* While I’ve written my share of posts expressing support for egalitarianism, justice, and women’s leadership in society (particularly in the Church), I’m no champion of gender equality. In fact, I make my share of goof-ups but what I’ve come to realize is that like everyone, I have my blind spots. One of my blind spots deals with gender or to be more blunt, I don’t always understand or see things from the lens of a woman for the obvious reason that I’m a dude (and thank God that I’m a man and not a woman!)
Several important remedies to our blind spots are to acknowledge them and to put ourselves in situations where we can learn. Additionally, we need courage to engage the conversation and grace to help sustain the conversation into transformation. And so with that in mind, today’s guest post, Gender and the Art of Alternate Endings, is from Dr. Michelle Garred – an independent researcher and consultant in international peacebuilding. She also worships at Quest Church and c0-leads one of our community groups. She asks some compelling questions:
Why does this distorted social setting appear to pit me in competition against my husband and best friend? Why can’t someone meet a couple and assume that these two inter-dependent individuals both have something to offer? Why should I be forced to wield my trump cards as instruments of power, making conversation into a contact sport? Most importantly, what about the many women who don’t have trump cards, but who do have boundless gifts to be shared with the Church? Who sees those women? And who hears them?
Take a read and let me know what you think.
I love those children’s books that have alternate endings for the reader to choose from. What a sweet freedom to decide how a story will end!
My husband and I recently attended a denominational leadership conference, which prompted me consider my own alternate endings…
“So, what do you do for a living in Seattle?” The man looks intently at my husband Brent across the lunch table, and the two become engrossed in a discussion of green building design. I sit and listen, enjoying the conversation, and anticipating that at some point the same question will be directed toward me. But that never happens. Our new acquaintance, who holds a lot of stature at this conference, does not appear to connect the topic of making a living with me as an individual. I don’t know why – the ‘gender vibes’ feel palpable, but I try not to jump to that conclusion. Eventually the conversation moves on. It moves on to the previous night’s sermon, which given by a female pastor who, our new acquaintance proclaims, “preached a sermon as good as any man’s.” Oof. The ‘gender vibes’ grow stronger. I become so angry that I cannot speak. I am more than capable of a strong retort, but I can’t figure out how to make it constructive. The best I can do in this moment is to follow the questionable old maxim: ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’
The next day’s lunch queue is very long, so Brent and the man ahead of us strike up a conversation. Where-are-you-from, and what-do-you-do for a living, etc. After three or four minutes, the man eventually looks toward me…because he wants to know: “Do you have any children?” I find his assumption annoying, so I tell him that our kids are biologically Brent’s, temporarily confusing his expectations. He recovers and continues talking to Brent about all things parental. Eventually, I sigh out loud – this is partly involuntary frustration, and partly a less-than-skillful attempt to re-enter the conversation. Brent hears me, really hears me and offers: “We’ve been busy because Michelle just finished her PhD.” Eyebrows rise, and the inevitable question comes: “PhD in what?” I tell him briefly about my career in faith-based international development and peacebuilding. Kosovo, Mindanao, Sri Lanka, etc.; I have a lot of stories. Now everything is different. This man wants to hear all about my work, and when his wife joins him, it is my accomplishments that he reports. Now it seems that he has stopped listening to Brent – which is not at all what I intended.
At dinnertime, it happens again. Another “what-do-you-do” question directed towards Brent, but not to me. Bizarrely, this time it comes from a woman, a single woman in ministry. Determined not to remain silent, I make a reference to my work. The woman responds: “Oh, do you work outside the home?” This time it is my eyebrows that rise. But I swallow my incredulity, and I share my work with her. She suddenly begins to burst with enthusiasm, and we talk about peacebuilding for the rest of the meal. It turns out to be a truly lovely conversation, except for the fact that…
I learned a few things that day. I learned that even within this wonderful group of Christians, which has been making ‘space’ for female clergy since the 1970s, there are many people who do not appear to have much space for female professionals. Especially when those female professionals show up very happily married, with their husband at their side. I’m sure this is not news to other married women who experience the same bias every day. But I’m a 40-year-old newlywed. So I didn’t know. Yes, I have seen much oppression of women around the world, and I have often felt the sting of how ‘single girls’ get treated in the Church. But when it comes to the gut-level of experience of women who are married, I really didn’t know.
I also learned that I have a ‘trump card.’ Or two. Despite being female and married, people with PhDs who choose to spend time in war zones do tend to get taken seriously. So I found my power in this particular situation, and I learned how to use it to create alternate conversational endings. Perhaps that should leave me feeling more comfortable, but it doesn’t. It leaves me instead with a lot of questions. Why does this distorted social setting appear to pit me in competition against my husband and best friend? Why can’t someone meet a couple and assume that these two inter-dependent individuals both have something to offer? Why should I be forced to wield my trump cards as instruments of power, making conversation into a contact sport? Most importantly, what about the many women who don’t have trump cards, but who do have boundless gifts to be shared with the Church? Who sees those women? And who hears them?
Finally, I learned on that day that I carry a lot of anger. After that first lunchtime encounter, my anger was promoted to rage. During that same week, I found myself reading the book My First White Friend. I thought this book was about race relations – and so too thought its author, Patricia Raybon. But God somehow used Patricia’s reflections as an African-American, and a target of racism, to simultaneously heal and challenge my own response to sexism. Patricia realized at mid-life that the anger she carried – which was a very appropriate response to injustice – was nonetheless poisoning her own life with hate. So she set out, with God’s help, to transcend her anger and create her own alternate ending.
Patricia is farther along in that journey than I am. So I take comfort when she says that one must first stand up, give voice to anger, and refuse to live into the lie of prejudice. I note that Patricia has done just that throughout her long career as a journalist. I myself have done it in a fresh way today, by writing this story. I also take note when Patricia says that at some point one must choose to transcend the anger, and begin to take on an attitude of forgiveness and love. This is not some cheap forgiveness for sins of the distant past. This is a way of waging war against the insidious, unresolved racism and sexism that continue to mar our everyday lives. This is continuing to speak truth to power, and daring to add love. Speaking the truth in love. Patricia, thank you for articulating the outrages that people of color face every day, and thank you for pointing the way to the cross. I will try. I will follow the Lord of Alternate Endings, and I will try.
Michelle Garred is an independent researcher and consultant in international peacebuilding. She and her husband Brent Thompson worship at Quest Church in Seattle. For more on Michelle’s work in faith-based humanitarian aid, community development and peacebuilding, see: www.michellegarred.net.