It was the summer of 2012 and President Obama had just announced "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," after Congress failed to pass the Dream Act. I was the executive director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network at the time. We convened a meeting of all the various agencies who worked with and supported immigrants--from schools to law practices.
After the meeting of community leaders, people were talking in small groups and debriefing. An attorney, a woman, from an international organization came up to me and out of earshot of the other participants shared, "I really appreciate how you chair a meeting. I feel like everyone gets an equal opportunity to talk and that you especially make sure women are being heard." I must have looked shocked and slightly confused, because she continued, "I can assure you, it is not always that way and we notice the difference."
I'm not sure how I learned that skill, I AM sure I was not born with it. As an American male, I was raised seeing the men eat lunch and then go watch football, while the "ladies" cleaned up. The church I was raised in only allowed men to preach and serve communion, but was always fine with women singing and keeping the church clean. I noticed that while the elders had to be men, many of them would change their minds after consulting with their wives on important issues. I did see a few glimpses of egalitarianism when it came to milking cows, feeding calves, and working on the farm, where my sisters and mom contributed equally. Yet, the overriding narrative was clearly that women were subordinate and only meant to support men in their lives and work.
Then my wife and I moved to Minneapolis, into a predominately black neighborhood, and began a ministry alongside an African-American man and his wife. I became committed to racial reconciliation when I witnessed racism, prejudice, and the resulting cultural divides firsthand. We committed to honor one another and live out reconciliation in how we approached leadership and addressed conflict. It was all about racial healing, that is, until our wives got in on the conversation.
They helped us see that the values we followed, the Scriptures we quoted, and the end goal of reconciliation must also be applied across the lines of gender. The call of the following Scriptures confirms God's command to reconcile injustice in the relationship between men and women:
- "Honor one another above yourself" (Romans 12:10).
- "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21).
- "...if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you... First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:25).
In reflection and application of these Scriptures, I was forced to consider the importance of putting my own desires and power aside to honor others. Yet, I knew I could be oblivious to the needs of those around me. I could cause shame and dishonor if I did not take the effort to check my own agenda and become aware of others, especially those most unlike me, who I was most likely to either misunderstand, or just plain miss in my own self-absorbed maleness. I realized that I needed the voice of others to become a better me.
The words of Jesus in Matthew were a stark reminder that my worship is empty if I allow enmity to stand between me and my fellow human being. The health of my relationship with God cannot be separated from the quality of my relationships with others (1 John 4:20-21).
So, I grew to appreciate and learn from the unique experiences of my friends of color (who initially were mostly men) and eventually, I began to identify some of the same barriers between men and women. In regards to racial reconciliation, I realized that my friends had experiences that I couldn't argue away, but could only learn to appreciate vicariously. Likewise, I realized the same was true with the women in my life.
As I became aware of how my white-male power could dishonor, and in effect either silence, or infuriate, men of color, I also began to understand how my maleness had the same impact on women. In both cases, I had to learn how to rescind, submit, and occasionally leverage that power so that my presence did not spark aggression nor encourage passiveness, but could instead help generate mutual respect and interdependence.
Yet, I continue to be the recipient of privileges and power that only men receive, despite not having earned any of those privileges. This is the space where men are either passive participants or active agents of change. Men need to be aware of this power and should actively leverage that power to widen the conversation, open the dialogue, and push for equity for and inclusion of women, who for centuries, have been excluded and marginalized.
I know with confidence that we are called to this work. My Lord set the example when he broke cultural norms to give women the opportunity to receive education, give testimony, and become teachers and ministers. Jesus knew some would use his activism as a reason to question his qualifications. Yet, he stood firm as an advocate, knowing he was not complete in his calling if women were not fully included.
So, somehow I have learned to listen, and to be aware of the men and women with whom I share my space. As a result, I am better off. Contrary to the fears of complementarians, I have not been diminished by the women who teach me, lead me, challenge me, and correct me. No, I have become more of a man in the fullness of the creator, who shaped us, male and female, in his own image.