How Stories Help Us Think About Structures

by Emily Louise Zimbrick-Rogers | July 29, 2015

So often, when we meet people for the first time and immediately connect with them, we ask them, "Tell me your story." But sometimes, we only ask people who are like us to tell their stories, preventing minority voices from speaking on their experiences in a safe space.

As Christians, we believe in the centrality of the greatest story ever told, and how that story—and our place in it—can and does transform the world. I've long been interested in the stories people tell about their lives and the real impact these stories should—and can—have. I especially thought about the power and need for stories on July 17, the one-year anniversary of the police murder of African American Eric Garner in NYC that fell on the same week that Sandra Bland, an African American woman, died in police custody after a traffic stop.

For years, even decades, our brothers and sisters of color have been telling the real stories of exclusion in the church, prejudice and racism in the workplace and education system, and discrimination and overt oppression by the justice system and police. But many, many people in the church have not listened to the stories of people of color. I myself have not listened well to the stories of people of color.

In the last few years, we have seen that in many systems of power, and even for many individuals, black lives have not mattered. This has, rightly, caused me to pause and reflect. I'm so thankful for the work of fellow CBE conference speakers, Austin Channing Brown, Mariam Youssef, Young Lee Hertig, Allen Yeh, Adelita Garza, Anne Zaki, Eugene Cho, and Ken Fong—prophetic voices explaining how gender equality work in the church and world must be married to racial equality work. 

As I research the lived experiences of evangelical women theologians, I have slowly begun to recognize the multiple layers of oppression faced by people of color in the church. Yes, there is a pathetically low percentage of women as full-time academic Bible and theology professors, but there is also a pathetically low percentage of men of color as Bible/theology professors and an even smaller percentage of women of color in evangelical Bible/theology.

So, even as I am excited to present the fascinating and illuminating stories of women theologians and biblical scholars in the evangelical academy, I realize my study's shortcomings. I realize how important it is to listen to the experiences of the women in my study, even as I acknowledge with sadness the failure to include the stories of many women of color. This limitation was not because I intentionally "left them out," but because women of color in this study population are so rare. In my study of women members of the Evangelical Theological Society, I interviewed (with my research partner Jennifer Aycock) twenty-nine women, twenty-five of whom were white or European ancestry (not all American citizens). I managed to interview three Asian women (two US, one Canadian), one Hispanic woman, and one woman of Middle Eastern heritage. Of the seven men that I interviewed, only one was non-white. These stories are valid, but we are also tragically missing many more stories of women of color. 

I am grateful to be a part of CBE, which is working to listen better and partner more with our Christian sisters and brothers of color in America and around the world. Yet, I wish to repent of the institutional and structural violence and repression that has oppressed women in the church and the academy. This institutional and structural violence has disproportionally affected women of color.

I wish to affirm that black lives matter. I wish to affirm that black women's lives matter. I wish to affirm that minority voices in our church matter. We can and must start listening.

In my study of women members of the Evangelical Theological Society, multiple research participants shared that they went to their pastors or church leaders with a teaching or pastoral call, only to be told that unless that meant women's or children's ministry, that it wasn't possible. The women were told that they could marry a teacher or pastor, but could not be one themselves. Participants recounted story after story of being belittled, excluded, ignored, and barely allowed to exist on the margins of evangelicalism--simply for exercising their call to teach Bible and theology. One woman described her experience with ETS, saying she felt somewhere between a "unicorn and an alien." Another woman was explicitly not hired for a faculty position, because she was an egalitarian.

One of the Asian American participants explained the layers of difficulty she has encountered as a member of the Evangelical Theological Society: 

"As a woman and as a person of color, it actually is a very, very difficult and painful place to be in many ways, because it tends to be a replay of being treated as if invisible, because of male privilege, white privilege."

My conference workshop, "A Question Mark Over My Head: Learning From the Narratives of Female Theologians in the Evangelical Academy," presented the voices of evangelical women theologians--the struggles and the triumphs, the creative ways in which they are following God's call, and their insight on the state of the church and the evangelical academy. My research is applicable to those working in the academy, but it is also valuable for interested non-academics, as the experiences of these women are relevant to the whole evangelical church. Like the authors of Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism, and the Theological Academy (Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl), the women in my study offer creative possibilities for serving and critiquing the church, as they are truly on the border or margins of Christianity in America—too "liberal" for conservative Christianity, but too "evangelical" or "conservative" for mainline or progressive Christianity. In many ways, egalitarians are often walking the borders between conservative, evangelical, and progressive Christianity, especially if we pay attention to structural or institutional oppression and the oppression of people of color. I hope that my work will provide exciting new opportunities for Christians to look at structural inequities in our institutions and churches and find ways to better listen to the stories of minority groups. 

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