Editor's Note: This is one of our Top 20 winners from the 2018 CBE Writing Contest. Enjoy!
“Your pastor is a woman?!”
I was seventeen years old when I first heard this surprised remark. The askers looked at me with such disbelief when I told them “yes, my pastor is a woman.” I looked at them with similar wonder, dying to ask in return:
“You go to a Christian church, right?”
I grew up in a Spanish-speaking Assemblies of God church. It was normal to hear a woman preach there on any given Sunday. We called them pastoras—pastors. We didn‘t give them any other title because pastoras is what they were. Much to my surprise, few English-speaking churches I’ve encountered allow women to preach, much less give them an official title. That women could have the same kind of leadership as men was, apparently, an audacious belief.
“Your pastor is a woman?!?”
That memory is forever stamped in my mind as the moment I realized my faith and spiritual upbringing was significantly different from that of my English-speaking evangelical peers. I wasn’t curious enough to question their theology at the time though. I simply went on tolerating their beliefs and they seemed to tolerate mine.
Fast-forward a few years later, the issue of women in leadership emerged again. But this time, I noticed it clearly. I was a student leader in my campus ministry and realized Christian men would not hang out with me one-on-one, whereas my non-Christian male friends had no problem with it.
I wondered if something was wrong with me, a woman, or with my female body. Did I dress too provocatively? I began to hide behind loose clothes and old thrift finds. I diminished myself, listening to the messages of shame and fear. Bowing to the voice that whispered that I was dust—unclean.
It was the age of Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Elizabeth Elliot—who wrote that women should submit to men as leaders and adhere to traditional gender roles—was the woman to emulate. As a young college student, I wanted to believe these teachings. Mostly, because I believed embracing them would allow me to finally belong in evangelical social circles. As a person of color, I already felt like an outsider in these spaces.
So, I tried. But these teachings made no sense, either theologically or practically! And I still wasn’t accepted for who I was.
The truth is that God created me with a curious mind and a strong heart. I love Scripture and enjoy facilitating Scripture discussion for mutual learning. I can’t hide my call to ministry and Christian leadership any more than I can (or want to) hide my skin color.
I’ve been in college student ministry for thirteen years now and I wish I could say that I never wrestle with my worth and identity as a woman. That it’s gotten easier to justify being a woman in leadership. But the pointed questions still happen and they still hurt. But now the incredulous looks and comments are more specific, more personal:
“You’re a pastor to college students?! You mean you preach sermons at church?! You studied theology?!”
They look at me with pity when they find out I’m not married and don’t have children:
“What are you going to do when you get older? Who will take care of you?”
As a woman preacher, I’ve been told:
“Smile when you preach. You look prettier when you smile,” and “Be careful how you dress. You communicate so much with your choice of clothing. Try wearing lipstick.”
I see men with my same job walk into a fundraising appointment wearing jeans and a t-shirt and receive a gift at the end of the meeting, whereas if I entered in a professional button-down and slacks, I know I’ll be the one questioned about my right to do ministry. As area director, my male staff and I have appointments with church leaders where the church leader, usually a man, speaks to and makes eye contact with my staff more than with me, their supervisor.
I go to appointments with men in church leadership and they refuse to close the door, even if their office has windows. This practice causes me to feel untrustworthy—like my integrity and moral walk with Jesus are in question. Yes, I understand the need to live above reproach. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of my dignity as a woman. I shouldn’t be treated like I’ve committed a moral failure simply by existing in a female body!
Thank God, my calling comes from El Espiritu Santo and not from man! Even in the face of doubt and criticism, I have gotten stronger and so has my confidence in my calling. My theology stands substantially on the word of God and on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. My calling comes from the Holy Spirit. I’ve learned that this is all I need to know that I belong in ministry—and that I am a chosen daughter of God.
In seminary, I finally found words to communicate the tension I have so often felt as a Christian woman (and as a Latina) in the church. I wrote this poem when I realized how few women (and people of color) were in MDiv or theology programs. Like me, they and other women of faith wrestle with their identities, asking: are we dirty or are we pure? Are we dust or are we daughters?
My heart still hurts for our church to treat women as daughters, as ministry partners equally called and equipped by the Holy Spirit to lead. The poem below is dedicated to all women who—like me—have wrestled to find our voices, identities, and sense of worth. Many women have been treated poorly in the church. But God calls us “daughters” and “beloved children.” For this reason, I play off the Greek word, thygater in this piece, which means daughter.
But I haven’t only felt excluded because I’m a woman. I’ve also been treated as an outsider because of the color of my skin. So, I also use the English word “thug” in this poem, a term often used in a derogatory way to refer to a black or brown person. Many of us people of color, or members of our families, have been called “thugs” and that’s a painful, traumatizing experience. So, I’ve re-appropriated the word “thug” in this piece, flipping it to a positive.
I was inspired to do this by my seminary hermanos, Ivan Paz and Cindy Jurado Hernandez. For a season, the three of us were the only Latino/as in our theology program. Together, we embraced the word, “thugalogians,” to describe our brown presence in theology, a space which tends to elevate white voices and experiences. I invite you to reflect with me on how the church has mistreated and misrepresented women and people of color, but especially women of color.
Dust or Thygater?
Greek word for Daughter
From dust we come, to dust we will return
As low as a worm, as scum of the earth
Do we carry this truth in our hearts, at our birth?
Or do we learn to succumb to the lies in the air?
Believing that, “As one who is Nothing, I don't care."
I don’t matter, I don’t share, I don’t tattle, I don’t dare
Believe I can be more than the feelings that adorn
garments, over-worn from too much shame and scorn...
Thug or Thygater—
can I be both at once?
Is it theologically significant?
That I am both, yet I am bent
towards believing I have spent
too much time in repent-
ance in this dance
of am I good or am I bad
won't take a chance I'll just pretend
as if His grace can even glance
upon my face and see a trace of something good
Not “thug” but
I am all at once
Walking in that great parlance
of theologians lost in the dance
of good and evil, the nature of people
as if they could possibly see through a peep-hole
behind the door of something so meaningful
That at the core of who I am
Is a good that somehow can
both give life and offend
both feel broken and in mend
yes a process of renewal
yes a fight for our survival
Daughters of the Church in need of revival
Dust and Thygater thus says the Bible
To my fellow women of color who have been treated like outsiders in the church: you’ve been called thugs, but you’re thugalogians—faithful followers of The Way in difficult and even unwelcoming spaces.
And to all women who wrestle with calls to ministry or with your identity as daughters of God: we’ve been demeaned as dust, but God calls us daughters.