Women’s Voices: Holding the Tensions of Love

Brenda Zook Friesen is the administrative coordinator for transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA. She also coordinated logistics for the All You Need is Love conference. Brenda lives in Forest Grove, Ore.

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.)

Chantelle Todman Moore, conference planner from Philadelphia, Pa., leads in worship at All You Need is Love. Photo by Carol Roth.

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 participants receive a Love Feast, offered by the Steering Committee of the Women in Leadership Project. Photo by Carol Roth.
Conference participants receive a Love Feast, offered by the Steering Committee of the Women in Leadership Project. Photo by Carol Roth.

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!

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20 thoughts on “Women’s Voices: Holding the Tensions of Love

  1. Thank you Ervin for your thoughtful and pastoral approach to this discussion. One thing is bothering me though. In all of the discussion regarding same-sex marriage we appear to be deliberately ignoring the elephant in the room. I refer to divorce, which is specifically referenced in the same MCUSA teaching position statement often mentioned in the context of same-sex marriage. It seems to me that divorce is a greater threat to marriages and to the spiritual health of our congregations than same-sex marriage. When are we going to begin to have “really good discussions” about how to strengthen marriages within MCUSA and better minister to those whose marriages are in trouble or have ended in divorce?

  2. I am relieved to learn that rethinking our current organization and polity is one option being identified as a way through this. Having traveled around the church leading discussions that often involve human sexuality, I fear there is no possibility of consensus–no matter how well we listen to each other. Rather than spend the next decades discussing our varied understandings of what the Bible really says and how we should apply Scriptural understandings to today’s situations, I pray our leaders will help us find a way for us to bless each other and then challenge us to get on with our missional call of bringing healing and hope to our hurting sisters and brothers, our communities and our world.

  3. a federation, alliance, or association… a loose affiliation of independent national bodies with a small core of common convictions…some warned that we might too easily cluster into homogeneous groupings with less cross-cultural capacity, or lose the ability to hold each other accountable to our Anabaptist ideals. Some worried that we might lose the capacity to learn from each other’s differences in a less diverse body.

    I recently made two posts at rruuaacchh.org that argue for splitting and, at the same time, on another level, not splitting. That we go our separate ways in some respects, but we commit to a regular engagement to continue calling each other to account and learning from each other, in a sustainable rhythm. This commitment is not based on our common opinions, but on our need for each other despite both sides considering that the other side is immoral. I’ve written a ton about this issue, on that blog. I’m loathe to copy both posts (Split 1, and Split 2) here, but I’d appreciate your critique on rruuaacchh.org.

  4. Wisdom words. This site is inspiration for my new day that began at 4 am. (Since grade 9 I’ve loved the early morning and this day I’m preparing to teach today’s Heritage Watchers.) Script below: May our people groups know new life, new hope, and new commitment to God’s ways which are higher than our own. Special Note: We may associate without being married to one another. Peace and great blessings to all readers!

  5. I have to admit a great deal of frustration that such a simple, beautiful church is so ensnared in this debate. It has all the inanity of arguing whether the color blue is actually blue. The Bible, both New and Old Testaments, are clear on this issue; homosexual practice is a sin. Those with homosexual dispositions should be loved, valued, helped, and challenged alongside the rest to live holy lives. They are no worse and no better than any other sinner, of whom we each can say, I am chief.

    My husband and I recently left our beloved congregation over a refusal to take a Biblical stand on this issue. We hoped to stay within the Mennonite Church, but as we see this issue come up over and over, we feel a keen sense of hopelessness. We served for six years with EMM in Chile and know the wild blessing it is to be busy about God’s business; reaching out and discipling new believers. Here in the States it seems we are too busy trying to skirt scripture so that we can be culturally palatable.

    I know those who would disagree with me are operating from a place of deep love; I see that, I do. Many have children who have come out as gay or close friends who have confided their struggles and they wish to minister to them. They interpret the Bible differently than the preceding thousands of years of Christians. They believe God is doing something new; lowering a sheet from Heaven where unclean are made clean.

    My challenge to them is this: Where is your point of reference for your beliefs? Your own empathy? Pervading culture? The scriptures? If it is the latter, please share from that point of reference, because as I see it, that is our only common ground, that we believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God. If you don’t believe even that, why are you Mennonite in the first place?

    Sarah Gingrich

  6. The issue seems simple to me. We are moving in the direction of becoming Unitarian. Does the world really need another Unitarian church? I personally think the third way of historic anabaptist theology has much to offer and I am feeling like we are giving it up for something that has no substance.

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