A conversation I often have with students is focused on the ways mission and purpose are inextricably linked with our roles as human beings. Understanding what it means to say that human beings have a specific purpose can feel overwhelming and spiral us into an existential crisis; a hallmark of a “Messina class,” according to one of my students.
Regardless of religious or spiritual beliefs, we must know that we are called to a particular mission within our lives. We are gifted with knowledge and abilities that contribute to a greater whole. And when we are willing to see our own missions through, we become part of a collective effort that honors the humanity of all.
For many of us, we have a mission; an understanding of our purpose and how we can engage our communities to work toward positive social change. But as time passes, we grow, our circumstances shift, and we gain insight; as a result, our missions need to reshape.
For women, and particularly women of color, our ability to understand and engage our missions have been bogged down with oppressive structures that devalue our contributions. Dualism has forced women into roles of passive care takers who always put themselves last. Acknowledging the critique of white feminism, women of color experience such roles in a far more damaging way, expected to not only care for their own families; but also serve those who society has claimed to have a higher status based on race and wealth. Although we too are made in the image of God, our full humanity is often denied, with intersecting identities determining our level of worthiness in this broken world.
Our response has been to stand firm in our missions recognizing that the disruption of such inequity is critical to our purpose. We’ve launched movements for liberation, that in turn, have often become oppressive themselves. For instance, feminism has lacked awareness of the experience of women of color, as did the Women’s March. Liberation theology is grounded in a male perspective, and hashtag activism has excluded the voices of Muslim women.
In our struggles, we have often lacked insight on the ways our experiences do not include the experiences of others. Our mission that was our grounding was uninformed. As a result, some have found ourselves despondent, wondering whether our efforts contributed to any real change or whether we’ve been part of the problem.
Self-awareness could offer an opportunity to respond to such short sightedness. It is a challenging and radical act that calls us to examine our own identities and explore the ways they have developed over time. In doing so, we can come to understand what has influenced us, which experiences have been the most impactful, and where our positions and values are grounded. It can also reveal why we are unable to understand and accept the positions of those who stand on the other side of the divide.
If we are willing to engage in such exploration, to pursue self-awareness regardless of what we might find, we can gain radical insight into the ways we can let go of our baggage, move forward, and continue working toward our purpose with a renewed mission. It can open a space where we are able to recognize the humanity of those we have only recognized as different from us.
We choose to engage in mission and purpose; however our engagement is part of a larger collective effort. Collective effort should include all, rather than just those who share similar perspectives. We’ve come to recognize the ways we have participated in movements that have excluded voices. We understand that we must collaborate across structurally imposed divides and acknowledge the ways our experiences do not speak to the experiences of others.
However, I wonder if a renewed mission that responds to our moment is one that calls for collaboration not only across oppressive boundaries, but also across political divides? For many of us, the divisions that exist in our nation, also exist at our own dinner tables. We have family, friends, and colleagues who stand firmly in positions we view as immoral. People we love and care for have become persons we can no longer relate to; and for many of us, the response has been to participate in the divide and choose to alter — or even sever — our relationships.
Living in a “purple state” and having a diversity of voices in my family and community, this divide is very personal and is what I have been grappling with. I wonder how I am working toward positive social change if I refuse to engage in dialogue with those who maintain a different position? Am I still part of the problem?
It is easy for us to demonize those we do not know. But it becomes much more difficult when they are people that we love; people we know are “good people.” In searching for radical insight, if I can become self aware, can I too work toward breaking down how someone else’s lived experiences has led them to their positions? In doing so, how might I find common ground as a starting place to build from? Could this be the path to re-establishing a mission that works toward our collective purpose?
If we want real change in our world that disrupts inequity and is just, we need to humanize rather than politicize. This does not mean that we change our own beliefs, or that we ignore the power structures that offer some of us the opportunity to participate in such dialogue. But rather, that we acknowledge our privilege and challenge ourselves to engage the conversations that those who are marginalized should not have to engage.
I recognize that dialogue is not possible in every case. As Letty Russel has said, everyone is welcome to the table, unless you throw food. If you throw food, you need to take a time out. With that said, for those who aren’t throwing food, can we start the conversation in hopes of a better tomorrow?
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor and Department Chair of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of . She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Women Religion Revolution. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives of women around the globe. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.