At some point, I finally asked the mentor what her name was and with a smile and joy that I do remember, she said, “I’m Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz.” OH MY GOD/DESS. I was completely taken aback. I really couldn’t believe that I was sitting at a table and casually talking with this woman whose work I had read and loved: a woman I considered famous. More than this, however, I couldn’t believe that she was talking to me.
I attended a memorial panel for Mujerista theologian, teacher and activist Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz at the American Academy of Religion National Conference this year. After panelists shared their memories of their friend and mentor, audience members were also invited to speak. Sitting in the audience, listening to story after beautiful story of this woman’s life, I was amazed not only by how many people Isasi-Diaz affected in that one room, but also by the similarities of the stories I heard. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz was a woman who shared her gift with many people: empowerment and access to their own power. She generated confidence, both by creating opportunities directly and indirectly for others, and by rewarding the faith of those who believe in her work by living her ideals in an obvious, open and caring way.
I was lucky enough to meet Prof. Isasi-Diaz once in my life. I was attending a women’s mentor luncheon as a graduate student, hoping to meet a more senior scholar who could tell me something I needed to know in order to get a job some day. I sat down at a table with another student and a woman older than both of us who seemed to be our mentor representative. I do not remember the entire conversation. However, I do remember that we, the students at the table, did most of the talking and the mentor asked us questions. At some point, I finally asked the mentor what her name was and with a smile and joy that I do remember, she said, “I’m Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz.” OH MY GOD/DESS. I was completely taken aback. I really couldn’t believe that I was sitting at a table and casually talking with this woman whose work I had read and loved: a woman I considered famous. More than this, however, I couldn’t believe that she was talking to me. She cared about who I was, and asked me about myself. She did not condescend, nor treat me as though I was unimportant. Isasi-Diaz was who I hoped she would be when I read her work. She was that, and so much more, because the heart of the woman I imagined was real. This mentor and teacher gave me a gift that day: a kind of faith and confidence resultant of hopes well placed.
I did not share my story the night of the memorial panel. I didn’t have to. Stories like mine and much more powerful than mine were told over and over again. Since that night I have been thinking about how important it is that those of us who are teachers and healers, are who we say we are. Striving to break out of abusive paradigms in our society, it is so, so easy to get discouraged. I remember reaching out to pastors several times in my adolescence, hoping that those who were in a position of spiritual authority over me would confirm my faith in them and in the church that I thought was supposed to take care of me. My faith was not rewarded. Actually, my desire for help was sometimes mistaken for inappropriate sexual interest from a younger woman/ girl. However, the problem wasn’t really these pastors’ responses, though their rejection hurt me. The problem was that they and my patriarchal god, didn’t have the kind of power I thought they should have to change my life– that I was told they should have.
The more I accepted that I would never find the kind of mentor I was looking for, the more I had to use my own power. The more I used my own power, the more I discovered that those women and men who would become my mentors and even friends were people who asked me to do just this, or who helped me to figure out that I could use own power. These teachers have helped me to confirm a faith in myself, in my ability to choose and to decide. They helped me to trust myself by embodying their own truth. This ability to empower is a gift, and one that we can learn to give. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz gave it; and it is my hope that as I grow as a teacher, I will too. Thank you Prof. Isasi-Diaz. You are missed and greatly loved, even by many who did not know you face to face. Thank you for sharing your gifts.
Who in your life has shared this gift with you? How have you shared it? I would love to hear these stories.