The Power of Feminist Rituals by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“These were very simple rituals and yet they were so powerful.”

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.

Me with my Claremont School of Theology students and a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University

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. 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.

Categories: Academy, Asian American, Christianity, Feminism, General, Spirituality, Women and Ministry, Women and Scholarship, Women's Spirituality

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7 replies

  1. The first time I participated in the water ritual was at a UU women’s conference in the 1980s. I wonder who first thought of it. It is powerful as you say. Simple is best and not too many words are my ritual-creating mottos.


  2. A beautiful post, Grace. I grew up thinking their was only one way to experience church – and it was one that I did not connect with. Now I find that church is so much more than I ever encountered in the traditional setting. It is so wonderful when we find that – your experience is truly inspiring.


  3. “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.”

    I enjoyed reading your post. It is really beautiful the sense of community and comradery that the PANAAWTM conference was able to foster. The above sentence from your post I found particularly powerful. It is so important to create spaces where one can freely expression her emotions, especially when it comes to pain or sadness. From what you wrote it sounds like there were a lot of women in attendance, and even so, the student mentioned was still willing to share a piece of herself. Simply wonderful.


  4. I enjoyed your post. It was also great experience to me to join the part of the ritual. Through the conference, I could leave behind my burden, full of anxiety as a graduating M. Div student. Before I applied to the scholarship for PANAAWTM, I was hesitant to go there due to heavy load of assignments during the spring break. However, it was blessing to attend the PANAAWTM conference. Many Asian and Asian American sisters’ sharing of their lives encouraged me to have hope and confidence. It was also good to talk to you and had chance to know about you more.:)


    • Yes, as you recall; I, too, was worried about finishing all of my work, but was glad to have experienced all that was PANAAWTM and have gotten to know you better, too!


  5. I am so glad i read this blog. And I thank you for your beautiful reflection. One of the most powerful rituals in the Christian tradition is the Eucharist – and I am a big supporter of doing it every week. I am also a big supporter of finding and creating new rituals as a religious educator – kids (of all ages) tend learn better when their bodies are involved (kinesthetically) and I tend to learn (understand) better when my body is involved. It broadens the scope of the learning experience, i believe. Water is such a vital element in our lives and by bringing water (and stories with it) and washing and drying each others’ hands symbolize connectedness, life-giving bond, understanding, mutual respect and love…and so much more. What an amazing idea! I can’t wait to try this with my community…


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