I was a pastor for 14 years. Yes, a queer, feminist, Baptist pastor. We exist. Simultaneously, I completed a PhD and was a professor, both at divinity schools and in a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Dept. I could never find full-time, tenure-track work as a professor, which was my “in the box” dream. And my job as a pastor became incredibly toxic. Between the thick file folder full of hate mail and the sexist and heterosexist microaggressions, it was ultimately the microaggressions that did me in. I experienced a brief reprieve when I went to a little retreat center designed specifically for activists and artists. There, I began to heal. In healing, I discerned that it was time for me to leave. Not just that church, but perhaps the Church altogether. That little retreat center was a balm that gave me the space I needed to turn inward, recharge, examine the power systems designed to disempower queer women like me, and leave feeling inspired and empowered.
So, my wife and I determined to leave it all. We quit our jobs, sold our home, and packed our toddler into a camper to travel full-time for nearly two years, discerning how to best turn my painting, writing, retreats, teaching, and sustainability work into a non-profit. Finally, we settled in Hawai’i and made the non-profit official. Like many entrepreneurs, we floundered for several years. As we tread out of floundering, our queer interesectional ecofeminist philosophy undergirds all the decisions we make—as a non-profit, as parents, and in our daily lives. Now, the Holy Women Icons Project offers over 100 folk-feminist icons of revolutionary women from history and mythology, intersectional feminist writing, retreats, and partners with seminaries and universities to offer academic courses.
In this meandering travelation-turned-entrepreneur narrative, the lives, legends, and legacies of the revolutionary holy women I paint and write about were—and continue to be—my guides. It was the myth of Lilith leaving the garden of Eden and Audre Lorde’s sister outsider admonition that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” that gave me the courage to leave a job that was assaulting my soul. It was the passionate nomad, Freya Stark’s sentiment that, “it’s beckoning that counts, not the clicking latch behind you” that called me out of ordinary life to wonder and wander as a form of vocational discernment. It was Pauli Murray’s intrepid resilience as she faced overt discrimination because of her race, gender, sexuality, and gender identity that buoys my work as an artist, author, and Executive Director of a fledgling non-profit that is trying to make substantive changes for marginalized women and our access to empowerment, inspiration, and beauty. More than quotable phrases or clichés, however, is the skills-transfer in telling the stories of these women, and the way they form a subversive sisterhood that surrounds and upholds all feminist change-makers seeking to live and work outside the box of white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy. Because of them, not only can we work outside this box, but we can begin to dismantle it.
One way we do this is by envisioning empowerment work differently. The best way to describe how HWIP’s women’s empowerment retreat is different than others is with an analogy of sorts. It involves power tools. Stick with me. If your power saw doesn’t work, there are typically one of three things wrong:
- the blade is too dull and needs either sharpening or replacement,
your battery is drained and needs charging, or
your power source is faulty and won’t adequately charge your battery.
So it is with empowerment work.
Most women’s retreats—in ministry, entrepreneurship, art, spirituality—focus only on the first two issues. With “blade sharpening,” we’re taught to change our perspective, be mindful, work harder, meditate, pray, or change our behaviors. AKA sharpen our blades. And this important. So, we go on yoga or meditation retreats, take classes, and discipline ourselves. With “drained batteries” the analogy is obvious: self-care and recharge. We’re encouraged to sleep more, take a bubble bath, go to a spa, or drink a glass of wine. This is also important. Mindfulness and bubble baths are lovely, but blade sharpening and recharging batteries aren’t enough to empower marginalized women.
Rather, we need to also examine our power sources. We live in a culture where power sources are structurally designed to disenfranchise women and marginalized communities, from the pulpit to the academy, board room to public office. And if we blade sharpen and recharge, but still find ourselves exhausted or overwhelmed, we’re made to feel as though we are the problem. We’re faulty or not working hard enough. But the problem isn’t us. It’s the power systems that ignore, exclude, or malign us and our work. No meditation or spa day can fix that. So, at my “Holy Woman Within: A New Year’s Retreat for Spiritual Creatives,” we do all three simultaneously. Yes, we’ll blade sharpen with guided painting and writing, rituals, and stretch meditation. Yes, we’ll recharge with the sauna, pool, and plenty of rest. But we’ll also acknowledge and examine the power structures that tear us down, so that we can leave the retreat galvanized to subvert and dismantle them.
Seven years after that little activist-artist retreat center helped me sharpen my blade, recharge my batteries, and acknowledge that the power structures in my life were toxic for me as a queer clergywoman, I’ve created a little retreat to offer something similar. If you need radical self-care for collective liberation, join us. If you’ve given so much that your cup runs dry, come to be filled. If you need to heal from toxic spirituality, come with an open heart. If you need to be surrounded by earth-changing beauty, gather with us at the Holy Woman Within Retreat. If you desire a bridge between social justice and creative spirituality, pack your critical theory books and a paintbrush. Because this is the work we do.
We create. We sustain. We empower. Together. Justice-minded women, genderqueer creatives, exhausted moms, spent therapists, skeptical artists, fed-up feminists, spiritual agnostics, burned-out clergywomen, and everyone in between. Whoever you are and wherever you’re from, if you need a balm, I hope you’ll join me in Hawai’i from December 31, 2019-January 4, 2020 for Holy Woman Within: A New Year’s Retreat for Spiritual Creatives.
Our early bird discount saves $350 on registration and ends September 30! Visit www.holywomenicons.com/group-retreats for all the details!
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is the Founder and Creative Director of the Holy Women Icons Project. She holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion. A professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, she is the author of seven books. As an author and professional artist, she is creating a retreat center with her wife and child on Hawai’i Island as a part of the Holy Women Icons Project non-profit.