May 20, 2013

Early Influences Endure by Mary E. Hunt

Attention all campus ministers, youth workers, student chaplains, and assorted colleagues who work with young people: A number of leading women in the Protestant world began their work in and around the student movements. Their lives show that your work lasts forever!
Sara M. Evans’ edited volume Journeys that Opened Up the World: Women, Student Christian Movements, and Social Justice, 1855-1975, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003) includes many of their stories. It is dedicated to Ruth Harris who was its “organizer and cheerleader” when the authors met in person and on the phone to reflect on their lives. Ruth Harris, a longtime feminist colleague who worked very effectively in the United Methodist Church, died recently well into her 90s. Looking at her life and her impact on others made me think about how early influences endure through a lifetime. For many women in religion, experiences in various student movements were formative in ways that shaped their careers and contributions to the world.
Ruth was born in Nebraska in 1920. She studied music, and then applied to the Women’s Division of the Methodist Board of Missions to become a teacher. She trained at Scarritt College, a women’s school in Nashville that prepared students for domestic and foreign church work. Her church work began in China in 1947 and continued through active participation in the civil rights movement.
She served the United Methodist Church both in the Women’s Division on student issues and later for the Board of Missions as first executive secretary of University World. She was a tireless supporter of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) and one of the guiding forces behind the development of the Methodist Mission Intern Program. Countless young people got their ecumenical starts in programs and projects in which she was active.
Ruth Harris was a modest giant among women at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City, the Interchurch Center, where many of the mainline Protestant churches had their headquarters for decades in the twentieth century. Some are still there. The stories of the early women in those bureaucracies deserve a book that I hope someone will take on soon while there are still people to interview.
The great United Church of Christ leader Valerie Russell, Executive Director of the United Church of Christ's Office for Church in Society and former head of the City Mission Society of Boston, got her start in the YWCA. She became the assistant to Dorothy Height who was head of the National Council of Negro Women. They and many other YWCA women put eradicating racism at the top of their agenda. Val Russell, a lay leader like Ruth Harris and so many others before the ordination of women really caught on, died at age 56 after a career fuller than many who live to riper ages. She touched many young women’s hearts and minds. Her story is in the book thanks to Letty Russell’s writing.
Margaret Flory was a Presbyterian wonder who has written books of her own. She worked in that church’s bureaucracy starting the Junior Year Abroad, Frontier Internship in Mission, and Bi-National Service groups. Her ecclesial offspring are legion, her influence profound around the world which is more tightly connected because of her work. I met her when I was appointed to the Frontier Internship Program in the late 1970s. Ruth Harris was the Methodist funder of that “experiment in mission” which sent so-called “creative young Christians” (we FIs debated each term!) to places where the Protestant churches did not have missions. Margaret liked that I was the first Catholic participant. My years as an FI in Argentina turned me into a global citizen and an ecumenical, later interreligious, stalwart.
I thought of these women when I attended a recent SCM-USA 2013 National Leadership Conference in Chevy Chase, MD (suburban Washington, DC). Young colleagues came from around the U.S. and abroad for a long weekend of training and strategizing. One SCM colleague from India shared her region’s work. These seminary and college women and men are revitalizing that movement in ways that I predict will catch fire. Professor Rebecca Todd Peters led off the speakers with a presentation on contemporary ethical challenges.
Senior Friends of the WSCF met together and with the students over the same weekend to talk about ways of supporting this important work. One concrete expression was the donation of copies of the Journeys book to each student so that they could link their own journeys with those who went before them. Several Senior Friends, notably Alice Hageman, a retired feminist minister and lawyer, and Jim Palm, retired longtime director of the Stony Point Center, told poignant stories of own rich histories of involvement in this movement for peace and justice and how it shaped their lives
I was struck by the comments of one young gay man who spoke of problems in a local student group over his sexuality. I was happy to point out to him that of sixteen authors in the Journeys book I could assure him that at least five, and probably more, were lesbians. They include the incomparable Charlotte Bunch, who cut her justice teeth on the student movement in the 1960s, founded the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and went on to receive the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights from President Bill Clinton. I alerted this young man and the rest of the group to the fact that they follow in the large footsteps of powerful, many of them ‘out’, women.
Read the book to see how many of the women pioneers trace their roots to Ecumenical Student Conferences in Athens, Ohio, or to YWCA sponsored antiracism events. Lots of links to Duke University in the 1960s and 1970s make clear that some campus pastors there were on the job. Duke alum Nancy D. Richardson tells about the influence of the YWCA and related progressive groups on her formation. She became involved in campus ministry and student services at Boston and Harvard Universities. She was one of the founding co-directors of the Women’s Theological Center (WTC), which in turn shaped dozens of women in the field into feminist activists/academics.
The threads are interwoven as people meet one another, begin to read and discuss the same authors, take courage and example from one other’s activism. Today’s dynamics are similar. Plus, we have technological possibilities our foresisters never dreamed about. One especially fun, creative example was the thirtieth birthday conference (yes a real conference) that my friend Emily Goodstein,  held at Hillel at George Washington University. It was informative, imaginative, and did I say fun with extra funds and donations going to Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC on whose board the celebrant serves.
Take heart that today the digital, Skype, Webcast, and even in-person meetings that religious leaders develop for and with young people are shaping lives for the long run. If they are half as successful as the amazing people and events that preceded them we are in good shape as a world.

March 12, 2012


This blog has moved to the new Feminist Studies in Religion website at

August 11, 2010

Tom Little and Christian Mission in Afghanistan

Last week, 10 medical aid workers were killed in Afghanistan. The leader of the team, Dr. Tom Little, was the father of my good friend. Tom Little and his wife Libby spent over 33 years living and working in Afghanistan while raising three daughters. I met my friend the week following the attacks of September 11. Having followed in her parent’s footsteps, she had recently returned from aid work in Afghanistan. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, her father was one of the first aid workers back into Afghanistan and she soon followed. Although I never met Tom Little, I knew something of his life from stories my friend would share. What impressed me most was the apparent connection between Tom Little, his wife Libby, and many Afghani people. To see this connection and trust violated through his violent death is tragic not only for the Littles but also for the Afghanis who have worked with and cared for the family. Although the Taliban took responsibility and denounced the team for proselytizing and spying, the fractures in the social fabric of a war-ravaged country unable to restrain violence may also be a significant factor.

As I have read comments to U.S. internet news stories of the killings and the life of Dr. Little, I have become doubly grieved by certain angry and critical sentiments. The suspicion that Christian aid workers simply must be proselytizing ranks high among a number of comments. So also, the criticism that Dr. Little should have been giving free eye care back here in the USA. Knowing the family, I have no doubt that the group did not proselytize. Furthermore, how could one survive as an aid worker for three decades by disregarding this prohibition? Yet, there is also a larger theological issue at stake of what Christian mission must mean. Must mission, by definition, mean proselytizing? Is the only mission of the Christian church to convert souls for Jesus? Certainly within a feminist liberation theology, the demand to counter oppression in all its forms from spiritual to material beckons Christians to work that includes medical aid. Engaging in a Christian mission of medical or humanitarian aid should not be seen as a partial mission limited by the contingencies of the legalities of proselytizing. Rather, from a feminist theological position, attending to human health participates in the caring for creation.

Furthermore, as Emilie Towne’s work on African American health teaches, human health is inextricably interwoven with issues of social justice. That Dr. Little would be criticized for working in Afghanistan rather than in the U.S. indicates a failure to acknowledge or take responsibility for the global inequities deeply connected to structures of U.S. policies and wealth. One interview about Dr. Little’s work described the beginning of his mission as taking disposable eye care products from the U.S. and refurbishing them for use in Afghanistan. Certainly the U.S. healthcare system is deeply flawed and many in the U.S. do want for adequate eye care. However, to narrow the scope of care to national boundaries reinforces a transnational imbalance of power that enables a country such as the U.S. to produce disposable eye care products while a country such as Afghanistan relies on medical aid. Notably, Dr. Little’s eye care organization not only provides clinics, but also supports the education of Afghanis to provide eye care without relying solely on U.S. or European aid workers. Little explained his view on the importance of an autonomous Afghan program in a 2004 article. "That way, if we're ever kicked out of the country again," he said, "the hospitals don't have to shut down and people can still get glasses."

During the last seven years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have been working towards my doctorate in religion, gender, and culture. Watching my friend come and go from the U.S. and back to Afghanistan, the West Bank of Israel and Iraq has often left me feeling distant from the wars and instability of these regions as I sit at the safety of my desk. Yet, reading these articles and comments reminds me of the importance of continuing to teach and develop critical feminist thought on religion that promotes a material care of creation that extends beyond national borders. Hopefully, the promotion of such a view of Christian mission will better grant the full respect and honor to the generous and faithful lives of medical aid workers such as Dr. Tom Little and his team.

Stephanie May
Doctoral Candidate
Harvard Divinity School

June 4, 2010

Honoring Karen McCarthy Brown

On behalf of the co-editors of, I am writing to share a request that was forwarded to us regarding Karen McCarthy Brown. Author of Mama Lola, Karen’s work has crossed boundaries in the study of religion, anthropology, and women's studies. Indeed, finding Mama Lola on my book shelves took a moment as I tried to recall into which category the book had landed. I read Mama Lola in the first semester of my doctoral work. Years later, fragments of vibrant images of Vodou rituals and Mama Lola remain as I recall the work. Mama Lola taught me not only a bit about Vodou, but also raised fundamental questions about the study of religion. In the seminar in which I read the book, newly matriculated doctoral candidates debated the question of “insiders and outsiders” in the study of religion. Describing Mama Lola as an “ethnographic spiritual biography”, Karen McCarthy Brown challenged scores of scholars to reconsider the relationship between their work and themselves. (Preface to the 2001 edition)

I trust many of the FSR community have had an opportunity to read Karen McCarthy Brown and Mama Lola. For this reason, we are sharing with you a letter from her husband, Bob, and friends, Gail and Claudine. Please read and consider supporting their request.

Stephanie May Co-editor

To Honor the Work of Karen McCarthy Brown
A letter to friends and colleagues

As most of you know, our beloved Karen, inspiring scholar of religion, is suffering from a particularly rare form of dementia. Before the disease dominated her life she was working on getting her path-breaking book, “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” translated into French. Karen had identified a remarkable translator in Paris and a distinguished French publishing house to take it on. Now that project is stalled for lack of funding. This is an appeal to a broad community of friends and fans to help raise the funding for this endeavor to honor Karen. It also honors Mama Lola.
The French version of the book has been long in coming but it is more than ever needed as many vicious media attacks on Vodou and Haitian society have taken place after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. In the aftermath of the quake, at a moment when Haitians are seeking sources of support even beyond material relief, some believe that Vodou as national religion and source of humanistic values has much to offer to the project of national reconstruction and reconciliation. Haitian culture is not well understood, so the book is an opportunity to continue to educate and inform. Ultimately, this translation will help restore the Haitian ancestral religion to its proper place and will serve Haiti well at a time of such extraordinary challenge for the country and its people.

With this letter, we invite you to join the group of scholars and friends who believe that it is time to have this important book available in Haiti and in the Francophone world in general. Hopefully this will happen within this coming year. Our goal is to raise the necessary funds to undertake the project by December, 2010. To get there we need your help now.

How you can support this effort: Some of you may wish to contribute direct financial support as a way to honor Karen and Mama Lola and this extraordinary book. You may also have contacts with foundations or sources of grant funding and may know a broader network of friends and colleagues who should be alerted to this effort. Karen herself, her husband, Bob, and friends like us, Gail and Claudine, would so appreciate any thoughts and ideas you may have.

Again, we express our gratitude for your participation in this community effort to honor the work of both Karen McCarthy Brown and Mama Lola and the extraordinary relationship they nurtured in the process of working together for more than 30 years. It is also about continuing Karen’s long legacy of restoring Vodou as a legitimate belief system that offers hope and communal support to its adherents in Haiti and beyond.

We join our voices to thank you for supporting this most cherished dream of Karen; we also thank you on behalf of those who have long awaited the translation of “Mama Lola.” If we can answer any further questions about this project, please feel free to contact any one of us.

With our most sincere appreciation, Bob, Gail and Claudine

Robert Machover
Milford, New Jersey

Claudine Michel
Department of Black Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara

Gail Pellett
Gail Pellett Productions
New York, NY

For more detailed information on the project and how to help support the translation please click on image:

May 11, 2010

An endless waterfall

I listened to songs from Cris Williamson’s album The Changer and the Changed (1975) recently. I hadn’t heard that wonderful and historically important “women’s music” since the mid-80s. Williamson reminds us that change happens when we open ourselves to the sacred in life, making ourselves vulnerable in order to pursue justice, to speak truth, to dare to learn so that we can grow in wisdom and teach others. Consider her lyrics in “Waterfall”: “When you open up your life to the living /All things come spilling in on you /And you're flowing like a river /the Changer and the Changed /You've got to spill some over /Over all. /Filling up and spilling over /it’s an endless waterfall.” Can you feel the cool spray on your face? Can you see the surge of dark-green water moving swiftly around every obstacle? Can you hear the waterfall thundering onto the rocks below? At the risk of sounding like a 1980s idealist who has not yet lived the complications and disputes of third-wave feminism, I want to affirm Williamson’s powerful image of an endless waterfall of women’s truth poured out and continuously renewed on behalf of all living creatures.

In the tiny rivulet of my own family, I am grateful for women of three generations who are doing remarkable things with their energy and creativity. B., an 83-year-old Roman Catholic widow and the mother of ten grown children, is tireless in her activity on behalf of her struggling community, which is situated in one of the poorest counties in the United States. B. lives in a small Southern town where, according to the 2000 census, 49.3% of the population lives below the poverty line. B. works for healing and reconciliation on personal and structural levels in her community, bringing chicken soup to the ill and housebound despite having endured quadruple-bypass surgery herself not too long ago, volunteering for her church, and attending municipal meetings about the bitter race issues that continue to fracture her town. She would adamantly decline any identification as feminist; the socially and theologically conservative milieu in which she has lived her entire life names “feminism” as something socially repugnant and antagonistic to Bible-Belt construals of godliness. Nevertheless, B. is one of the most powerful women I know. She has touched the lives of many through her compassionate service and her fierce, unabashedly opinionated leadership.

L., a 46-year-old Episcopalian and married mother of an eleven-year-old daughter, has a love of intellectual seeking that spurred her to earn not only a B.A. from Oberlin College but Master’s degrees in conducting and flute performance, both from Penn State, and a Master’s in early childhood education from Indiana University. L. is passionate about intervening in the lives of young children who are growing up in situations of social and educational deprivation. She has analyzed the damage inflicted on young children by the heteronormative assumptions that are pervasive in the preschool classroom. Committed to promoting nonviolence in all dimensions of our educational system, L. wants to make visible the political and cultural expectations that operate at the level of the “hidden curriculum” in every classroom. She is deeply concerned about the moral power of teachers to mold or even subjugate children by constraining a child’s creativity and growing sense of self in order to have the child conform to group expectations. She wants to challenge the rigid metrics of accountability that dominate our current educational culture, and she hopes to work to remediate the fear of difference, fear of change, and silent complicity in the oppression of minorities that can mar early childhood education. L. is considering pursuing a doctorate in curriculum studies or the philosophy of education in order to advocate for practices of justice on behalf of young children in preschool and elementary classrooms.

D., 16 years old and recently returned to the Episcopal church after sojourns in atheism and Wicca, is an ardent feminist and committed writer who is already unusually knowledgeable about women’s, transgender, and queer advocacy and is committed to working for racial equality as well. D. has been a courageous witness for women’s autonomy, progressive education around issues of sexuality, and reproductive choice. It has not always been easy for her as a sophomore in a Roman Catholic girls’ high school. Fully 25% of the student body is non-Catholic, but D. is sometimes the only person in her classroom who dares to advocate for a position other than that endorsed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. While she loves her school, D. has often experienced frustration. She hears her peers regularly denigrate Barack Obama, she has endured “purity”-based education about sexuality founded on misleading or incorrect data about the inadequacies of birth control, and she has listened as a teacher counseled her class that “while college is important too,” girls should be spending a lot of time praying about their future husbands. Recently D. was told that her project on “Yes Means Yes,” which sets a higher bar for consensual sex than does the familiar “No Means No” slogan, could not be accepted for a class assignment because it did not accord with Roman Catholic teaching. D. remained undaunted in her advocacy, initiating a sustained conversation with the teacher about her project. Her teacher has become enthusiastic about D.’s project and is allowing it for the assignment. D. cannot wait to turn eighteen so she can volunteer for Planned Parenthood, and she is already eager for women’s-studies classes in college.

You may have figures in your life who have drawn you into the thunderous and irresistible waterfall of women’s empowerment, women’s wisdom, and women’s advocacy for transformation. B., L., and D. are such figures for me—unsung heroines, they are quietly changing the world. When I consider their lives and their witness, I can hear the roar of Cris Williamson’s waterfall thundering in my ears.

Carolyn J. Sharp

Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures

Yale Divinity School

April 30, 2010

Liturgical Reform in a Time of Crisis

Ecclesial reform has been on my mind lately. In search of some inspiration, I picked up Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book Catholic ≠ The Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism. At the outset of this book, Ruether outlines a vision of “authentic Christian community” that is multicultural, democratic, liberated from sexism, and committed to the poor and oppressed. This vision of community is one that lives by grace, where prayer and social action go hand in hand. In other words, one of the key elements of working for transformation is the cultivation of a mature spirituality. As Ruether suggests, we need to become people of prayer. In her words, this means overcoming the split between spirituality and social action, a split that has been enhanced by the mystification of the ritual prayer in Roman Catholic communities.

Last week a new English translation of the Roman Missal was completed and will be implemented in parishes as soon as it is approved by Pope Benedict XVI. [The Roman Missal contains prayers and instructions for the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass.] This translation is based on Pope John Paul II’s 2002 third revised edition of the Latin text. While this is certainly not the first time the Vatican has revised the language of the liturgy, what is unique about this edition is the criterion used for translation into English. According to Ratio Translationis, the English translation will be marked by a grammatical structure that closely follows the Latin text and reflects the noble tone of the Roman Rite. Consider the following examples, available on the USCCB’s website:
  • Any time the celebrant greets the congregation with the phrase: “The Lord be with you,” the congregation is to respond “And with your spirit.” The current response is “And also with you.”
  • The penitential rite will be expanded to include the words “greatly sinned” and “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” The present version is simply “sinned through my own fault.”
  • The Nicene Creed also reflects a number of changes in translation. “We believe in one God” becomes “I believe in one God,” “consubstantial” replaces “one in being.
While these are just a few examples of the changes to come, they signal a significant shift in emphasis in spirituality: one that emphasizes divine transcendence over immanence, individual over community, spirit over body. As a native English speaker, professing “I believe” instead of “we believe,” conjures up the image a lone individual standing before God. Whereas, stating “we believe” foregrounds the communal dimensions of making an act of faith. Similarly, the addition of the words “and with your spirit”—to the average English speaker—connotes a distinction between “spirit” and “body.” [For instance, think of the difference it would make to respond “and with your body.”] For too long, Christian spirituality has operated out of a dualistic framework that has valued spirit over body, men over women, human beings over the natural world—a framework that has been used to justify the exclusion of women from positions of leadership in religious and political spheres.

As feminists have long argued, God-talk is far from value neutral. Liturgical language does more than point toward the reality that is God; it functions in the human community, shaping our commitments to one another and the earth. In a time in which the church is the midst of a crisis, our communal prayer needs to be that which empowers and nourishes the community to work to bring about justice and peace in the world.

April 12, 2010

Iowa One Year Later

It’s been a year since Iowa shocked progressives on both coasts and became—as local t-shirts love to proclaim—“officially cooler than California.” On April 3, 2009 our Supreme Court unanimously declared that all citizens have the right to access the civic benefits and responsibilities that come with marriage. Theirs did better than any ruling so far to directly address public confusion about the role of religious freedom in all of this. Our justices carefully explained why recognizing the right to marriage for all citizens does not violate the religious freedom of any community of faith and why denying equal rights to marriage does.

We’re marking the anniversary with gala affairs, celebrations of love and family, federal and state tax complications, and a visit from Fred Phelps.

I’ve been an ambivalent participant in the marriage equality mania. This wasn’t the issue I would have chosen to occupy center-stage for the lgbt movement. When I officially married my two friends three months after the ruling, I was thrilled that R. would finally have access to health insurance through her firefighting spouse and relieved she could finally get that long overdue mammogram. But, I couldn’t shake the bitter sense that her right to a mammogram existed long before the Court recognized her right to marry.

Still, when the ruling came down I felt compelled to show up and be counted—an out and proud lesbian living in Iowa. And, I was deeply moved by the courage, hope, and pride that overflowed in the halls of our County Recorder’s office. One couldn’t help but feel that she was taking part in history. Meanwhile, the crowd gathering to apply for marriage licenses was by far the most racially and generationally diverse group of lgbt people, folks who appeared to come from a variety of socioeconomic classes, that I have seen in my six years living here. My fears that marriage equality is an implicitly white and middle-class lgbt issue or that the racial cleavages and white ignorance we saw in the aftermath of Proposition 8 in California are necessarily inherent to the marriage equality struggle have been challenged during the last year. I have been pushed to think with more nuance.

The belief that same-sex marriage is a magic harbinger of full-blown equality for all lgbt people—and thus the issue—or the “next” chapter in the civil rights struggle—implying the one for people of color has been successfully concluded—is one that can only be held by those of us privileged enough to be insulated from the ongoing daily effects of white supremacy, unbridled capitalism and an array of other oppressive forces. But, as I have witnessed the effect of marriage equality on lgbt people in Iowa—a place in which it is arguably more difficult to be out and proud than it is in many other places in this nation—I have come to believe that privilege also shapes the lens of those of us who too easily dismiss marriage equality as irrelevant, meaningless or as nothing more than the wrong issue. The argument for disregarding, abolishing, or simply opting out of our very imperfect, but powerful, social institutions is made much more easily by those of us with the power to mitigate or negotiate the impact institutions have on our lives.

Family law is imperfect, but the ability to draw on the protections of the law and courts is something some lgbt folks (or their children) sometimes need. The public recognition and formal respect that marriage equality confers matters for those of us who face other kinds of public dismissal, disparagement, or vilification because of race, class, nationality or a myriad of other disparaged social locations. Marriage equality does not solve many things, but here in the Iowa it has changed the social landscape, the public discourse, and sometimes simply the relationship between neighbors for the better.

Still, the venom of Fred Phelps’ press release was spewed not only against lgbt people, but against a society that would embrace a Black president, religious pluralism, empowered women, and virtually any other group or idea that represents the possibility of realizing something other than Christian, white, male supremacy. He brings us a critical reminder of the connections between racial justice, gender justice, the empowerment of lgbt people, religious freedom, and economic systems that humanize the lives of the people who inhabit them. And so, as we raise our glass of celebration here in Iowa one year later, as we courageously sustain the struggle against the public calls for us to move back to where we were 53 weeks ago, we must not pause even for a moment, but instead keep our feet to the pavement working to realize liberty and justice for all.

Jennifer Harvey

Associate Professor of Religion

Drake University