My earliest memories of church as a child are from the Southern Methodist church. Our lead pastor was female and fiery and funny, and I admired her deeply. She regularly talked about the poor, supporting equal rights for all, and caring for the environment, long before such topics were trendy or sexy or “progressive.” It wasn’t until I was in seminary about 15 years later that I first heard of debates like “complementarian’ vs. ‘egalitarian’ and realized that “progressive” was actually a bad word in some circles; hence perhaps my early church experiences were not the norm. I was genuinely shocked in grad school to find myself frequently engaged in debates with certain male peers asking me to defend what I believed to be my obvious God-given right to lead a church or preach (not that I gave two shits about doing either; I was studying to be a therapist – and as such, found these exchanges fascinating). They would inevitably say something about the “joys of coming in to my fullness as a woman under the strength of male leadership.” I would then say something about the joys of my vagina, and its strength, deftly winning the debate on account of instilling speechless discomfort in my opponent. Unfair, perhaps, but it was just. so. dang. enjoyable. There’s nothing quite like reminding someone insistent on “leading” women that perhaps the first requirement for the job might be a capacity to hear words describing parts of the female body without turning pale and shaky.
(On a sidenote, we have a majestic word for this experience in German, as I’m reminded by my current read: “Schadenfreude,” quite literally “harm joy” – a particular type of pleasure derived from witnessing another person’s misfortune. In use: “Least likely person to have ended up studying at seminary, Ms. Kilgo survived her bizarre-but-meaningful religious education on a healthy diet of cigarettes, Wilco, and Schadenfreude.”)
Fortunately, the majority of my male friends in grad school were allies – smart, kind and supportive of all kinds of people in all forms of leadership. Classy guys, willing to sneak out of theology to smoke cigarettes with you and laugh incessantly at how much “penance” can sound like “penis” when spoken with an accent.
I’m thinking about all of this because I’m back in the South this week, wayyy down south in Alabama where my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are from, where we eat BBQ out of smokers in parking lots and people still talk to you like they’ve known you for years, even if they just met you half a second ago. The men here still open doors and tip their hats and call you ‘ma’am’ and offer their seat should you find yourself standing in a crowded bar, or really, standing anywhere they might have something kind to offer you. And it’s wonderful to be back, invigorating and refreshing after years of living out West, where industriousness and independence are valued above all. And while I deeply, deeply love the entrepreneurial and adventurous spirit of Colorado, I’m also really over doors slamming in my face and countless stories from clients and girlfriends of how rarely a man will actually call them to ask them on a date (text, obviously, being the preferred method of assuring a date of one’s interest, volition and capacity for effort, right?)
So sitting once again in the pews of a Southern Methodist church tonight for Christmas Eve candlelight service, I found myself deeply grateful for the roots and seeds of my faith, and for the South – and equally aware of how the two birthed me into a chivalry-loving feminist. My earliest childhood memories of church arose with such fondness: the soft, kind older men opening doors and seating the ladies; the steady, wise, inspiring voice of a strong female leader. The glorious hats on fancy ladies; the mobs of children in miniature red overalls. Tiny cups of fancy grape juice, inclusion for all, for all. Everyone of course, done up in their best, but if your best is jeans and a t-shirt, that’s OK too, y’all come on in. In those regular old Sundays I didn’t think too much about as a kid, I learned that God invites all people in, always. And particularly likes women.
And once again I was struck with awe as the sanctuary went dark and silent just before the small flame of Christ candle was passed, person by person, connecting us to one another with warm eyes, soft smiles and steady hands. My once small frame found such safety, love and security in those early candlelight services, wrapped in a soft and holy glow, tasting the magic of a god so ridiculously powerful yet infinitely humble. And when a cappella voices begin singing ‘Silent Night,’ what is that slightest tinge of a minor note I can never quite place, amongst the joyful voices? Sadness? Longing? I’m not sure, but it feels like the manger. Heaven and earth colliding. Angelic peace and earthly pain. Beauty and dirt. Completion, and longing.