Written by Faiths Act Fellow, Hannah Shirey, in honor of International Women’s Day, March 8, 2012.
My mother, a person of great faith, confidence and determination, is an example to me in many ways and is my Female Faith Hero. It was during my own teenage years that my Mom, Alice, was in the heart of her own personal journey of becoming a leader in our local, Iowan church. By watching her stand up against the long-standing tradition of gendered hierarchy in the church, I learned an important lesson that propels me in my current work:
It is easy to walk away from the brokenness of our world and our institutions. It is much more difficult—and much more important—to work for change within our corrupt, oppressive systems.
To share my mother’s story, I turn to Dr. Scot McKnight, who in addition to being my mother’s friend and mentor, is a brilliant scholar and Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University. He recently published a book titled, Junia Is Not Alone: Breaking Our Silence About Women in the Bible and the Church Today, and in it he tells the story of many women, including my mother “who had a wonderful voice, and then no voice, and who are experiencing a re-voicing” (McKnight 2011:53). Here is an excerpt from the concluding portion of the book that beautifully describes my mother’s work and why she is my hero:
Many women today are active in ministry and are continuing with confidence and power the storied history of women in the Bible and the silenced history of women in the church. They are not silenced as they once were, and so we look around and sing to the women among us who are embodying the gifts God has given to them…a woman I know named Alice can be known and broadcast even as she does her work today.
Alice was a student of mine at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School way back in the days when people were wearing leisure suits and not really even wondering what to do with women in the church. She landed on her feet in the middle of America, in Iowa, an heir to Calvin’s Reformed churches. Some of stereotypes about America’s heartland are true in Alice’s case, or were for a time.
Alice had three kids and was running a medical research business when she up and got the idea that she should run for the school board. She didn’t win, but the experience of speaking publicly energized her because people were moved by her words. She got to thinking God might want to use her teaching gift in the church, and she [started teaching an adult education class]. An elder, after observing and sitting in her class, said to her: “Alice, you’ve got the gift. And we’ve been praying for a woman teacher in our church.”
Because of the stereotypes at work in cases like these, she and her husband spent some time renegotiating their relationship. Chuck has a M.Div. from Fuller but isn’t called to be a teaching pastor; Alice doesn’t have the M.Div. but she’s got the gift. Chuck has become Alice’s biggest supporter.
Alice thought she might also face stereotypes with her pastor, so she summoned up the pluck to speak to him. Alice now knew she had the gift of teaching, so she said, “I think I have the gift to teach and preach, and I’d like to know if it will be safe for me here.” The pastor’s response: “Do you want to find out? How about July 6? No one is scheduled to preach.” She spent six weeks preparing that sermon.
In America’s heartland, Alice was a “lay teacher” for seven years. Her church battled gender stereotypes by using them: they explained that Alice was a “mom” and a “wife” and even a “stay-at-home mom,” and she kept on teaching. Four years ago, Alice approached the pastor with these evocative words: “I’ve been wearing this JV uniform for seven years now. Don’t you think it’s about time I get a varsity uniform?”
Sure enough, Alice can be seen wearing a varsity preacher’s uniform three out of four weeks in a church with multi-site campuses, including at a little rural church that in 120 years had never had a woman preach. Recently, one of the pastors on staff caught wind of what the good folks in that rural church thought. His report: “Alice, they like you.” (McKnight 2011:308-337)
Witnessing my mother’s struggles within the church institution deeply impacted my understanding and experience of Christianity. At times in my life I have wanted to sever ties with the tradition completely and avoid being associated with such an oppressive narrative. My mother’s passion for institutional change has, however, kept me from doing so. Instead, it has allowed me to experience Christian faith from the eyes of the oppressed and to be inspired to action by the emancipatory message and radical relationships of Jesus.
Mom, thank you for making the intentional choice to work within your community and the church to push against the status quo, providing an opportunity for repressed communities to renew their voices. I continue with you so that people will not just like you, but will respect you, carry forward your work, and magnify the choir of women’s voices fighting for their just space (in religious and non-religious institutions) across our world.
McKnight, Scot (2011 December 1). Junia Is Not Alone (Kindle Locations 53, 308-337). Patheos Press. Kindle Edition.