By Theda Good, Pastor, First Mennonite Church of Denver
I’ve Got the Power! Naming and Reclaiming Power as a Force for Good
Anabaptist Women Doing Theology Conference, Leesburg, Virginia
Women doing theology is not new. Women have been doing theology since the beginning of time. We do theology every time we talk about the nature of God or our religious beliefs. To have a conference devoted to women, names and empowers us to be more thoughtful and more intentional than just passing conversations on Facebook or the parking lot.
Why only women doing theology conference you might ask? Has it not been obvious that men have been doing theology? In 2008 the number of books published by MennoMedia were 25% authored by women and 75% by men. This is an example of the audit done in 2009 of Mennonite Institutions and the make-up of gender representation on boards and committees as well as top executive positions within Mennonite organizations. From Mennonite Church USA’s website the origins of Women in Leadership Project are explained:
When Mennonite Women USA called for an audit of Mennonite institutions in 2009, an opportunity for systemic change was created. After an examination of the numbers of women leaders in Mennonite institutions, it was clear that quantitative analysis was not enough. Thus, the Women in Leadership Project (WLP) was born—an initiative to name and transform sexism in Mennonite Church USA.
Meanwhile, back in Leesburg women gathered from across the United States and a few from Canada. Eager to be together and share in the life-giving work of faith formation and leadership in our local and national church denomination.
The whole conference was intentionally planned with diversity at the forefront. Planners worked hard to decentralize whiteness. We were blessed with the gifts of worship leaders, plenary speakers, workshop leaders and paper presenters to bring forth the goodness of what we must offer no matter our origins. I trust we can continue this work in all areas of church life.
Our first group conversation, Naming the Power, was led with presentations from Wilma Bailey, Iris de León-Hartshorn and Jennifer Davis Sensenig. Bailey retold the story of Leah in Genesis as a woman who went from invisible and powerless to powerful as the mother of many sons. We learned about power dimensions in many forms, visible, hidden and invisible from de León-Hartshorn. The key learnings were that power can be fluid, the more you have the more fluidity you have; we are responsible for the power we have and what we do with it; invisible power is the hardest to name and address; institutional power tend to be hidden; and invisible and hidden power and closed space are common factor in the misuse of power. Sensenig reminded us that power is not to be avoided, and its goodness to influence and organize people, money and purpose. Power takes on a redemptive quality as we use it through the foundation of the gospel.
Second group conversation, Owning the Power within Us, held our attention as Sue Park-Hur, Sarah Matsui and Rachel Halder shared through their experiences of how we claim our power by speaking our truth and bearing witness. Park-Hur used the word, remem-bearers and told how claiming the stories of our ancestors helps us claim our power. Matsui attested to the importance of self-care as part of claiming our power. She shared her experience of shaming and silencing. Learning to say “no” and having “deal-breakers,” are important part of self-care. Halder, the founder of “Our Stories Untold,” talked about power in moving from victim to thriver. Her encouragement was for us to claim our embodiment. “I am who I am, and that is okay!”
The third large group conversation, Empowered to Empower, was another riveting presentation by Chantelle Todman Moore, Erica Littlewolf, and Barbra Graber. They, too, talked about the power to bear-witness through our stories of trauma and pain. Todman Moore and Littlewolf shared personal stories of incidences of working in Mennonite organizations where they were treated in ways that did not honor their bodies or personhood.
Todman Moore reminded us that as we claim our power, we are empowered to empower. She asked, “Who are you bringing with you? and Who is coming behind you?” It costs us different things to be in the same space. We need to think deeply and go further in true and just equality for all.
Littlewolf said, no, when asked to explain an earlier comment she made that Native Americans do not only have two genders. She said her tribe, Northern Cheyenne, have four genders. When asked to explain, she said, “no”, if I do, then white people want to take it, too.
Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, former moderator for Mennonite Church USA, encouraged us to live with the tensions. Queen Vashti (who refused the kings order to protect her honor leading to her divorce) and Queen Esther (who risked her life for her people) both live in all of us. Let us not choose between racism or sexism or classism. Let us access both the Mary and Martha that exist in us. Soto Albrecht challenged us to create safe, holy spaces for one another by refusing the scripts we have been given and choosing a new narrative.
There were many breakout sessions, wonderful leadership and meaningful topics. Just too much to capture here.
At the close, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, professor at Goshen College and member of the planning team, reminded us that we did some really hard work together. The sexism, racism, classism to name a few, continues to be the work of diversity and social justice that is far from complete. Shands Stoltzfus challenged, “Will you bear witness to what this room has held and walk out of this space into the holy possibility of the power we have named?”