By Melodie Davis
I lost my voice at a women’s conference that was all about giving women a voice. Or perhaps more accurately, about using the God-given voice we already have.
Before you laugh in sarcastic and sexist scorn that a woman without a voice at a women’s conference is impossible… A woman not being able to talk?
Seriously, it was frustrating to be at a robust spiritual meeting of 200 women—many of whom I knew from past connections, and others I wanted to meet because I’d heard of them before but never connected a face/body with a name—while barely being able to croak. It was like waking up at Chocolate Lovers Convention and suddenly being allergic to chocolate. The kicker was that the conference dealt with thought-provoking, important topics and offered joyous, creative music and inspiring worship times. But I couldn’t sing.
Technically the theme was “All You Need is Love” but there were a lot of buts added on to that. Calenthia Dowdy, on the faculty of Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., and co-facilitator of workshops on dismantling systemic oppression, started off the speaker line up by recalling Tina Turner’s memorable love song “What’s love got to do with it?” Calenthia then pointed out that in real life, Tina was dealing with the abuse of her husband, Ike Turner, who also first mentored her in show biz. A sad but true example of how frequently we need more than love to get us through life’s traumas. Calenthia also referenced the struggle for racial justice and how at one time white evangelicals insisted that “all we need is love” but how over the years, too often “white sisters were silent when I needed them to speak up.”
Maybe as a white older sister at the conference, my being suddenly without a voice was appropriate, like Zechariah struck dumb when he doubted the angel about Elizabeth having a baby in their old age. For Old Zech, that season was a time to do more listening than responding.
And for me too: while I’m somewhat of an introvert, in conference settings I usually jump right in with comments, conversation, chit chat. Incidentally, the conference of 200 had three males in attendance, whose only role was to listen—except for circle/conversation time when they had their own small circle of three. Again, something about making sure women were free to speak up, when sometimes women feel dominated or intimidated by male voices.
My roles at the conference were threefold: 1) provide some local ground transportation to and from nearby Dulles airport for those coming from out of town (imagine calling to meet up with your driver and all you can hear is some woman rasping out that she’s ready to pick you up); 2) help staff a book table for MennoMedia featuring some of our recent female-authored books; 3) assist Amy Gingerich and Valerie Weaver-Zercher in a seminar called She, Me & We: Anabaptist Women Publishing Theology, about which you can read a blog post here.
The morning of our presentation, I asked my daughters to pray for me since I truly couldn’t talk. Maybe that act of faith (or pure grit and forcing my vocal chords to emit sound anyway) freed me to speak for my 7-8 minute part of the seminar. People could more-or-less hear. Or perhaps I should say, they could hear more-with-less, since I tended not to be as long winded.
But I also immensely enjoyed hearing Malinda Berry talk on another “more with less” topic: “The Kitchen-Table Theology of More-with-Less and Mennonite Girls Can Cook” (both from Herald Press). Malinda talked about how she had grown up in a “More-with-Less” household and by that she meant that her mother cooked religiously from More-with-Less cookbook, wrote curriculum for Herald Press/Mennonite Publishing House when it was producing the Foundation Series for children, used cloth napkins to be environmentally responsible, and encouraged her kids to use the Loaves and Fishes children’s cookbook (no longer available).
Malinda, in her 2013 doctoral dissertation developing a reconstruction of the Anabaptist doctrine of nonconformity, used the theology of Doris Janzen Longacre as the undergirding Anabaptist voice (along with theology of Reinhold Niebhur and Martin Luther King, Jr). Pretty good company.
In the seminar Malinda spoke of organic theology (more home grown and local, healthier, where you can “know the producer”) being an improvement over conventional theology (larger, more corporate, needing to be guarded from heresy). Regarding theology in cookbooks, she quipped that perhaps we could say “They will know we are Christians by our cookbooks.” She said she once went to a chapel service at Yale Divinity School where the speaker quoted word for word the theology found in Extending the Table cookbook.
Malinda brought smiles when she said “Foodways change. We may find we like enchiladas a whole lot better than shoofly pie.” She also believes that “It’s not the food that matters; it’s getting to the table—” (I theme I also address in my book, Whatever Happened to Dinner? Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime,” Herald Press, 2010).
That’s just a tiny “taste” of the pickin’s at the Women Doing Theology conference in Leesburg, Va. Feb. 20-22, 2014. Throughout the rest of the weekend, my voice slowly improved, the Christian fellowship with some amazing but diverse women warmed my heart, and the Women in Leadership Project (who sponsored/organized this conference) raised some $2600 from an offering to help this work continue for Mennonite Church USA. I’m looking forward to being able to peruse some of the other papers and presentations I was not able to hear (too much to choose from, a good problem).
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Read more from Melodie at her blog, Finding Harmony, or at her column, Another Way, on the Third Way Café website.