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.
20 thoughts on “Adventures in Churchgoing by Elise M. Edwards”
Wow, what a rite of passage you have to endure….. I think worship in England is more inclusive, as priests in the Anglican tradition really don’t mind what we wear, as long as we turn up! Sometimes, young women can wear too short skirts, or low tops, (thinking of the priests performing Communion!) but all are welcome. We have strong women in our congregation, and I write some challenging articles for our church newsletter, which are never vetoed!
Having spent 2 months in the US the past 8 years, staying with local families in big cities, I’ve discovered that the US is more of a “must fit in/conform” nation than European countries, so I see your dilemma as a cultural one, too.
That said, we have a long way to go with women bishops, and getting the church hierarchy to listen to our voices. This requires vision, tact and huge perseverance, as I find most men reluctant to admit how much they need women in the church. Religion is still too traditional, but if we leave our religions, the likelihood of progress is zilch.
Thank you for your comment, Annette. Yes, I agree that this is a cultural issue, one that varies regionally around the US, too. I’m glad my experiences are not universal.
You would be welcome in a Unitarian Universalist congregation!
Good luck finding the best church for you, especially in Texas. The last church I regularly attended was the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Carbondale, Illinois. I was in graduate school, and everybody knows that graduate students are down near the drain in the gene pool as far as many people are concerned. At the UU Fellowship in Carbondale, I was welcomed and even elected secretary. I have never felt as much love in any institution as I felt there. Yes, look for a UU congregation.
Thank you! You reminded me that at least I don’t have to deal with concerns about my age or student status now. :)
Elise – beautifully written and I have similar experiences of being one part parishioner, another part detective/anthropologist when I attend my parent’s church when I see them on the weekends. All the best to you!
Wow, I just had a conversation with a black feminist friend who is facing the same problem. She lives in Missouri, but is from California. I am also from California, but now I reside in Maine. I have found a home in the United Church of Christ denomination, so you might want to visit a UCC church if there are any nearby, The UCC was the first mainline denomination to ordain a woman as minister, and that happened in the 1800s! My church’s last minister was a woman and women hold leadership positions in the church. Sometimes all the leadership positions are filled by women. Our current minister is a man and he is openly gay. We don’t care how people dress when they come to church either. Many women wear jeans to church and some wear low cut tops. I wear dresses and hats because I’m bohemian and i always wear dresses and hats in public, but I certainly don’t think others need to dress the way I do.
I also was intrigued by Annette’s comment that Americans feel the need to conform more than Europeans do, because I have German and Swedish friends who now live in the US and they’ve said the opposite. They tell me that one of the things they appreciate about the US is that they don’t feel forced to fit a mold, like they do in their countries of origin.
Elise, my thoughts and prayers are with you!
Linda Cooper Costelloe
Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. I think it is all so dependent on WHERE we worship, so my statement about not conforming was a little too rigid! I know I prefer to go to places where I can where anything I like. But it looks like Elise will find the right place through all the advice posted here!
Thank you, Linda. I appreciate your prayers and support. I think the UCC is much better at inclusiveness than many other denominations. I hope my own will move in that direction, for the benefit of all of us.
Not sure in which city in Texas you’ve landed, but if you’re in Dallas, I’m happy to help you find a welcoming church…the good news is that we have plenty…Grace United Methodist Church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Catheral, First Unitarian all come to mind immediately…full of feminists and other progressive folks of faith
Thank you, Lisa. I’m not in Dallas, but I’m confident I will find the place I belong! You reminded me that I do know a few fellow feminists who also attend church, so I plan to visit their places of worship.
The only time I go to church now is twice a year, with my partner. The predictable times. It’s a gay church. I always dress in crisp business-dyke style. And when I’m going to other groups for the first time — heterosexually dominated women’s organizations — I just come and meet all the women. I’m not worried about who is a republican or who is not, or even what the beliefs of any woman are actually. In time, I come to understand who I will connect with and who I won’t. It is totally an energy thing with me.
Sometimes I wear a little rainbow pin, but I’m the type of person that doesn’t like stickers on my bumper of any kind.
Occassionally, I’ll be in mixed male/female settings, but I find myself less and less interested in this. I don’t know what it would be like to be a liberal hetero woman moving to Texas, maybe Austin, TX. What that would be like at all. I like big cities with huge lesbian populations, because I don’t like being in hetero controlled space all that much; it’s just too exhausting. I actually don’t know how women can stand most churches to begin with, or why women serve churches that so demean and erase women as human beings, but then again, I am horrified at the thought of women even living with men…. oh well.
Turtle Woman, your comments make so much sense! Going with the energy is absolutely the right thing, very enriching and we can focus on people we want to spend time with…..
Turtle Woman, our experiences are different as far as occupying mixed male/female settings, but I can resonate with your words about connecting at an energy level. Thank you for your response.
It’s always easy to tell if women are good or not, the energy thing. I don’t want to waste the rest of my short life trying to figure out if men are rapists or not. I just don’t want to waste time trying to deal with men at all if I can help it. If women really focused on each other, patriarchy would really come to a standstill. I think I resent it when hetero women want me to be around their male family members. They are making me be with rapists and porn viewers.
But energy, energy between women can be found in churches, but feminism and churches really don’t go very well together at all. I think women might be addicted to churches, which have this pretense of love at the heart of male supremacy. It’s how male supremacy maintains its hold on women.
Elise! I sooo feel you on this on this one! I am a Southerner by birth, but I am often “accused” of being a feminist, a radical, etc., in the circles where I worship and pastor. I lived in a Texas city for 13 years before moving to my current city. In many ways, I am less than comfortable and my presence and views can cause some others to be less than comfortable. It is not an easy journey. Blessings as you search.
Your comparison of finding an affirming congregation to dating was most apt.
How and when do you reveal your views?
Elise, so great to see your writing!
I have recently joined the Episcopal Church, for many of these same reasons.
I had NO IDEA how powerful it would be for me to see a woman bishop. It made me realize what I have been “putting up with” in Baptist (and now Catholic) circles.
I am loving The Episcopal Church – where no one bats an eye at women in leadership. It’s wonderful.