This post was originally shared in Evangel, the tri-annual newsletter of Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference.
By Brenda Zook Friesen
On February 20-22, close to 200 mostly-Anabaptist women gathered in Leesburg, VA, for All you need is love: honoring diverse women’s voices doing theology. I attended in my dual role as both participant and Mennonite Church USA staff person providing logistical support. I had attended the last Women Doing Theology conference almost ten years ago, The Red Tent, so I had high expectations for what happens when women gather to worship, fellowship and theologize.
It has been a struggle to summarize my experience. When I returned, folks would ask, “How was it?!” I would stammer and eventually say, “It’s hard to put into words. It was holy.” A month later, I find I’m still filled with feelings about this time: Profoundly grateful. Inspired. Comforted. Challenged. Humbled. Cautiously hopeful.
Planners shared their intention asking, “What does it mean to love in the midst of a world rife with struggle and oppression?” The desire was to create a conference to “face these realities head on – tensions between women of greater and lesser privilege, the need to listen deeply to a wide variety of voices in matters of faith and theology, the difficulty of putting love into action and standing in solidarity with struggling sisters around the world.” Intentional thought was given to open space “that allows women to work together at addressing these tensions and embrace the diversity of women’s voices in theology. [We] are committed to a robust theological understanding of love, which is key in making this sort of embrace possible.” (Taken from the All you need is love webpage.)
I was immediately struck by how intergenerational the gathering was – we spanned from infant to elderly and everything in between. Like many North American Mennonite gatherings, the participants were predominantly white; the stark difference, however, was the intentional effort made to ensure a racial and ethnic mix among the planning team and presenters. I was grateful for the unapologetic addressing of power differences along the lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. As a group, we were invited into God’s “womb” that is expansive and able to hold all of us – without glossing over the pain and injustice that these divides can bring.
From the get-go, it became clear that this gathering would be anything but simple. Dr. Calenthia Dowdy challenged What’s Love Got to Do With It?, exposing the emptiness of love promises that aren’t backed with action. The opening worship set a tone and expectation for our time together – that True Love is complicated and messy. The conference aimed to create a space where that complexity could be met with courage, honesty and grace.
It was profoundly refreshing to be in a worship space filled with Divine feminine presence – where God was regularly and naturally referred to as Mother/She and where Sophia was not just acknowledged, but incorporated into all we did. There was dancing and breaking bread and drumming and laughter. There were tears that flowed freely when we courageously named the violence that has been committed against women within church and society. There was no need to defend our stories because our stories overlapped so much, we knew them to be true. The fact we shared so many common hurts was heartbreaking, infuriating and comforting – all wrapped together.
Conference planners did a phenomenal job of offering many modalities for engagement. The list of workshops and paper presentations could fill a college semester syllabus. Times were set aside for meditation, prayer and reflection – or naps, if that’s what one needed! A social room provided space to meet with old and new friends while also learning about supports and resources from Anabaptist organizations. An evening of slam poetry voiced words rarely spoken in “traditional” holy places – it was a delightful surprise! At the end of every day, I collapsed into bed filled to the brim emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
I continue to struggle to put this experience into words – it was truly something that had to be felt and lived. Staff from the Women in Leadership Project are working to put together materials that can be shared with those who were unable to attend. I know these will be wonderfully rich resources, yet no printed document can really capture what took place that weekend. I know we experienced glimpses and tastes of God’s kingdom and agape Love. My prayer is that this kind of worship and living church can flow into our congregations. I don’t want to have to wait another 10 years for this kind of experience!