The Power of Feminist Rituals by Grace Yia-Hei Kao
Jeanette Stokes’ 25 Years in the Garden is on my bedside table. It’s a book I read several years ago with a small group of feminist Christians when I was living in Blacksburg, Virginia. The following passage from one of her essays got me to thinking back to the 2012 PANAAWTM conference (Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry) I had attended just two weeks ago:
“Rituals are part of everyday lives: reading the newspaper, checking the weather, waiting for the mail to come, or talking with a family member at the end of the day. Rituals can also mark the extraordinary events in our lives: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a birthday, marriage, anniversary, or divorce” (Stokes, 2002, p. 37).
We PANAAWTM attendees participated in two rituals that, while neither “everyday” nor “extraordinary,” were nevertheless symbolically very rich, meaningful, and unifying.
As I mentioned earlier in a previous blog, all PANAAWTM participants had been instructed to bring 3 oz. of water “from a source of nature near [o]ur home.” This water ended up playing a large role in our opening and closing worship.
During the opening ceremony, each of us was invited to introduce ourselves, say something about the origin of our water, share a prayer or concern, and then pour our water into a large crystal bowl on the altar.
One by one, my fellow Asian and Asian American sisters took turns sharing the water they had collected locally—from the tap, the rain, the Hudson River, the River Jordan even (the latter definitely got some “oohs” and “ahhs.”) We laughed together as one sister shared how she was inadvertently offering shampoo-contaminated water (in light of the 3 oz. travel-size bottle she had used to transport it on the plane), while another admitted that she had misunderstood the purpose behind the instructions, which is why she had brought drinking water from Costco.
At other times, the mood was more serious and reflective. For instance, many of us nodded empathetically as one student shared her pain and then noted that that she had thought of offering 3 oz. of her own tears.
After two days of inspirational speakers, workshops, and genuine fellowship over meals, our time together drew to a close. We collectively sang songs, exhorted one another, and then ended in a way consonant with which we had began: each of us took turns sharing a burden we were leaving behind and a new insight or sense of direction or confidence that we were taking with us as we made our journeys home.
As each of us came forward to speak, we washed our hands in the communal water. Each of us remained at the front until the next person came up to speak, and then we dried our sister’s hands with a small towel. That cycle repeated until all had had their turn.
These were very simple rituals and yet they were so powerful. I loved the highlighting of individual experience and corporate togetherness, the juxtaposition of solmenity and comedy, and the sharing of trials and triumphs. I also loved how the drying of hands (with the towel) conjured images of Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet.
The more I think about these two simple rituals, the more I think how appropriately contextualized they were for me. Culturally, I come from people who take ritual and ritual propriety very seriously (that’s my Confucian heritage). Religiously, however, I was raised among people who do not—the conservative Taiwanese evangelical Christian church I grew up attending was of the “four walls and a sermon” persuasion.
So it was such a blessing to have participated with fellow Asian and Asian American Christian women in these beautiful and moving feminist-inspired rituals. I left that conference thinking to myself “Wow, that was church!”
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World(Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book project on Asian American Christian Ethics. Read more about her work on her website.