Monday, September 26, 2005

An Unchurched Sunday for a Robe-less Minister

Ministry, once the title is granted, is a role not a robe, I have frequently told my contextual education students, first year seminarians at the local ecumenical theology school. Imagine the heavy, thick folds, I have said, the weight, the gravitas. But you will be wearing jeans and team t-shirts, and you might be wiping a nose or stacking folding chairs after a meal in a shelter.Yesterday, I spent a Sunday without robe or ritual, at least the ritual I have been used to: lighting a chalice, opening words, a couple of hymns, 20 minutes of talk, and not even the studied casual costume of a female Unitarian minister. My husband and children have teased me about the look: flowing dark pants, a simple loose blouse of some clear color, the modestly dangling ethnic earrings. I was wearing my weekday cropped pants and a Keep Austin Weird orange cotton top, and sturdy walking sandals. With no pulpit to fill, I browsed through two thick papers in a sitting, instead of catching up all week in untidy piles. We worked out at the local Y with the handful of other non-churchgoers at 10 a.m. By 11, we were walking our three dogs and unleashing them in the new dog park in our neighborhood. I intend to return to this place on as many free Sundays as weather permits, to see who else shows up at this hour where even in a laid back, progressive Southern town most everyone else is sitting in a pew.There were eight other adults and around 12 dogs. I asked one thirtysomething woman who was reading a book and keeping a half eye out on her roaming spaniel if this was a typical crowd. No, she observed, the largest number come on weekday evenings right after work. This is small, she said. Maybe because people are at church, I tested. I guess, she answered, not with much conviction.But ministry happens in secular places, or semi-secular places like the choir room at the midtown Presbyterian Church where my women's chorus practices late Sunday afternoons. I am on the Board of this 25 year old singing group, which was historically a refuge for lesbians who wanted, so I am told, a safe place to meet each other, or to be with their partners, and singing was for some of them, secondary.A few years ago, a new chorus director was hired, their first straight one, and with her came a dozen or so heterosexuals, who had been in her church choir and wanted to stay singing under her strict but artistically rewarding instruction.I joined in a second wave, a year or so later, and have only been an erratic presence, but I offered to serve on the governing board, because it is something I can do even when I can't show up with any regularity to rehearse or perform. The first few meetings this year have been devoted to redoing the mission and values statements, ordinarily redundant exercises. But in this circumstance, this process has brought out deep and divisive issues around identity and purpose. Have the straight women caused the group to move away from its original function as a safe space for the lesbians who created it? Have we, as one woman described it, "infilitrated" the chorus? Are we there as allies in the struggles of one oppressed group? Or is the chorus now primarily a premier place to sing quality music for all women?I am looking for places where my identities: Jewish, spiritually progressive, universalist in religious affections, middle-aged and Boomer in social strata can be affirmed. Standing in solidarity is something I have always done and will do because it is morally required,a remnant of my devoutly humanist upbringing. But sometimes I just want to be in a place and time where the work of alliance and solidarity is done by someone else-- for me. However, the work of this unchurched Sunday afternoon was about suspending my need for validation and listening to the pain in other women's voices as they worried deeply about whether in our move towards generalizing our identity as a safe space for all women,that their oppression, their particular fears and needs, would be glossed over or lost.The ministry for me was in first speaking my own truth--my need not to be seen mainly as an intruder or only as an ally--and then stepping back and observing.The ministry for me was then in acknowledging I have also worried that as a Jewish member of a deliberately universalizing faith community my particular fears and experiences of oppression have more often than not been minimalized as well.I have learned that it is not for the majority to determine when it is time to abandon difference for commonality, and for this chorus it is not yet time to adapt language which ignores its history and its principle purposes.We value our history in and our ongoing commitment to the GLBT community, I suggested. If words are the main tools of ministry as I learned in seminary, then words were how I pastored yesterday, not from the comfortable confines and clear boundaries of a sanctuary,but in a circle of women in struggle to stay connected and in integrity at the same time.

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