I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with ‘Women’s Conferences’ and over the years, as my theology evolved to become more egalitarian, I grew even more wary of them.
I was particularly wary of those typically put on by Christian women’s groups from small towns in the Bible Belt region where I grew up.
This is not because I am not invigorated by seeing women gather in the name of God. Quite to the contrary, I am very passionate about women. ALL women– of ALL personalities, shapes and sizes, in all of our awesome, category-defying, beautiful, wild, powerful, crazy-wonderful diverse forms of womanliness. I just love us! So I am thrilled and excited to be a part of any gathering that brings such fantastic creatures together, especially when our purpose is to learn and to grow closer in the things of God.
BUT. I am easily frustrated when Christian ministries design events and conferences that appeal to feminine stereotypes, where the women spend most of their time “fellowshiping,” learning to do crafts and Martha Stewart style do-it-yourself home projects, while listening to well-coiffed and manicured speakers talk about ‘gender roles’ and how much Jesus loves them.
I appreciate good intentions, but that appreciation is often outweighed by my belief that such events do a huge disservice to the people I love– *both* the women who fit the stereotypes (like many of the women who have “mothered” and supported me over the years) and the ones who don’t (like the majority of my closest girlfriends).
These events give ALL of us a picture of Christian womanhood that I believe to be damaging; it is a vision of womanhood that is shallow, narrow and boring, being rooted primarily not in the weightiness of theological truth but in uncritical acceptance of cultural norms that are rooted in patriarchy.
In the past, participating in such events made me feel more than mildly insulted and angry on behalf of my sisters…
Does the church really think so tritely of what it means to be a woman of God??? I mean, what about radical discipleship? What about diving deep into the things of God? What about engaging with our capacity and call as women to think critically and act boldly to impact the world for Christ? Not only are we more than capable of putting on our armor and marching into battle– many of us leading the charge–, it is integral to who we are as Christ followers. Give me a breakout session about THAT over place settings any day!
Shortly after my arrival for my very first post at an anti sex-trafficking organization, in San Pedro, Dominican Republic, I was excited to learn that that our locally affiliated church had invited us to collaborate on a women’s conference in October. Women would come together from all across the country to rally against injustice, and call out in one collective voice to our God. However, my excitement turned to a deep groan of disappointment when I discovered that the theme would center around fashion and that the breakout sessions would include ‘how-tos’ for making bracelets out of buttons and centerpieces out of recycled tin cans. I gritted my teeth and mustered all my resources to push past against my nature and instinct, to instead honor the fact that I was a newcomer to the organization and an outsider to the culture. So, slapping a smile on my face and preparing to endure it with a grin, I comforted myself with a resigned, “welp, God can use all things for good.”
I am so grateful the Holy Spirit granted me grace to bite my tongue, because I was greatly humbled by and at the conference…
Because it did NOT turn out to be the shallow American-style ‘biblical womanhood’ events I had been used to and so assumed it would be. Instead, it was a “God’s daughters from Hispaniola and a smattering of women from other countries being swept up in the movement of God in the Dominican Republic event!”
At this conference single women, married women, mothers and daughters all found common ground as they flooded the altar and dropped to their knees to acknowledge that, give what He will and take what He will, it is Christ– and him alone– that they desire.
And while the theme “fashion” may not have ministered to the fashion-challenged or fashion-ambivalent woman, every single woman in attendance could relate to the FACADE of outward presentation, and thus to the REAL theme:
the question of what it really means and how much it truly matters for the woman behind the facade to live free, redeemed, and empowered in her calling within and outside the Church.
I was struck by the brilliance of the fashion-themed decorations, which themselves became an active representation of the same facade– they served as a reminder that like clothing, decorations are only mere trappings, while the teaching and exhortation, and the women in attendance, were the true heart of the event.
I joined the women in breakout sessions– which covered everything from incarnational living, to jewelry making, to being a Christian professional, to household management, to prayer, to women’s health, to social responsibility, and more! – and discovered that the women were equally thoughtful, enthusiastic and engaged when it came to when it came to discussing scriptural authority and challenges to loving their neighbor as they were with table settings and pap smears.
And I realized that the inclusion of what I had dismissed as ‘fluff’ workshops was not a consequence of the influence of some 1950s U.S. American Christian culture, nor was it the remains of European colonization, but was instead a reflection of a healthy sense of the day-to-day life and needs of Dominican women, as well as an active recognition of the importance of the Church’s role in ministering to the needs of the WHOLE PERSON.
These sessions were a demonstration of the women’s collective desire to care for one another’s souls without neglecting one another’s physical and mental needs– such as bodily health and the development of artistic, social and economic skills.
The entire event was truly awesome to behold. Especially because, in the Dominican Republic – as in many other countries in the Caribbean and Latin American region – there is a high degree of social separation between men and women. The culture at large, has very strictly defined roles for men and women. Such a context greatly heightens the urgency of the need for women to take responsibility for exhorting, encouraging and challenging one another– in mind, spirit, BODY and SOUL. And this conference was a wonderful example of Dominican women rising POWERFULLY to meet that call, for one another and for the community at large.
Needless to say that by the time the final general session of the conference rolled by on Sunday night, my pride, expectations and stereotypes were all, thoroughly shattered as I realized that in my own desire to fight against those who would build categories around God’s prescriptions for womanhood, I had ended up building false categories of my own.
I had placed far, too narrow limitations on how God can and should work to use various constructions of femininity to point us back to Him. I had allowed my experience with women’s conferences within my own cultural framework to lead me to make assumptions centering North American Christianity without considering how God might be working to break down barriers and raise up women in leadership in other contexts, with people of different cultures, histories and experiences.
On the final day of the conference, I stood with all the other women, face lifted during the closing song and tears of thankfulness ran down my cheeks. Thankfulness, not only because I now recognized that God provides abundantly for women who need these kinds of events, but also because at that moment and in that place, those needy women most definitely (and maybe, even most of all!) included ME.
Elizabeth Quashie is one of the regional Vice Presidents and social media editor (Twitter, Instagram & Facebook) for CBE-Voices of Color Chapter. She is a missionary who has spent nine years working with organizations to address gender-based violence in the Caribbeans, South America, the Middle East, and Eastern and South East Asia. As a biracial Asian American woman, she is passionate about witnessing women embrace the fullness of the freedom and power they have in Christ. She currently lives in South Korea with her Haitian-Ghanaian spouse Marc and their mixed corgi Mr. Chi. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter, Instagram and her blog With Her Heart: Holding Space for Wounded Healers