I often share that what I’ve learned about strength, perseverance, and responsibility, I learned from my grandmother and namesake, Gina. In November we celebrated her life and said goodbye to the pioneering woman who overcame the greatest of obstacles to lead a life of dissent.
Gina Sr. was born in Camaiore, Italy in 1926. She lived through WWII, was captured and escaped from Nazi soldiers three times, and walked 200 miles to find safety. Following the war she found herself on a boat filled with war brides headed to the U.S. and never saw her family again. She divorced in the early 60’s becoming a single mother and social pariah, and survived the loss of three of her children.
Through much struggle, heartache, trauma, and grief that would have left many giving up, Gina Sr. persevered. She dissented with her life choices and found that as a result, she created a path that eventually led to a better life for herself and her family.
My grandmother was Catholic. She loved the Church. She donated her time and money to the Church. And she lived a life that would have made Jesus — also a dissenter — proud. But the Church did not love my grandmother. As a divorced woman she was rejected and in the final days of her life refused communion and last rites.
While the Church allowed us to hold a service for my grandmother, we were not allowed to offer a eulogy. I was asked to offer a reading during the service. In the spirit of Gina Sr. I thought it important to dissent. Not that I declined to participate. In fact, standing on the altar while honoring my grandmother felt like dissent in itself. But I decided to dissent further.
My brother and I approached the altar together, we both offered a reading. We stood side by side and I opened my copy of the passage from the Book of Romans. Although there was a copy on the altar, I had made notes on mine. I decided that I would use gender neutral language throughout the reading when referring to God. It seemed a fitting tribute to the woman who taught me about feminism.
I lifted my voice, spoke directly into the microphone, and read the Book of Romans referring to God as the Divine. The priest who sat on the other side of the altar turned slowly to look at me as if to give me “the eye;” he wanted to condemn me. He was angry. His face was red. I could imagine what he was thinking:
“Who does she think she is? A woman given the privilege to stand at the altar and she dares to refer to God as other than a man?”
Yep. When the opportunity presents itself — and it is just — you must dissent. That is what Gina Sr. taught me. And so I did.
My brother and I returned to our seats. We held hands and giggled like school children. We cried together as we sang Ave Maria. And we honored our grandmother one last time by living out her example.
Such an act may seem small, even insignificant. But it was noticed. More so, it is what my grandmother taught me to do — to stand tall and get the job done knowing that sometimes the smallest act of dissent can deliver the blow necessary to make a crack.
Gina Messina is a Roman Catholic, a feminist, and one of the founders of the Feminism and Religion blog.