Healing from Sexism in Sacred Places

I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t. – Audre Lorde

I knew that my life was changing drastically, but I wasn’t sure of the direction of change. I was preparing to attend graduate school on an assistantship that would allow me to engage in meaningful work. I had a partner, whom I thought was incredibly warm-hearted and funny. He’d stuck by my side through a year of disappointments, false starts, and a slew of rejections from professional opportunities.

We both grew up in evangelical Christian traditions. We knew many of the same worship songs and shared the same sense that there was something largely spiritual about the world we lived in. But I had my thoughts; thoughts on women’s reproductive rights, women being able to pastor, the radical inclusion of all marginalized communities, and I was not silent. I was not silent when we turned the idea around for months & months on women preaching. He was studying to become a Methodist minister at the time. “It would probably be a deal breaker for us,” he said, “I couldn’t sit under you.”

My capacity to ignore that comment for a year yet astounds me. But suffice it to say I had larger concerns. I was heavily focused on networking & preparing for grad school. At the beginning of my grad school journey, we maintained a long distance relationship for the most part, sharing life events virtually. Yet, the concerns about my career trajectory, theological views, and liberationist perspective became problematic for him.

Through seeking council from his pastoral care team, he came to resent that I was not the woman who knew how to “shut up and pray.” He came to think that my theology was off regarding women in leadership roles. He began to pursue other relationships. Eventually he asserted that God was calling him to a season of singleness. Soon after our break up, a friend told me that he had gotten married.

In her book Bad Feminist (2014), Dr. Roxane Gay writes an essay called How We All Lose. In this essay, she unpacks her deep discomfort regarding a quote that she heard from politician Richard Mourdock. In one of his debates, he connected the mistreatment of women through rape as God-intended if new life came from it. Gay (2014) reflects, “Just as there are many different kinds of rape, there are many different kinds of God. I am also reminded that women, more often than not, are the recipients of God’s intentions and must also bear the burdens of these intentions (p. 99).” What she is saying here is that our understanding of God is greatly connected to who we are and the systems that we have “bought in to”. She is pointing to an extreme example of the dangerous connections we might make when heteropatriarchy primarily informs the way we hear God.

During that time, I did what I knew to do in times of severe spiritual distress. I gathered with my faith community. I read books by prominent faith leaders. I scoured commentaries. But this was more than about trying to convince myself of whether or not I could teach in church. This was about the questioning of Imago Dei – the image of God in me – a Black woman. This is what was called into question in sacred spaces – the spaces of my intimate relationships with men and the physical constructs of the church. It took me a long time to hear any type of story which mirrored my own, and after reading the men in commentaries and listening to the men in the pulpit, I began to think that maybe there was no balm.

And then came, what I believe to be, Divine Intervention. I went to graduate school with a cohort of women. All women. Our primary professors were women. And the experience was unlike any other learning experience I have ever encountered. They bought coffee when I was tired. They gave hugs after each time I got into a car accident (lack of sleep + stress is incredibly dangerous in that way). They were academically brilliant. They were rigorous in their quest for knowledge. They called me out on all the ways I tried to bullshit them and myself by selling myself short in the classroom or not taking ownership of the strong work I was doing. They listened to me complain and told me to do the work anyway. And they introduced me to bell hooks.

Through them and bell hooks, I learned to teach for social justice & transformation. I also learned the theories that I needed for healing and eventually she encouraged me to create them, as well. She taught me that my lived experiences could be studied, analyzed, and turned into intellectual theory; theories that would empower. Though the subtleties of our lives were not the same, her voice began to both soothe and challenge.

Since then, I have been inspired by the works and teachings of womanist theologians and scholars and their words have sustained me in the journey. I have also been inspired by my personal she-roes who are so great in number that I would be remiss to name even a few. They opened a new world before my eyes: helping me to re-engage with faith in a new way. But most importantly, they administered the healing balm: a way to see both myself and others around me as sacred, spiritual, & worthy of love. They pushed me toward a healing process from sexism in sacred places all the way from the heart (the site of intimate relationships with self & others) to the church (the physical constructs that we use to express spirituality).

Through this journey, I have come to forgive: to know that ‘well-meaning’ people misinterpret the voice of God. To understand that no one escapes the messages of sexism that pervade both secular and sacred spaces. To offer my narrative in hopes of creatively challenging those in sacred spaces to inquire: in what ways have my congregants experienced the detrimental effects of sexism in this space? How might I address / change that? At the time when I needed it most, the women came to me, and offered me their story. And through their story, I was empowered to offer my own.

Image Source Credit: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/9499849190287889/

Gay, R. (2014). Bad feminist: Essays.

Mitchem, S. (2002, January 1). “There is a Balm …” Spirituality & Healing among African American Women. Retrieved January 19, 2015, from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mfr/4919087.0007.103/–there-is-a-balm-spirituality-healing-among-african-american?rgn=main;view=fulltext

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Healing from Sexism in Sacred Places by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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