I am often greeted by warm smiles and handshakes–and sometimes even hugs–from churchgoers around me. But I wonder if the friendly people would be so welcoming if they knew that I identify as feminist.
It’s hard being a feminist and visiting a new church. I’ve recently moved to Texas from California and I’m looking for a church to attend. There are many things I love about church: corporate worship, talks with people of faith, gatherings where friendships are built, and opportunities to serve and to learn. I also love to sing, and my not-ready-for-primetime voice would love to join a choir with and contribute to other people’s worship experience.
In my past, I’ve been a member (or regular attender) of churches where I felt welcomed and affirmed. Yet, I always feel defensive when I seek out new places to worship. I question whether a church will be affirming to women and girls as whole selves – as embodied, thinking, feeling beings. I mentally prepare myself to hear male imagery and language for God and I pray themes of male headship vs. female servanthood are not expressed. I feel like an investigator seeking out clues to determine our compatibility. It’s no wonder that I’ve recently heard several people compare visiting churches to dating.
When I go to a new church, there are all sorts of characteristics I imagine people note from my physical presence: my race, my approximate age, my gender. If they are looking for such clues, they may note my lack of a wedding ring or my lack of a Southern accent. But I do not wear markers of my political associations, my feminist commitments, or theological views. I must look for signs that when revealed, my beliefs will be compatible with the prevailing spirit of the place or gladly accepted into its diversity.
I am often greeted by warm smiles and handshakes–and sometimes even hugs–from churchgoers around me. But I wonder if the friendly people would be so welcoming if they knew that I identify as feminist. After all, I am in a state that, as of this writing, is taking up legislation for some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the country. Would the church members warmly accept me if they knew I thought women should hold leadership positions and girls (and boys and older people of all genders) should be taught about sexuality without shame? Would they exclude me from their fellowship if they knew I advocate for a church of radical inclusiveness, which includes people of all genders and sexualities?
Then, of course, aside from these kinds of questions, there are the practical considerations of what to wear, where to sit, and what time to arrive. Will my skirt be too short, my arms and legs too bare, my tattoo visible, my clothes too formal or casual, or will I have some other kind of indicator that marks me as someone who does not belong? Will my vision of appropriate attire correspond to theirs? A new friend who was telling me about her church-visiting experiences described how she tried to scope out one new church before she visited. She asked her male friend to observe what the women in his Sunday School class (her age group) were wearing and to report back to her. Unfortunately, his description was too vague to be of much use. I can relate to this scenario.
Preparing to visit churches has made Sunday mornings the most difficult time of my week as I’ve adjusted to living in a new place. I really wish it weren’t so. I want to experience peace, not concern, on a Sunday morning. My recent church experiences have included both uplifting and jarring moments and those where I felt welcomed and those where I felt alienated. This past Sunday, I was moved to tears during baptisms and provoked into thought and gratitude by the pastor’s teaching and display of vulnerability. Then I was discouraged as a clear gender divide in the leadership was on display during the preparation for communion (Eucharist or Lord’s Supper in some Christian traditions). While women in white dresses helped bring in and set up the communion table, it was only the 12 men and the male pastor who also participated in these preparations who blessed the elements and distributed them to the congregation. Intellectually, I accept that church practice surrounding communion varies, but experientially, the ritual is most meaningful to me when it is conducted in a way that affirms the diverse membership of the body of Christ. I felt communion with God, but distance from the congregation in that moment.
I’ll continue my visits, hoping to experience critical thinking, openness to wonder, presence in the moment, and discernment. I have faith that I will find a place that becomes a loving church home where I am of use and value. God help me.
Elise M. Edwards is a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University, where she received a PhD in Religion with an emphasis in Theology, Ethics, and Culture. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.