“On Having to Choose: Scholar or Activist” by Mary Ann Kaiser

This past August, Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Human Rights Campaign hosted a series of workshops on the issue of religion and sexuality. Though I was not actually a part of this event, I was excited about its occurrence for a couple of reasons. First, as the field of queer studies continues to grow in religious academic programs, it is necessary to create space for future scholars to consider their role in discussions of religion and sexuality. I imagined it being incredibly empowering to gather with other students from across the country who are queer, religious, and doing doctoral work. I was also pleased, however, because one of the lectures was given by feminist theologian Dr. Mary E. Hunt entitled “Responsible Academics are Useful Activists.”

Just one week before the event, I wrapped up my summer internship at WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual) of which Mary Hunt is co-founder and co-director, along with Dr. Diann Neu. The lecture she delivered at Vanderbilt was illustrative of some of the most important wisdom I gained while working at WATER.

I am now in my third year of an MDiv program and am applying to PhD programs in hopes of studying ecofeminist theology. Over the past year, I have struggled deeply with my seemingly contradictory commitments to both the world of academics and the life of an activist. For a long time, I imagined having to choose between one of these. I could sit in an office writing or a classroom teaching or I could engage social and religious issues in a concrete fashion through a nonprofit organization. I saw these as separate vocations and struggled with the perceived need to choose one of them. However, at WATER I learned that this traditional split is far from the only option.

As so thoroughly discussed in her lecture, Mary Hunt is a scholar activist engaged in both the academy and on-the-ground work in feminist and queer liberation. WATER provides a unique space to do just such work. It is an inter-religious, academic nonprofit which identifies as an “international community of justice-seeking people who promote the use of feminist values to make religious and social change.” It now acts for me as a model of creative possibilities for scholar activism as I envision my own future.

In the all-too-short ten week period I had at WATER, I witnessed and participated in a wide variety of activities that speak to Mary’s conviction that “responsible academics are useful activists.” A few examples of what WATER does that illustrates this dynamic:

–Monthly teleconferences in which a scholar, activist or minister is invited to share their current work and anyone around the globe is invited to call-in and participate. Bridging the academy and the masses, these conferences empower and educate all who are interested in feminist religious work and connect them with otherwise difficult to access scholars such as Shawn Copeland, Patrick Chang, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.
–The internships they offer have benefitted 42 interns to date! Spending time in the WATER office, working with Neu, Hunt, and a variety of other women working hard to create social change is an empowering experience which is shaping future feminist leaders.
–Each year at AAR, WATER hosts the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network during which scholars and activists gather together to share knowledge about their work and network with one another. It is a place to support one another as scholars working towards a communal goal in the face of a very individualistic academy.
–On top of general WATER activities, Hunt does a lot of writing and teaching. She and Neu recently edited New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views, and Hunt continues to work on both scholarly articles and popular writing.

I could go on and on about participation in legislative briefings, the newly forming LGBTQ project, or their “In a Different Style” program which provides people with disabilities the opportunity to gain work experience at WATER. All of these programs intersect the scholarly world with concrete efforts to create social change through the religious sphere. Dr. Hunt points out in her lecture that such models are hard to come by for a number of reasons. For instance, as scholars, there is pressure to fulfill a particular set of criteria in order to be respected as an academic. Generally, to claim one’s starting point as “feminist” or “queer” is risky. There is still pressure to pretend there is a possible objective starting point and those who claim such are esteemed for being “unbiased.” Further, much of the work done by scholar activists is not what institutions are looking for when considering whether or not to grant someone tenure.

Making time for activism while fulfilling the requirements of an institution is difficult, and to do it well, might mean finding a nontraditional job outside of the academic mainstream. But as I learned at WATER this summer, it might not be easy, but it is possible. WATER is making it happen along with other nonprofit organizations like The Faith Trust Institute and the Resource Center for Women in Ministry in the South.

We need feminist and queer scholars in the religious field and we need activists on the ground, but these positions do not necessarily have to be held by different people. With creative thinking, a willingness to go against the grain, and a collaborative mindset, it is possible to become a “responsible academic and a useful activist.” This gives me hope, for who I hope to become as a scholar, for the future of the academy, and for the on-going efforts to achieve religious equality for all.

(Originally published on State of Formation’s website here.)