By Ivanna Johnson-McMurry, member of First Mennonite Church in Denver
Whenever a dear friend asked if I would be interested in a SEED scholarship to attend the Women Doing Theology Conference (WDT) at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, I bristled at the idea, initially. Indiana. I grimaced through clenched teeth. Perhaps she was unaware of Indiana’s history? The KKK, at its peak, boasted and “counted among its members the governor of Indiana, more than half of the state legislature and an estimated 30 percent of all native-born white men in the state”! With that history, surely Indiana wouldn’t be a welcoming place to a girl like me – it couldn’t be.
I am an unapologetic Black woman, with a head full of thick, defiant, and rebellious hair—Angela Davis-esque curls. I don’t recoil from speaking out or speaking up, even at the expense of comfort, most notably, my own. However, the thought of going to Indiana, even for the weekend, made me a tad uncomfortable. In this age of hyper surveillance of Black people, we Black folk seem to have to defend our existence, justify our intention and our right to occupy public spaces.
Deciding to go took about a week and I am glad I did. The conference was nothing short of phenomenal. The care, attention and intention put into making WDT a safe space, where voices that are traditionally marginalized, obscured, and truthfully often ignored voices, were on full display. I devoured every minute. The workshops and papers covered a variety of topics, including: Queer theology; justice in the era of #metoo; intergenerational antiracism curriculum; meaning of the head covering; singing revolution; and writing workshops. Plus, there were autonomous and accountability spaces.
There were four such spaces: a women of color space; a whiteness accountability space; a men’s accountability space and a space for those with disabilities. They were designed with the understanding that diﬃcult conversations and or discussions may happen. During those times, people may need a place to dissect, contemplate and process what they may have heard and or felt. They provided a place for people to explore their thoughts, decompress, and reflect alone or with others that may have been experiencing similar feelings.
There were three plenaries. The World is about to Turn (Dr. Malinda Elizabeth Berry), Shout from the Margins (Rev. Yvette R. Blair) and A Theo(poetic) Revolution: The Language of Liberation (Carolina Hinojosa-Cisernos). I enjoyed Shout from the Margins facilitated by Rev. Yvette R. Blair, of The Gathering—A Womanist Church in Dallas Texas, the most. Rev. Blair spoke on doing theology in a predominantly white, male led denomination; she is a Methodist reverend. She discussed what that looks like for her as a Black woman. For me, the most poignant part was when she talked about how marginalized groups aren’t always oﬀered a seat at the table, though their voices are valid and need and deserve to be heard. I was reminded of when Shirley Chisholm said “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring your own folding chair” as Rev. Blair talked about navigating spaces that are occupied mainly by white men. Rev Blair speaks with pointed authority, expertise, humor, and humility.
Though it is a women’s conference, this year it was opened for a small number of men. My understanding is that they had to apply and be approved. I saw about six men, though there may have been more. This year’s conference was such a beautiful, inclusive and intellectually stimulating event, complete with thoughtful, interesting and intelligent women, and a few men, who made it a complete and absolute success.
The WDT was a model of what safe space should be. Turns out, I didn’t need a folding chair. I was welcomed, defiant, rebellious hair and all, and not once did I have to justify or defend my existence, or intentions. Now, if only someone could get the memo to the rest of the world, please and thank you.
For more information on what SEED is about, check out their page on the MSMC website: SEED Project.