The Sacred Worth of Women and Girls

Katey ZehGuest Post from Katey Zeh, Director of Healthy Families, Healthy Planet Initiative of the United Methodist Church:

When I began writing this piece, I was stopped abruptly by the amazingly weird sensation of the right side of my belly leaping upward.  I’m currently thirty weeks pregnant with our first child, a daughter. For years I’ve dedicated my ministry to advocating for women and girls, but now as a soon-to-be mom of a daughter, my passion has deepened in ways I never imagined.

Very early in my pregnancy I was reflecting on the story of Hagar (Genesis 16).  The slave of Sarai and Abram, Hagar has no agency over her own body. When her owners struggle with infertility, she is used as a surrogate, and Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child. Sarai becomes so abusive toward Hagar that she runs away, risking everything in search of sanctuary back at home in Egypt. In the midst of my own pregnancy-related nausea and fatigue, I thought about the enormous amount of inner strength Hagar must have had to venture out alone into the wilderness.

But Hagar is never really alone. Along her journey an angel of God appears to her, calling her by name and assuring her that she and her child will survive. Strangely he also tells her to return to her masters’ house, but he does not do so without first delivering a message of hope and survival.

Hagar is the first person in the Bible to give God a name, “El-Roi” meaning the God who sees. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Hagar knows that her masters do not define her identity.  Ultimately she is not a slave; she is a precious child of God.

In our world today there are so many women and girls like Hagar who are objectified, reduced to meeting the needs of others and at the expense of their physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual health.  How many of them are waiting for a voice of hope, an assurance that God is with them in the wilderness? How many have dreams of escaping but have no way out? How many simply wish to be seen, to be heard, and to be called by name?

The question that I ask of each of us is: what would the church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth? This question is not meant to be rhetorical or theoretical. It is a call to transformation! Our calling as the body of Chris is to follow the example of the one who reached out with hands of healing and compassion; who saw women as full human beings worthy of his time and attention; who came that all might experience abundant life here and now.

In my work as director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project of the General Board of Church & Society, I work to ensure that women’s sacred worth is honored through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Tragically every two minutes somewhere in the world a woman loses her life while bringing new life into the world, Most of these deaths could be prevented with basic medical care and access to safe, voluntary family planning methods.

The Church is called to respond to this needless loss of life by ensuring every woman and girls has the tools and information she needs to experience the life of abundance that Christ promised all. One place to begin is ensuring every girl and boy, every woman and man has information about their bodies, sexuality, and how to care for one another with respect and dignity. I invite you to join Healthy Families, Healthy Planet and the General Board of Church & Society on August 27th for a webinar focused on the intersections of faith, sexuality education, and your congregation. Please visit the registration page to sign up and for more information.

Through the power of Christ’s spirit, all things are possible. We can become places where all are affirmed as children of God with sacred worth. As I prepare to birth a baby girl into this difficult, beautiful world, I could not hope for anything more.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Feminist Studies in Religion, and Mothering Matters. She was named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. For more information about Healthy Families, Healthy Planet, please visit umchealthyfamilies.org

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To Be Disciples

ServiceShirtOn a recent trip across the Northwest portion of Iowa, Pastor David Hobbs, Nathaniel Mason and I visited a number of United Methodist Churches. We simply stopped in for a quick word (or two hour conversation, here and there), and to get a sense for the churches and the communities they serve. I was impressed by the variety of buildings, sanctuaries, and ministries we encountered. One church was having its sanctuary ceiling painted so we talked with the painters and offered them a prayer for safety, which they found rather amusing as clambering like monkeys across sky high scaffolding is a “simple” job for them; no gold leaf, murals, or ceiling art for them in this United Methodist Church-just a few brush strokes and wooden beams to refinish.

Now, I have been reading a lot of books about church health; books about evangelism, worship, and programming; books about the trends of worship attendance and the difference between churches which grow and churches which seem to fizzle out and die. I have been reading about leadership styles and ways of organizing work so that . . . yadah, yadah, yadah. Yet, this trip offered me an interesting puzzle.

Because, there were churches that were getting everything right, and yet they were empty.

Passionate leaders with a vision and lion’s heart for ministry: Check

Visible and cohesive messages of welcome for visitors: Check

Open and inviting gathering spaces which are accessible: Check

Brightly colored and updated Sunday School rooms: Check

Modern sanctuaries with flexible A/V and chancel spaces: Check

Quality musical instruments and musicians capable of playing them: Check

Connections to the school district: Check

Obvious opportunities to serve both within the church building and outside in the wider community: Check

Stories of radical hospitality and generous giving: Check

Evidence of ministry with people who are not current members or active participants in the church: Check

So, why were these particular churches echoing, while others were bustling with life and activity? What does it mean to get everything right and to still be disappearing week by week and pastor by pastor?

In one particular church, I felt such sadness because there was so much potential there. There was so much love, care and faithfulness on display, it made my heart hurt to think it was for nothing-that the people whose lives could be so enriched simply by stepping inside this church’s doors will never know what they are missing.

So I stopped, right there in the gathering space just inside the main entrance and I asked God, “Why? What’s going on here that this church is sputtering out?” And, like a whisper across the top of my brain I heard, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14: 26)

I have been puzzling on these words and that particular church, ever since. I wonder how to share what I heard. I wonder what it means. Is there some relevance for the other churches I have visited that just can’t seem to do more than simply hang on, even though they are applying all the best ideas? I wonder what to do with the sadness and futility that plagues the staff and volunteers whose hearts are giving out because they have been trying so hard for so long, but have not seen their efforts rewarded by flourishing Christian witness and community.

Why, at times, must the Gospel be so hard to hear, and what are we, as disciples of Christ,to do when the words it whispers tell us it is time to give up all we hold dear-our mothers and fathers, our sanctuaries and our memorial gardens, our programs and our histories-and come, and follow him?

Ministry with Fathers

This Father’s Day week, I wanted to highlight ministries of justice and mission whose core was related to the particular experience of fatherhood. I found this article and simply loved the description of how the ministry “Young Dads” came to be. I will draw your attention to the way in which the leaders of this ministry first “listened” to the community. I also want to highlight the role of prayer and Scripture, as well as the engagement of a passionate advocate to help bridge between the church and a community of people who distrusted the church.

This article originally appears among the Reformed Church in America Resources

The Surprising Launch of “Young Dads”

About 10 months after launching Moms in Unity, we began praying about and exploring how to birth a companion ministry for men. Specifically, we felt a pull toward creating a ministry for dads who were not participating as fathers in the lives of their children.

Consistent with our ministry model of listening to the community before launching a ministry, we gathered a small group of dads. But what we learned was not at all what we had expected. The young fathers did not feel comfortable with us church folks. Likely, they did not trust us. Several of them had strong negative opinions about the church. Some of them thought Jesus was a weak man, while others thought he represented white society’s interests. Others did not trust us either because we lacked a “street rep” they respected or because no one they respected vouched for us.

At one point, Joel, a ministry partner, introduced Tony to me. Tony and his wife were friends of Joel and his wife. Tony was a tall brother who, when younger, held a state-wide ranking in basketball. He understood the world of work and was a dad himself. And Tony had a strong love for Jesus. We all shared together about our ministry idea on several occasions. Tony got what the ministry was all about, committed himself to our ministry model, and agreed to champion our desire to make a difference in the lives of fathers.

Together we fleshed out our ministry strategy and adopted Malachi 4:6 as our motivating Scripture: “He [the prophet] shall turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers; or else I [God] will come and strike the land with a curse” (NIV). We named the ministry “Young Dads” and proclaimed, “You cannot be the man you want to be until you are the father you must be!”

Tony went all over town recruiting young dads. He visited the jail, stopped by barber shops, mixed with brothers on the corner, shot hoops with men, and dropped in at coffee houses. Soon he had recruited a group of guys who wanted to hear more and who had an unspoken hunger to be a great dad but lacked someone to lead them through the landmines to the promised land of healthy fatherhood.

Our twice-a-month meetings were focused on answering the questions “How are you living?” and “How are things with you and your child?” We shared pizzas or other food together. Undergirding it all was our profound belief that these dads were image-bearers of God. Most of them did not believe that, so we held on to it for them, making our case for being image-bearers as we built relationships.

Very early on it became clear that each dad’s relationship with the mother or mothers of his child or children had everything to do with his access to his child. If the relationship was stressed and conflicted (and they often were), the dad felt he had little power to do anything. We knew we had to deal with this massive ministry challenge. We could not succeed with our mission if we did not help dads find a way forward.

Tony primarily, and I a little, began meeting with some of the mothers. We either met one-on-one or included the dad. We did not try to heal their relationship per se. We tried to get them to agree that it was better for their child to have a relationship with both parents rather than one. We tried to get them to agree that their child needed to see them supporting each other rather than fighting with or belittling each other.

In some cases, both agreed. For those men, Young Dads meetings became places where they could talk openly, even cry, over the profound and beautiful thing it was to parent a child. But all of them–the dads who developed parenting relationships and those who did not–faced a challenge they had known about all along, and that those of us in ministry discovered had to be reckoned with. Single moms have to assess the men in their lives by how they support her child-rearing efforts both with money and with other kinds of support. A dad who does not measure up faces the combined wrath of the mother and the power of the child-support system to incarcerate.

A Christian who ran a government program for a faith-oriented non-profit clued me on this challenge. His program was designed to coach and equip men who were looking for jobs. All the program participants had recently completed jail sentences for failing to pay child support. The chart below illustrates the issues he described.

We learned that many men who are caught up in these dynamics feel utterly powerless. When we tried to figure out how to deal with this, we could not find another ministry that addressed the system of challenges many dads face. With a systemic approach, we reasoned, we might be successful in helping more dads be the fathers they had to become.

Letters on the chart above show the points at which Young Dads created intervention strategies.

(A) Mom and dad are in conflict. The ministry assisted the mom and dad in resolving enough of their challenges so that their child could benefit from a relationship with both parents. Often the conflict was complicated and confusing. In some cases, the conflict clearly involved issues between the mom and dad. Sometimes it involved their child. Sometimes access to the child was used as a tool to get something else. Often the non-custodial parent felt powerless.

(B) Dad is required to provide money. The ministry needed to help young dads secure work. We did that in two ways: 1) referring them to job development nonprofits and 2) talking directly to employers, which Tony (mostly) and I did. While we did find jobs for some dads, several of them found their own jobs. They wanted to, they needed to, and they saw work as a way to do extra things with their child and as a ticket to being the kind of dad they wanted to be. A few dads worked two or three jobs at a time to achieve that end.

(C) Mom and child support agency are aligned. The ministry periodically would need to advocate with the child support enforcement office and ask that they not send the dad to jail so long as he worked with us. In some instances, the mother was so impressed with the dad’s engagement with their child, she advocated with us on his behalf.

  1. If the dad is not the custodial parent and can provide the mom with adequate funds, he normally can negotiate access to his child.
  2. Generally, the dad remains under a great deal of pressure to pay child support or face jail. This legal matter is often complicated by powerful conflicts with the mom. The dad may resort to going underground, either locally or by leaving for another state.
  3. As the mom and the child support enforcement agency align, the dad often is put under great pressure to pay child support or go to jail. Dad generally exercises one of the following options (4-6).
  4. Dad goes to jail. This often is an ongoing matter. Often, jail time results in court costs and fines–additional financial obligations for the dad. Depending on the jurisdiction, child support arrears may continue to accumulate while he is incarcerated.
  5. Dad goes underground. Some dads drop out of sight when the mom and the child support enforcement agency threaten to incarcerate them.
  6. Dad gets a job and pays support. If the child support averages are not too high and if the mom is open to it, the dad generally can be actively involved in parenting their child.

The goal: Dad gets along with mom and sees their child. Dad and mom negotiate how and when he can be with and actively parent their child.

Terry is one young dad who found fresh reasons for living during his time with Young Dads. He had four children by three mothers. He made peace with all of the mothers and became the father he always wanted to be with his children. Terry valued work and saw it as a critical means of supporting his children and their mothers’ efforts to raise them well. Terry showed the way to other young dads who became convinced that they could not be the men they wanted to be unless they became the fathers they had to be.

Of Shelter Services and Social Responsibility

Important_government_shutdown_notice_for_the_Stature_of_LibertyI recently had coffee with the Executive Director of domestic violence and sexual assault services for a multi-county area in Iowa. At one point, I asked her how the changes to shelter services were going. For those who don’t know, domestic violence and sexual assault services in Iowa are undergoing a massive modernization effort. You can read more about these changes here: Modernizing Iowa’s System of Services for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Her face literally brightened, and she sat a little straighter in her seat. Without downplaying the difficulties and the struggles she and her staff have faced, she was able to name a large number of real and unexpected benefits that have come about since her service branch shut down its shelter.

She described new life and a resurgence of energy in the staff. She talked about the increase in real value aid her branch has been able to offer because of the financial resources which have been freed up. Suddenly, new vistas of opportunity to make a difference and to have significant impact in her service area seem to be opening up.

While we were talking, a few of the things she said kind of lit up in my mind. The kind of institutional change she was describing is the kind of institutional change the United Methodist Church is trying to take on itself-a modernization of systems and services to better enable a mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Here are some of the similarities:

1) Reluctance to embrace change: shelters are the services people know about, and they are “the way” to meet the needs of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Closing shelters will leave people in danger and take away an important service that is needed.

-While the overall modernization plan does not include closing ALL shelters, it does include shutting some of them down.  In order for the entire system to change, some branches will have to actually stop offering the services they have traditionally been designed to supply.

2) Concerns about sustainability of funding: state and federal funding cuts were inevitable, so change was necessary.

-The system was going to change and would do so either of its own will or via downsizing in staff and reduction of services because of budget cuts.  Rather than slowly closing down bits and pieces of the program while increasing the burden of operation on fewer and fewer staff members, a decision was made to reorient around the core mission: providing sustainable services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

3) Having to let go.

-The Executive Director had to get into a place where she could see the possibility that doing things a different way might meet more needs than doing things the traditional way. She became convinced that a both/and approach to services was not feasible and she chose to actively participate in reorganization efforts rather than holding on to the system and services she helped to create. To move forward she had to let go.

There were two other things she described which I think are key to her system’s adaptability.

1) Being given permission to fail.

-In order to try out new methods and approaches to mobile advocacy, legal services and rapid rehousing, there had to be a lot of grace from those in leadership. Change does not guarantee that the system will improve. There is no map of new territory. Sometimes you are going to get stuck in a ditch. Knowing that someone else with a truck and a winch is ready and willing to come pull you out makes the journey into the future possible.

2) To meet needs, the institution has to go out of its way to be present where and when those needs arise.

-For years, the crisis intervention services in this multi-county area have offered social, educational, and healing opportunities at local jails, schools, rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and with local law enforcement. They operated out of the assumption that people would not always come to them. Even before the critical need to change, they were halfway outside their buildings anyway.

As a church and as a conference, we are feeling pressures to change. Talking with the Executive Director helped me see we are not the only institution that is feeling the weight. Listening to her stories of renewal, liberation and surprising joy from what had to be an extremely painful surrender, I felt even more surely that rather than a point of death, the church is going through a rite of passage into new life.

As we navigate that canal, I hope our system has the adaptability that hers seems to have, because like Iowa’s domestic abuse and sexual assault services, I believe our communities need us. I believe they need people of faith, witnesses to hope, purveyors of peace, speakers of good will, and large numbers of people who believe their own good is inextricably bound to the good of other beings.

When Faith Leaves the Museum

 

Samuel House
Samuel House

Ai Weiwei, perhaps best known for his exhibit Sunflower Seeds, is a conceptual artist who creates “social or performance-based interventions.” He is one of a number of artists who have decided to take art out of the museum and into society. For Ai Weiwei, these interventions are a way of “merging his life and art in order to advocate both the freedoms and responsibilities of individuals.”

‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society’, he has said. ‘Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.’   (Tate Museum)

The Women Are Heroes project is another example of an artist using the real world social order as a canvas on which to paint challenging ideas. The artist, JR, did this particular project “[i]n order to pay tribute to those who play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism . . .”*

When art leaves the museum like this, it is transformed into social witness. It becomes something publicly available.  It eludes censorship, yet is  exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

For these two particular artists, these interventions are also intentionally meant to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. Their works expose inconvenient truths and somehow point to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

I think that vital faith is faith which has chosen to leave the museum. It is faith which endeavors to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. It exposes inconvenient truths and somehow points to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

Vital faith, like the artwork of Ai Weiwei, JR, or Iowa’s own Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten, shows the light of God shining through those cracks, and brings the world’s attention to it.

This work-this faith in the world work-this social intervention-is social justice.  It is faith made publicly available. It is faith which eludes censorship, yet allows itself to be exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

Social justice is a public faith witness which has the the power to break hearts and inspire people to moral elevation and awe. It paints compassion, grace and the irrational and extravagant love of Jesus on the canvas of the world.

Social Justice Church

Ann Truss
Ann Truss

A few months back, I participated in a panel discussion about social concerns, young adults, and the church. I was not asked to participate because I am an expert in social concerns, generational sociology, or the United Methodist Church. I was asked because I roughly embody the category of young adult, I am a participant in the church, and I really only stick around because the UMC claims to be a social justice church.

Now, social justice is a term with a lot of baggage. It has entire histories, theologies, doctrines and social movements behind it. Some people are comfortable claiming certain forms of social justice advocacy as the primary goal of Jesus, while others are sure that it is code for the “forced redistribution of wealth with a hostility toward individual property rights, under the guise of charity and/or justice.” What’s more, the cause wars in the church have been going on for so long, there is little to no room for different issues to come to light, much less an opportunity to regroup and consider whether we need to define a new set of solutions. Rather, new Christians, on entering the church, are asked to choose sides in conflicts that may well have no real meaning for many of them.

All of which is to say that, in the church, the contest between historical social ideas has become the point of action. Any conversation about social justice seems to be stuck in a repeating loop of name-calling, stereotyping and the painful backbiting which arises when we have been wounded-as though the most important thing we can do with social justice is to define it, and either claim or reject that definition for ourselves and our fifteen closest friends.

Social justice in the church, then, becomes a fixed category of dead and dying social ideas by which we can group people. It becomes a stagnating pool of “us” and “them” statements, with opposing teams of Christians whose energy is directed towards definitively winning the argument so that they no longer have to wrestle with a Christ whose Way is anything but safe and simple.

When social justice becomes a definition instead of an awareness and relationship, the church becomes a museum instead of a community. As long as the church continues to let media outlets and political campaigns define its relationship with those in its town earning less than $11,170 a year, rather than opening its Bible, its doors, its heart and its treasure store to respond, no one will believe it actually cares about the poor. While the church spends its energy proof texting its justification, Exhale creates a a texting space to “show that it [is] possible to have an honest, thoughtful, nuanced conversation about abortion that [isn’t] polarizing and inflammatory. “*

The people of my peer group do not have either the patience or the time for social transformation which is merely a mental exercise practiced within the bounds of safe stances, ritualized actions, and appropriate topics. We are hungry for an opportunity to transform our world into the kind of place we want our children to inherit. A church stepping boldly out to lead that kind of work is a church we want to work alongside. It might even be the church we want to be a part of.

And if your church simply does not want to do that, that’s fine. We’re finding other partners for the journey.

What Are We Going to Do About It?

Conversations

A significant part of my job involves travelling long distances in my car, and I have found that I really enjoy listening to podcasts of TED talks during those times.  Here’s why: they expand my world, and they make me aware of the amazing capacity of human beings for doing marvelous things. The ideas and perspectives of the speakers can sometimes hurt because they are so different from my own. It is as if my own ideas have been running barefoot on a treadmill and suddenly find themselves out on Bear Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early Spring: the view is amazing, but it is steep, rocky, cold and their feet hurt.

Across Iowa, there is a sense that people are really struggling to make ends meet. Churches have seen increases in the number of people coming to food pantries and free meals. Food banks are asking for more donations. Especially in rural and bedroom communities, more of us are unemployed, underemployed or precariously employed. I don’t know the statistics. I am simply reporting what I have been hearing: “People are hungry and hardshipped, and my church can’t seem to get on top of it.”

So, what are we going to do to get on top of it? There are ideas out there. There are Bible verses and trained theologians that can help us out. There are connective structures in place so not one of us has to do it alone. There are city, county, state, and local agencies that want our help. So, what are we going to do about it?

I think it may be time we started expanding our world a little bit. Let’s start celebrating the marvelous ingenuity of God’s creatures in God’s creation, and look for the startling and unexpected possibilities in our midst. Can we challenge ourselves to reach beyond the narrow scope of the NRSV and steal the coolest ideas from disciplines outside the church: architecture, zoology, and biomendicine? Is there a way to transcend our own biases toward particular economic or political models to simply gather concerned people together and start having conversations? Asking questions? Discovering skills, abilities, and ideas for engineering solutions for our eroding economies?

What would that look like? Who would you invite to the conversation? Are we prepared for the discomfort and adjustment that may occur? What’s God got to do with it? What might it look like for something to change for the better, and what would we feel like when it did?