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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Talk Is Cheap

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 
― Frederick BuechnerWishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

There are a lot of opinions out there. There are a lot of different ways to use our reason and our intellect to convince ourselves that we are OK, or that we are doing the right thing. There are myriad ways to read Scripture and interpret faith so that our own prejudices, biases, inclinations, and desires can be found comfortable, faithful and otherwise pleasing to our own sensibilities; to the sensibilities of our family, friends and neighbors, and can still conform to the tenets of our “doctrine” and  our “discipline.”

I can’t help but wonder, though, how our world might look if we each spent as much energy actually doing something about those things we argue about as we spend consulting our favorite gurus and posting our favorite memes to facebook.

For instance, in Iowa, there is a shortage of residential treatment facilities. There is evidence of human trafficking in both labor and sexual slavery. School food programs are all struggling, while students whose families are under physical, economic, and psychological distress continue to fall behind in the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complicated world of credit lending and temporary employment. Youth mentorship programs do not have enough mentors to supply their need. People suffering from ongoing mental illness cannot receive the treatment they require. Air, land and water quality are degraded and deteriorating. Women in Iowa earn only 77% of what men make. Our churches, schools and neighborhoods are built more along the lines of separate and unequal, than along lines of an intentionally cross-cultural integration. Laborers work 16 and 20 hour days, while part-time employees without benefits are fired for refusing to work overtime.

And yet . . . there is a United Methodist Church in practically every community in Iowa. I find it impossible to believe that we, as a church, do not have the resources at our fingertips to actually provide a powerful and faithful response to the evil, injustice and oppression whose forms we meet on a daily basis. What if we decided to measure our faithfulness in lives transformed?  What if we looked to measure our righteousness such that every community in which we live is notably more compassionate than communities in which we do not live? What if we loved our neighbors so deeply and so radically we had no room left in our hearts for judgment?

There is a song by Casting Crowns with these lyrics,

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?”

Maybe we would get some things wrong. Maybe we would break some church rules and raise some eyebrows. Maybe our neighbors would look at us strangely and whisper about us behind our backs. But maybe, just maybe, our world would start to look a little bit more like the place God promises us it can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking Time for Sorrow

16thstreetbaptistchurchThis week I need to stop for Sorrow. These last few days, post-resurrection days, have been heavy days for many in my circles, and I do not think they are taking the time to fully grieve. I do not think they have decided it is OK to stop for Sorrow. They are going to “soldier on.” They are engaged in the important work of the church. There are challenges which need adaptation, and there are people (other people) who need them more than they need time for themselves. There are deadlines, due dates, and time cards which need fulfilling.

They are strong people, people who are tough enough to bear their own burdens in silence, with a grin, and an uptilted chin. Maybe for them keeping busy and being needed is more comforting than sitting by the doorposts in dust and ashes.

But the wise know we all have to make time for Sorrow. Otherwise it will  bleed grey into the colors of our lives. It will hang on our backpacks and slow our steps. It will steal heat and warmth from us, causing us to live nurturing the slow burn of disappointment and rage.

So, this week, the problems of the world can roll along their way without my regard. Instead, I am sitting still with Sorrow, with my friend whose husband went to the hospital this week. I am singing songs with Sorrow, for my friend whose dream died rather than being born. I am learning lament from Sorrow, for my colleague who had a death in her family. I am tossing pebbles into the pool with Sorrow, for the ones whose hard work has only led to discouragement and frustrating dead ends. Sorrow and I are painting with sand for those who have spent the last two weeks recovering from crippling and life-threatening ills.

I offer this post to them, my friends, and to you if you need it, along with this small gift:

A Parable On Modern Life from Anthony De Mello’s The Song of the Bird

The animals met in assembly and began
to complain that humans were always
taking things away from them.

“They take my milk,” said the cow.
“They take my eggs,” said the hen.
“They take my flesh for bacon,” said the hog.
“They hunt me for my oil,” said the whale.

Finally the snail spoke. “I have something
they would certainly take away from me
if they could. Something they want
more than anything else.
I have TIME.”

You have all the time in the world, if you would give it to yourself. What’s stopping you?

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.

Open Letter

I was asked to submit an open letter as part of a media campaign being scheduled by Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault (http://www.iowacasa.org/) for Sexual Assault Awareness Month which is observed in April. ImageHere is my submission:

I write this letter for a college roommate who was afraid to ride her bicycle past the football players’ dorm on our campus because of the harassing comments and remarks that would be tossed her way. I write this letter because my response at the time was to think, “If you insist on wearing a skirt when you ride your bike, you can count on men hollering at you.”

I write this letter for a fifteen year-old woman who came to me because she didn’t want to exchange oral sex for friendship anymore, and she was looking for a way out. I write this letter because, at the time, I had no idea that fifteen-year-olds were under that kind of pressure, and I was unprepared to help her.

I write this letter for my small, bird-frail friend who claimed that Julia Child saved her life because she learned how to cook by watching Julia’s show on PBS. I write this letter for my friend whose pastor told her she must try to do better as a wife so that her husband wouldn’t hurt her anymore.

I write this letter for a nation in which women do not have equal representation in government. I write this letter for a nation which allows male elected leaders whose last biology class was in 1965 to set the tone of conversation in matters pertaining to my physiology, anatomy and psychological make-up.

I write this letter for a world in which people can be put in prison for life for having a romantic relationship with a person of the same gender, while juries in this country continue to acquit people who pulled triggers and ended lives without actually demonstrating any kind of threat beyond their own fear.

It is time for us to change, to admit our priorities are mixed up: when a university president can say that sexual assault is “human nature” and thinks that sounds sane; when physical and verbal violence is offered to young men and women, and our only response is to shake our heads and claim those kinds of behavior are acceptable as long as they happen inside “the locker room;” when our response to radio personalities who equate birth control with promiscuous sexual activity is to give them the benefit of the doubt and keep listening, but our response to our next door neighbor who was raped is to ask whether or not she had been drinking and shut the door.

At this time, more people are being bought and sold than at any other time in human history, mostly to satisfy the sexual urges and relational longing of other people. It is time for honest conversations about sex and the character of healthy and life-giving relationships. It is time that sexual assault and domestic violence stop being part of our everyday experience. It is time for us to stop blaming female bodies for our collective inability to exercise self-control, and it is time for us to shine a light into the broken, unlovely reaches of our own hearts where the urge to violence, alienation, cruelty, and fear are born.

So, I am speaking up, and I hope you will to. I hope you will get informed and spread the word. I hope you will get involved in your local community to gather stories, to share burdens, to confront evils, and to name and own a future where our daughters and our sons don’t have to walk down the streets in fear.

Sincerely,

Colleen McRoberts