shouldn’t have tried drugs.

But McNeil tells us she thinks Jesus would say that it doesn’t matter how it happened.  It doesn’t matter what the person did or didn’t do. It’s none of your business!  The only thing  you need to know is that by the time you got there the person was in a mess.

Why can’t we just start by figuring out how to clean up the mess?  Why waste time and energy figuring out how it happened or who is to blame?

She had a bunch of trash piled up in the middle of the stage to illustrate her point.  She explained that we see the trash on the floor around us, the mess, and we avoid it.  We think, “I didn’t put it there.”  And we walk around it thinking, “Someone ought to clean that mess up.”

She pointed out some different mentalities that Christian folks exhibit, things that allow them to see the messes in the world, but not feel compelled to clean them up.

First, sometimes we have the mentality that the person did something wrong.  And so the person brought the misfortune on themselves.  It’s their responsiblity to clean up the mess they created, not ours.

Here’s another mentality people have.  It’s the “God moves in mysterious ways” mentality.  We can’t fathom God, so we don’t know why God has made this mess.  When a child dies, “God has called his angel home.”  The pain, the anguish, the mess—it’s all God’s fault.  Really, who would want to serve a God that is constantly causing big problems for everyone!  But there are a whole lot of Christians that feel this way.

She encountered a different mentality growing up in the Pentacostal church.  It’s the “We’re living in the last days” mentality.  The basic idea, of course, it that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and all of the mess is a sign that The Lord is going to come soon.  Things are so messed up that the only way it will ever get fixed is for Jesus to come back and fix it.  So in the meantime, we’re just going to stay right here in the church and wait. We’re not going to get in this mess; so God, please just come soon and get us.

We need a new foundation, a new theology.  One that doesn’t blame it on people, doesn’t blame it on God, and doesn’t let us look at a mess as impossible for human beings to fix.

What keeps us from trying to help people?

Sometimes it’s the fear that we are not good enough.  We know our own brokenness, and because of that we feel we don’t have what it takes to fix anything.  It’s too big for me.  I could make it worse.  So we avoid the mess.  We think, “God, do something!”  We pray about it, but we feel too small to engage it.

And sometimes we just have no idea what to do.

Dr. McNeil suggests that The Justice Conference is where we can come to grapple with this kind of thing.   She suggested that God is doing something in this generation (meaning the generation of the younger people who were there).  She said that God was raising an army to do justice.

And she was going to give us all a call to action.  To suggest how each of us could begin to make a difference.

First, we must examine our theology and the foundations that have been laid in our lives.  Theology is answering the question of who God is. And answering that question is how you figure out who you are.  Your theology will impact your anthropology.  All people are supposed to be image bearers of who God is.

What God wants for me is what God wants for everybody else.  God wants people to be well and whole and to have their dignity.

So the first call to action is to examine your theology.

The second call to action is to think about what issue affects you so deeply that it makes your stomach hurt; it makes you feel bad.  That’s how you can tell its your issue.

Compassion is not some warm fuzzy feeling.  Compassion is gut wrenching.

The stuff you take on, the stuff that’s gut wrenching, the stuff that makes your stomach hurt. That’s what compassion is about.  Because once you start advocating for your issue you are going to have to stick your neck out, and people are going to disagree with you— often strongly. It’s going to be intense!  But that’s when you know you are doing justice.

And she suggested that we each start bringing this practice into our lives by simply picking up trash that’s lying around.  It sounds funny, but when we see trash in our neighborhoods we’ve gotta stop thinking it’s someone else’s job to pick it up.  We’ve gotta stop walking by it.  She suggests we use picking up trash as a symbol of addressing things that need to be done.

You can’t do everything, but you can do something.

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Saturday, February 23

Half the Sky – A Presentation by Sheryl WuDunn

Sheryl WuDunn
Sheryl WuDunn

I was particularly interested in hearing Sheryl WuDunn speak this afternoon.  Ms. WuDunn is the first Asian American to win the Pulitzer Prize.  The book she co-authored with her husband, Nicholas D. Kristof, is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and should be required reading for every human being.  A documentary film was created by Independent Lens and aired on PBS as a companion piece to the book.  You can download the film from iTunes or purchase it on DVD from Amazon.

Visit the Half the Sky Movement webpage here.

Here’s a NY Times review of the book.

Ms. WuDunn’s talk focused on various women throughout the world who have risen out of poverty, suffering, and despair, and whose stories are told in the book. She discussed what interventions and institutions had helped these women, and she used each story to illustrate a particular challenge women in the world are facing in their efforts to survive.  The issues she highlighted were sex trafficking, maternal mortality, sexual violence, microfinance, and education.

She spoke to us about girls in Cambodia (and throughout the world) who are being kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery.  WuDunn offered us a comparison with enslaved African people in the American South during the 1800s.  At that time, slaves were expensive, costing upwards of $40,000 each in today’s dollars.  So they were cared for, as you would care for any significant investment.  But because girls sold into sexual slavery in Cambodia cost an average of $200 each, they are seen as virtually disposable.

We heard about the young Chinese girl who was taken out of school because her parents thought it a waste of money to spend the tuition of $13.00 a year on a girl.  When WuDunn turned this into a New York Times story, donations came in—enough to fund the building of a new school.  The girl returned to school and has lived a successful life, even sending enough money to her parents to allow them to build a new house.  WuDunn watched this great experiment in making sure one girl was educated and saw that this was enough to lift her entire family out of poverty.

She shared many other stories of success, but also warned us that things don’t always work out.  Some aid projects don’t work.  And there are plenty of books detailing projects that go wrong, wasting both time and money.

She warned us —as westerners who don’t always have the contextual understanding and knowledge to comprehend situations in other parts of the world— to be careful as we protest things that seem unjust.  When we hear that child labor is being used in a factory, for example, and our protests force a company to stop production at that site, often what happens is that the factory simply closes, solving the child labor problem but returning everyone in the area to poverty.

Ms. WuDunn’s talk was accompanied by slides of the women she was discussing.  These slides were displayed on the huge video projection screens at either side of the stage, with an additional one in front of the bleachers in the very back of the venue.  As I looked into each picture, at how the woman held her head, how she looked confidently into the camera lens, I realized how much that woman could teach me about courage and strength!

WuDunn draws upon the work of Amartya Sen, particularly his controversial article “More than 100,000,000 Women are Missing,” to make her case that “Gendercide” is the most pressing moral issue of our time.

On a purely practical level, the best thing to do is educate girls and bring them into the formal labor force.  “Women and girls aren’t the problem.  They’re the solution!”

Studies show that when a woman is educated she will wait longer to get married, have fewer children, and have those children later in life when she is more mature and better able to care for them.

To conclude her talk, she told us the story of an aid worker in Darfur.  This young woman saw things—brutality and woundedness— that no person should have to see.  But she was always strong, working to provide what help she could.  She never broke down.  At least until she returned to the United States.  What took her down?  The sight of her grandmother’s bird feeder.  She realized that not only are we fortunate enough to live in safety and have enough money to feed and clothe ourselves and our families, but we have so much left over that we have enough to make sure the wild birds in our backyards don’t go hungry.

Understand, Ms. WuDunn told us, that with great fortune comes great responsibility.

After her presentation, I was able to arrange a brief interview with her.  Knowing she had started the work that became Half the Sky as a journalist, I asked what about this particular issue had captured her heart. How had it become so defining in her life?  She explained that with her early background in business, she is a very “solution oriented” person.  As a journalist (she has written for The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and her Pulitzer was awarded in 1989 for her reporting on the the Tiananmen Square protests), she had “seen so many things” but found herself constantly drawn to the plight of exploited and impoverished women throughout the world. “It was so haunting,” she said simply.

She “didn’t come [to the subject] with any predisposed attitude.” Instead, being someone so “focused on solutions,” she felt compelled to seek stories that would illuminate ways for women to emerge empowered from seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

She explains that she no longer wishes to be objective about these issues, and that’s why she’s no longer a journalist. “Instead,” she says, “I’m an advocate now.”

I asked if she was comfortable saying a word or two about her spirituality.  She noted that she grew up Presbyterian but now she would describe herself as more “internally spiritual than externally spiritual.”  She went on to add that she has an “enormous respect for religion.”

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The People You Meet while Waiting for Sheryl

Patterns and Textures from The Justice Conference
Patterns and Textures from The Justice Conference

To set this story up, you have to understand that once I realized Moody Bible was going to be at The Justice Conference it became clear the kind of Christian event I was walking into (one in which gay people would probably not be very welcome), and I got scared. I wanted to bail on the whole idea! But EEWC-CFT had already bought my non-refundable registration and plane ticket. so I tried to figure out how I could come up with enough courage to  walk my chicken self through the weekend.

I thought about Nancy Hardesty. I thought about all the times she had probably walked into a situation where her ideas were not at all appreciated, but how she had done the work she was sent to do anyway, and how that had changed things here in the world. I decided to picture her walking with me during the weekend, and it helped.

So that’s the background. Now here’s the story. 

I was stalking Sheryl WuDunn. Not in a bad “lesbian psycho stalker” way, just my normal polite Marg way. I was standing outside the stage door, hoping to get a short interview with her to share with all of you. I’m not used to having a press pass—I could have gone right in—but that would have seemed impolite even if I had thought of it.

As I was waiting (with a stack of Christian Feminism Today magazines in my hand and my CFT shirt on) five young women came up in a group and stood a little ways off.

After a couple minutes of watching them as they watched the stage door, I asked, “Are you guys stalking Sheryl?” They laughed and told me they were. I said, “Me too!” and we all laughed.

Then, of course I said, “If you like her work, I think you might like our organization.”

They said they had been looking at the name on my shirt (Christian Feminism Today). Of course, I immediately gave them magazines and business cards. Just because you are stalking someone doesn’t mean you can’t do a little marketing!

So I started talking to them, asking why they were stalking Sheryl, why they had come to The Justice Conference, my usual MO of innumerable questions.

They told me that they all attended Clemson university where they are part of the Creative Inquiry study program and had received a grant to come hear Sheryl speak. They were stalking her because they hoped to get her to sign their Half the Sky books and just simply to meet her. She is a “rock star” to them, I could tell.

So I said, “I knew a really cool feminist that taught at Clemson, maybe you knew her. Nancy Hardesty.”

And they exclaimed, “Oh my God! We used to MEET in her room. We just moved to another room a few weeks ago. We have heard she was really cool.”

And I thought to myself, “Nancy, you rock.”

So I told them about Nancy and how cool she was, and that she was a founder of our organization and one of the coolest Christian feminists that was ever on the planet. I offered them gift memberships. I told them they just needed to email us if they ever needed to find any Christian feminist information for any papers they were writing.

I needed this feminist connection!  I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to meet them, to feel their excitement about Sheryl’s work, to hear how they were fully engaged with feminism, to sense how it was for them to stand on the edge of their adult lives and know they were setting out by doing work that was making a difference.

They used to meet in her room…

I didn’t even ask for a sign or anything. But thanks Nancy, I sure got a kick out of this one.

Since my return from the conference I emailed Melissa Moore (she offered to be their contact person) and I asked her to share some information about their program at Clemson. My friends, lest you think younger women are no longer interested in feminism, check out the work this group is doing.

Click here for  information about the Creative Inquiry Program at Clemson.

Click here for information about their group “Poverty Ends with a Girl.”

Here’s what Melissa wanted you to know about their work:

Sheryl WuDunn’s work in raising awareness about gender inequality around the world is a big inspiration for us. Most of the group has read Half the Sky and we used Sheryl’s TED talk at the International Day of the Girl event we hosted last semester. I think we are all captivated by different parts of Sheryl’s work, so I can’t speak for everyone here. What stuck out to me the most the first time I read Half the Sky was that it clearly made the point that gender inequality is a human rights issue. My experience in trying to raise awareness about gender inequality is that many people try to discredit it by calling it a “women’s issue.” I love that Sheryl stresses gender inequality as a central moral challenge for this century. She also doesn’t back down from the more touchy subjects that are intrinsically related to gender inequality, such as family planning and failed foreign aid initiatives.

We were initially drawn to the conference because Sheryl WuDunn was one of the speakers. We did, however, anticipate to gain a lot of wonderful information from the other speakers. My impression was that all the speakers would have talks similar to Sheryl’s where they focused on a social justice issue that they cared about and informed the audience about that issue.

Our Creative Inquiry project, Poverty Ends with a Girl, is currently in its second semester. There are many student groups at Clemson that travel abroad for development aid projects. The main idea behind our Creative Inquiry is, instead of creating our own international project that would reach one village or one group of girls, to educate students who are already involved internationally about the phenomenon called the Girl Effect. Our hope is that these students will start taking issues of gender inequality into special consideration when they plan their projects and reach many women and girls around the world.

Last semester we held an open event on campus for International Day of the Girl where we informed the audience about issues of gender inequality and led discussion on these topics. It was very well attended with over 50 students and faculty and it ended up going an hour longer that we intended because the audience was very responsive to the discussion portion of the event.

Lastly, we are working with an all-girls high school in Kenya called Jane Adeny Memorial School. We recently sent them a questionnaire to find out more about their perceptions of their education and how education has impacted their life and their future goals. We are hoping to send them some school supplies and to create an on-going correspondence with them in the future.

Thanks,

Melissa Moore
Elizabeth Gerndt
Wynne Morris
Ellison Taylor
Ashley Hernandez
Whitney Garland
Savannah Mozingo
Jenna Weed

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My Friend Aaron Fisher: A Voice for Justice

Wendy Low and Aaron Fisher
Wendy Low and Aaron Fisher

I previously described the courage Aaron Fisher exhibited in the discussion period of the “Evangelicals for Justice” panel break-out session (see “Expectations – A Commentary” above). He is the inspiring young man who refused to be silenced even though the time for questions had run out and he had not been called on to speak. Instead, he stood up and made an impassioned plea for inclusion of LGBT issues in further discussions of social justice issues.

I was so impressed with how Aaron had handled the situation Friday afternoon.  He had not hesitated to stand and speak when I, thirty years his senior, had sat in my chair stunned into inaction by my hurt and confusion at the way we had been overlooked, ignored, and silenced.   I thought some of you might want to know more about this man, and I was happy when Aaron agreed to sit down for a meal together and share some of his story with us.  He and I were joined by EEWC-CFT member Betsy Buck and Aaron’s friend Wendy Low.

Aaron is a twenty-year-old international studies major at the University of Denver.  He found out about the conference online, and he and Wendy decided to attend.  The university makes certain grants available to students so that they can afford to attend various conferences such as The Justice Conference. Aaron and Wendy will be required to present a summary of the conference and their experiences upon their arrival back at school.

Originally, neither of them realized The Justice Conference was a Christian conference, so they had no suspicions that they were going to be walking directly into what can be an insular and judgmental world, the world of evangelical Christianity.

This echoed my experience. Though I realized I was going to be attending a Christian conference, I had no idea either that I was heading off to share my weekend with three to five thousand people who embraced such socially conservative views. All three of us incorrectly assumed a group concerned with justice issues was, by definition, going to be socially progressive.

As my partner Lisa kept saying incredulously throughout the weekend as I shared my experiences with her, “Doesn’t justice mean everybody?”

I don’t think the organizers of the conference intended their advertising to be deceptive. I think instead that it was simply another example of how white evangelical Christian privilege tends to assume its own universality.

Aaron’s friend Wendy is actually Jewish, so it was quite an eye opening experience for her!

My conversation with Aaron, a young man who has no qualms about identifying himself as a feminist, was affirming.

He grew up going to Baptist schools. The school required that students wear gender conforming uniforms; girls wore dresses, boys wore pants. In sixth grade they memorized Leviticus, and Aaron learned that homosexuality “was a sin, it was disgusting.”

When he began to be aware of his sexual orientation, he decided as a Christian it would be necessary to remain celibate. “I didn’t want to disappoint God,” he explained.

At 19, he came out; and in doing so he lost a lot of friends.  His family took it pretty hard for a while. He remembered, “My mom went to church every single day for a while.” But after a time they realized “I was still me. I wasn’t a single story. I was me.”

Aaron met his partner when he went away for college. He spoke of finding deep meaning in this experience. “I realized that I was worthy of love. We are all worthy of love. The love of God alone just isn’t enough.”  When he told his family about his partner they said, “Tell us about him. If you love him, then we will love him.”

He adds, “The idea that you have to lose your family’s love to have a partner is a fool’s choice.”

This young man who wisely told me, “Prayer is a great way to bring justice into your own life,” is walking into his future with confidence, certain he is worthy of no less than full equality in the eyes of the law and the church.

Though he self-identified as Christian for most of his life, he no longer does.  While I don’t find this surprising, as I too find it difficult to identify myself with that word, one that is worn proudly by so many hurtful and intolerant people, it saddens me still.  What a courageous, intelligent, and impassioned voice for justice the church has lost.

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Enjoying Dinner and Fellowship with Christians for Biblical Equality

Philadelphia at Night - Photo by Marg Herder
Philadelphia at Night

My partner Lisa, EEWC-CFT member Betsy Buck, and I attended a dinner hosted by CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality) on Saturday night. This dinner was announced at Dr. Haddad’s break-out session presentation, and I decided at once to attend.

I know the history. I knew their founders had once been a part of our organization and had broken off from us in 1986 to form another organization (read more in this Christianity Today article). I understand their organization takes a stand that specifically states that people like me must not be allowed to share in true fellowship, that LGBT people are somehow less worthy in the eyes of God than people like them. I used to be mad at them for that. But something happened to me at The Justice Conference, and for some reason, now I just feel mostly sad about it. Because I feel that CBE, like many of the other evangelical Christians I met, are in a really tough spot with this whole gay thing.

Once, not that many years ago, I was having a hard time understanding what was happening in my life and how I was going to be able to move forward. When my therapist asked what I felt like, I described it as feeling like I was standing in the center of a very expansive and thick briar patch. Only by standing perfectly still could I avoid being cut by the surrounding thorns. Meanwhile the ground underneath my feet was melting away, and I knew I was going to have to move— and soon. That’s what I think is going on with evangelical Christians in this country. That’s why the organizers of the Justice Conference didn’t want anything to do with the LGBT issue, and did everything possible to keep it from coming up during their conference. Because somebody’s gonna run into some thorns. It might be people like me, it might be people like them. Probably it’s going to be all of us. And I just feel bad that justice seems to always end up being messy and painful and so damn hard.

The reason why I wanted to join CBE for dinner is that I also understand something else. The folks at CBE are working for gender justice within Christianity, just as we are. And they have done some very good work over the years, reaching people that we, their radical cousins from the far left, cannot reach. And they are not getting the response and respect they should, any more than we are.

I hope that the CBE leadership feels that EEWC-CFT is doing the same commendable work they are. And I hope they realize that we are reaching people that they, our more conservative cousins from the middle, could never reach. People like me, for one example. Like Betsy, for another.

So the three of us joined about ten CBE members for dinner at a great restaurant near the hotel. When we got there, I sat myself down right in the middle of the long table. I wanted to be able to talk to everybody.  We had a room all to ourselves, we had a friendly and proficient server, and we enjoyed some really good food. We talked.  Just like we talk when our Indiana EEWC chapter goes out to dinner.

"Bra"mitzvah anyone?
“Bra”mitzvah anyone?

I laughed my way through Kristyn’s telling about her 50th birthday party. Her “Bra”mitzvah. She took a bunch of her friends to this boutique bra store and they all got properly fitted bras. Her story was about body image, it was about what we women do when we are together, it was about how one celebrates growing older, it was about how to have a totally memorable celebration.

We talked about jobs—how we wish they could be more meaningful, yet still pay the bills.

Lisa talked about how yoga was changing her life, Betsy talked about the emotional difficulty of being a veterinarian.

Emily and Dan talked about trying to steer some of The Justice Conference focus to justice issues here at home and not just in other countries—like issues of gender, poverty and race.

Eventually we paid our checks, and a few people ran off to catch the next speaker.

Dan and I were the last to leave the dining room. He stopped, turned, and asked me, “Why did you come to this tonight?” I couldn’t tell from his tone whether he was just curious, or if he thought I had some kind of agenda in doing so. So I just asked him if he meant the question in terms of CBE’s stance on gay people. He did. I said that I understood our organizations differed on that issue, yes; but we also had a whole lot in common, namely that we were fully committed to stopping gender discrimination and oppression within Christianity. I added I didn’t think any of them would be mean or impolite to me if I came to the dinner. I just wanted to meet them, to make a connection.

We talked and listened to each other about the challenge of the LGBT issue for several minutes. I made no attempt to change his mind or suggest what his organization should do, but I did tell him I was certain that maintaining their current stance on the question of  LGBT equality and inclusion would become less and less tenable in the coming years. He said something that made me chuckle, something about how even if that happened there was no way they would ever become as liberal as we are. Laughing, I said that we were perfectly happy to stay their radical leftist cousins. They could maintain their position of being the open door for those just escaping oppressive biblical patriarchy, and we’d keep doing our job of running ahead of them busting down brick walls with our heads in order to clear the path. It was a satisfying discussion for me. I hope it was for him also.

After returning from the conference I found Dan’s blog on the web.  I can’t help but share this awesome quote from a December 2012 post detailing what he wanted from Santa for Christmas last year. One of the items on his wish list was “End patriarchy.” He elaborates:

Patriarchy is like a dog: it sheds its coat all the time, but keeps peeing on the same fire hydrant. Yesterday that coat was “Patriarchy,” today it’s “Complementarianism” and tomorrow it’ll be some variation of “Biblical Manhood/Womanhood/Servant/Masterhood.” If you’re a woman, like the fire hydrant, the color of the coat just doesn’t matter, but the denigration and subjugation does.

Rock on, Dan!

I’ve gotta tell you that the entire dinner was very satisfying.

CBE has a conference coming up in July. Some of our members might find it an interesting adventure.  Here’s what they say about it on their website.

“CBE will host an international conference, “Take Every Thought Captive to Christ: Ideas Have Consequences,” July 26-28 in Pittsburgh, PA. Christian scholars and leaders will deliver four general sessions, sixteen workshops, and a cascading presentation exploring biblical worldview. We will consider how misinterpreting Scripture contributes to a worldview that devalues females and fosters injustice. Come grow, be challenged, and fellowship with us!”

Learn more by visiting the conference pages on their website.

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Right Here, Right Now, Right Thing – In Conclusion

Detail from Philly Mural
Detail from Philadelphia Mural

How do I create justice in the world? What does “justice” even mean? What does it look like?

The global problems we face are huge and feel overwhelming. Starving children. Nations engaging in wars that kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people. People, especially women, being raped, beaten, enslaved. I can hardly even bear to think of it, hear it, look at it. I find myself hardening my heart, putting in earplugs, wearing my consumer-tinted, rose-colored glasses. Because I fear that if I would be open to the absolute comprehension of it all, it would end me.

So here I am. Living a life in which I am safe, warm, fed, clothed, loved, content. Here I am in the global 1% fully engaged with prosperity. What I have learned culturally tells me that I am being rewarded. Rewarded for my hard work. Rewarded for my devotion to Spirit. Rewarded for making correct choices. Rewarded for the good fortune of having grown up as one of God’s chosen people here in these United States.

And I know that’s a total crock. What’s really going on is this: I’m simply sitting right here in the midst of what I’m experiencing, right now. It’s nothing I did. I didn’t always make great decisions. I made some really stupid ones. It’s not that God loves me more than someone else. I’m not any more favored than all the trusting little children who are being beaten and abused, right now. It’s just where I find myself, my right here, my right now.

Should I feel guilty? Should I feel embarrassed? Should I take action?  Should I give away all my money and possessions? Should I devote the rest of my life to righting the things I see as wrongs?

Proverbs 14:13 says, “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” Yep, that’s what I feel like when I take up with inequity and injustice. But I am going to make a real effort to take off the glasses, and take out the earplugs, and open my heart to it all. Open my heart and my ears and my eyes to not only the joy, but also to the suffering. Not only the glory, but also to the despair.  Not only the justice but also the injustice that comes together to create this grace-hungry experience of right here, right now.

I’m going to do what my new friend Aaron suggested when he said, “Prayer is a great way to bring justice into your own life.” I’m going to try to still the constant chatter of my internalized fear and guilt and shame, and I’m going to do what I believe is the only thing people of faith can do to change the world. I’m going to listen intently for the sound of Her voice whispering in my ear, and starting from right here, right now, I’m simply going to do the next right thing.

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Marg Herder
Marg Herder is the Director of Public Information for EEWC-CFT, a Christian feminist organization working for gender (and LGBTQIA) justice in Christianity since 1974. She is the content manager and developer of the organization’s website, Christian Feminism Today. Marg identifies as a trans* lesbian writer, musician, and feminist spiritual seeker. She works to draws attention to the ongoing violence directed at women and LGBTQIA people in this “Christian” society, the desperate need for an understanding of God that includes the Divine Feminine, and Christ/Sophia’s desire that each of us move deeper into our own practice of non-violence.

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