By Chandra Clark Snell
In 1993, when I was 24, I met an African American woman divinity student. On the face of it, this may sound decidedly unremarkable. For me, it was life changing. In fact, as my very first, (then) grudgingly acknowledged whiff of Christian feminism, it would later prove pivotal to my personal and professional aspirations.
At the time, I had only the faintest idea that there were such things as “divinity schools.” Christian and bible colleges, sure, but divinity schools? More important, this was someone like me, female and African American, and she was unapologetically—even proudly—encroaching, or so I firmly thought at the time, upon male territory.
Back then, I had no idea that the divinity student (I will call her Michelle) would have such an impact on me and on the later trajectory of my personal and professional life. But she did. Although we did not keep in touch after our paths so briefly crossed, Michelle has remained a sort of blueprint for me, a touchstone, even when, for the majority of the intervening years since our meeting I was no longer consciously aware of her—at least most of the time.
Michelle was such an anomaly for me then because I grew up in a religious tradition that did not acknowledge the fullness of women’s spiritual gifts. According to my 24-year-old self’s understanding, because of Eve’s woeful transgression, we women were all cursed and, consequently, commanded to “keep silent” in church and could have “no authority” over men. I accepted this dogma unquestioningly. Women could not preach, teach men or teenage boys, present the church announcements, or have any other speaking role during church services. (My denomination was quite literalist.) So, other than teach Sunday school or bible study to other women or girls, just what exactly was Michelle planning to do with her divinity degree, I wondered back in 1993. Obviously she belonged to some church that mistakenly believed in “women preachers.” Poor soul! Michelle was obviously not planning to keep silent, as any good Christian woman should.
Fast-forward about 10 years. Although I was not aware of the Wesleyan doctrine of “prevenient grace” at the time, looking back, I now believe the hand of God was with me even then. I recall attending a mixed-gender adult Sunday school at my church in the early 2000s (the same denomination as in my youth but a different congregation) with my mother, who was visiting me. She not only asked a question of the male Sunday school teacher but also offered up an opinion to boot. Now, this would have been normal back in the congregation of my childhood (where women were allowed to speak freely during Sunday school and bible studies, at least), but, apparently, there were degrees of conservatism even within my generally conservative denomination (though I never would have used such a term at the time; we were just “right”). But, in this particular congregation, women did not ask questions or make comments in Sunday school—they were silent! Although the male teacher politely responded to my mother, we both got reproachful looks from the class; particularly from the women, ironically enough. I felt vaguely ashamed. Silenced.
During these years (approximately my early-to-mid-30s), I participated in a women’s midweek bible study group, which I absolutely loved; however, the group was active only during the summer. One year, as summer was drawing to a close and our group’s annual temporary disbanding drew near, some of us in the group asked our female teacher about the possibility of extending our meetings into the fall and beyond. I suspect the reason we liked the group so much was because, within it, we were free to be ourselves—to speak, to laugh, to cry, to share our deepest selves—without the male gaze. In this women’s bible class, we were not just women—we were full human beings. Unsilenced.
Our teacher told us she had to get the approval of one of the congregation’s elders (male, of course), who was responsible for Christian education. He politely came to our class, telling us it just was not possible for us to continue beyond our regularly allotted timeframe. Never mind the spiritual sustenance it obviously provided us. No real explanation. Just “no.” Silenced.
It was around this time, I believe, that I stumbled upon the work of Nancy Hardesty and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Something (My experiences? The Holy Spirit? Both?) had prompted me to start researching the origins of my denomination (its real origins, that is—not the ones proudly promulgated from the pulpit, that we were the “one, true church”). I recall I had begun questioning why my denomination (which did not even acknowledge itself as such) was so starkly divided along racial/ethnic lines and, in the midst of some haphazard online research, I came upon the work of Christian feminists. Christian feminists! Imagine! My mind might have briefly flitted back to Michelle, with her braids, unshaved legs, kindness, and gentle smile. I recall feeling vaguely uneasy. I printed out some articles on Christian feminism but cannot remember actually reading them. Looking back, though, I can now see I was on my way to becoming unsilenced.
Fast-forward a few more years. By the late 2000s, my questioning eventually led me to reject the denomination of my childhood and to join the United Methodist Church, which allowed women pastors and preachers; in fact, they were not merely allowed in the UMC—they were acknowledged to be just as legitimate as male pastors and preachers! For some reason (My experiences? The Holy Spirit? Both?), the idea of women in ministry had begun to attract me, and I had started researching this area in earnest. After finding out about early American women preachers, such as Jarena Lee, Olympia Brown, Amanda Berry Smith, Lee Anna Starr, and others, my heart was filled in a way I had not known possible. I began to vaguely sense my own path. Becoming unsilenced.
Today, after first perceiving a call to ministry (though I did not know it at the time) years ago, I am now pursuing ordained ministry (deacon’s orders) within the UMC and attending seminary to earn an M.A. in Theological Studies. This would not have been possible earlier, before I was aware, largely thanks to Christian feminism, that there are different ways of interpreting scripture, different ways of understanding how God views women, different ways of doing ministry. Unsilenced.
It took me a long time to reach this point. I do not want this to be the case for other women.
I was not always aware of the spiritual gifts, including leadership, with which I have been blessed; gifts I believe are to be my contribution to the kingdom of God here on earth. In fact, even learning I have spiritual gifts at all (identified for me by a female pastor), gifts that are just as needed as those of men, proved to be a catalyst for my journey toward ordained ministry. Thank you, Michelle, Elizabeth, Amanda, Olympia, Jarena, Lee Anna Starr, Rev. Barbara, and Nancy!
Since the last presidential election, in particular, I have been deeply pondering how I might help bring about some small level of healing, peace, and light in our increasingly broken world—a world in which those currently in power increasingly seek to silence, in one way or another, those of us who are not in power. Actually, deacons within the United Methodist Church are specifically called to ministries of service, word, compassion, and justice (www.gbhem.org/clergy/deacons-and-diaconal-ministers/serving).
Regarding justice, there are so many social justice issues bothering me right now that it is very easy to quickly become overwhelmed: state-sponsored police violence against people of color, the criminalization of black and brown people, mass incarceration of black men and boys, Islamophobia, LGBTQ inequality (especially in light of the UMC’s recent ruling regarding Bishop Karen Oliveto), voter suppression, unchecked capitalism, rampant economic imperialism, racism, sexism (and all the other undesirable “ism’s”), globalization, massive income inequality, and the current administration’s anti-immigration stance. These issues comprise multiple oppressions, and are interrelated.
Christian feminists should be concerned about, and should actively resist, all forms of oppression, gender-based or otherwise. When we look at the overall message of the gospels, we find that Jesus disregarded the walls of separation between people. His parables—the story of the Good Samaritan resonates most with me personally—and the stories of His encounter with the woman at the well, with Zacchaeus the tax collector, with the woman with the issue of blood, and with others at the margins of His society, we can understand why Paul later declares, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, KJV). While I broadly perceive my calling as helping others, particularly marginalized others, to find and use their authentic voice—to become unsilenced—if my actions, in whatever manner God sees fit, can contribute in any way toward the building of God’s kingdom here on earth, then I am all in.
While I am often disheartened that I, as one person, can make any difference whatsoever, at other times I find a stubborn kernel of hope poking up through my despair. Just as Esther’s Uncle Mordecai in the Old Testament admonished her that she had, perhaps, been raised up “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14, KJV), so, too, do I think of myself, as well as all of us. If I believe God does not make mistakes, then I also have to believe God quite deliberately places us within a specific context—a particular place and time—because it is precisely here that God knows we can do the most good. No longer silenced, now I continue the work my friend Michelle introduced to me, the work we undertake as Christian feminists: unsilencing.