by Diann L. Neu and Mary E. Hunt
WATER staff surveyed the LGBTIQ religious landscape to assemble a diverse group of people to look at “amplifying women’s voices” in that movement. We identified some of the most pivotal people who are activists, academics, and ministers, taking into account intergenerational voices (from ages 22 to 66); racial/ethnic and religious diversity (African American, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian; Reform Jewish, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Catholic, Mennonite, Unitarian Universalist, non-theistic, and others); geographic location (PA, NY, MA, CA, DC, CO, MD, OH, MN, and GA), as well as various gender identities and sexual orientations. We sought people who could work collaboratively and value listening as much as speaking. Happily, the careful work paid off in a congenial and multi-faceted group.
We invited a number of those we had identified to join us for a three-day meeting at the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours (Marriotsville, MD). Bon Secours is known for its beautiful grounds, healthy food, comfortable rooms, and commitment to justice work, making it an ideal place for our group. As a Catholic women’s community dedicated to health care, the Bon Secours Sisters are wonderful colleagues of WATER, longtime and generous supporters of our work. They were delighted to host this group, expanding their justice horizons to include ever more diverse voices.
Fourteen people convened from December 9-11, 2014 for what was a remarkable gathering that seeded change in the movement, provided needed support for those involved, and issued in three concrete next steps.
Building on WATER’s successful and on-going work amplifying the voices of Catholic lesbian/queer women, we proposed to gather a religiously diverse group. We aimed to learn how women’s voices are so often muffled, how women’s issues are often placed outside the scope of a group’s work, and how women ourselves are sometimes doing a great deal of work which mostly benefits men.
We intuited that what we needed was not to bring in speakers (many people one would invite were already at the table!) or set up workshops, roundtables, or the like. Rather, we sensed that this group would work best with open and lightly steered conversation. The process accomplished more than we had hoped was possible.
Indicators and progress:
Steps forward together were many and varied:
- This was the first time a group of women and gender transgressive people in religion came together with the explicit purpose of figuring out how to push open the parameters of a successful but still largely male and cis-gender focused LGBTIQ religious movement.
- Trans people and people with trans family members/partners were in the conversation from the start, not added on but as integral to the shaping of the discourse.
- We strove to create not so much “safe” but “brave” spaces for hard conversations about race/ethnicity, gender identity, and the like.
- We benefited from being intergenerational. Our conversations were relevant to immediate needs, as well as grounded in the rich history of feminist/womanist/mujerista work in the field of religion.
- We saw how religious media experts do their work, and how much we need their talent to convey a strong and convincing message in a cacophonous world. We did our own video segments in order to practice doing media, archive our own work, and even promote WATER.
- We began to name what we need as a movement. Among the needs are:
- A writing retreat to help graduate students complete their dissertations;
- A worship guide to help people from a range of traditions embrace an inclusive agenda;
- More such gatherings—perhaps a second round with this group in a year, and/or an expanded or even different table full of similar colleagues—to use collaborative conversations to deepen analysis and develop strategies.
- We reshaped our thinking:
- What began as a way to amplify marginalized voices of women ended up being the amplification of marginalized voices of women, people of color, and gender transgressive people.
- We could see how WATER and other organizations need to reconfigure aspects of our mission and program offerings to expand our reach to include ever more diverse people.
- We put bodies first—because they are the first sites of knowledge.
- We put Black and Brown bodies in a privileged place because they have been marginalized and excluded.
- We re-imagined “intersectionality” from a flat concept to a many-dimensional approach to social justice.
- We practiced “queer generative relationality” as we lived and worked together.
Much of what happened was unanticipated. We had not frontloaded the event with a great deal of input. Instead, we asked people to come prepared to discuss:
✓ Information from your location—your organization, research, teaching, organizing, press work—that sheds light on the problem
✓ Materials on women in LGBTIQ religious conversations and beyond (bibliographies, articles, names of films, people we should reach out to, and more)
✓ Best practices you have discovered in your work for amplifying women’s voices
✓ Major challenges you perceive for LGBTIQ religious movements in general and for women in particular
✓ Ideas about how women’s voices can be conveyed in social media, video, music, the arts, scholarship, and preaching
✓ Prayers and rituals that are inclusive and have worked for your community
✓ Media strategies we might employ to weave our commitments into broader messaging
This seemed to be more than enough to seed conversations that could have gone on for several more days. These materials were the basis of our conversations.
Among the concrete things we could not have anticipated:
- As one person wrote, “how the intentional spirit of hospitality at the gathering… (allowed us) to go deeper into the difficult conversations around difference.”
- How quickly and urgently the intersectional analysis became flesh in Black/Brown bodies given the convergence of Ferguson, New York, and other instances of racist oppression and their aftermath.
- How challenging it is to think about our trans children and what resources and options we are creating for and with them.
- How specific groups, for example DignityUSA that will meet in Philadelphia in September 2015 for the anniversary of the non-ordination of Catholic women and for the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S., could link with folks on the ground there.
- As another person observed, we are about “reframing of the theological messaging and methods of distribution.”
- New ideas for worship that arose across traditions.
- New, deeper senses of accountability and how to achieve it not only for this group but with other colleagues as well.
- For one person, simply being “visible” as self was a great gift. We all became more sensitive to the challenges of pronouns, respecting the right of each person to use pronouns of choice.
- Practice in how to work collaboratively with confidence that it will issue in something useful and important.
- Many new relationships that will issue in common work and strengthen networks. There is simply no way to quantify that.
We at WATER learned a great deal:
- We learned that the teaching, writing, preaching, and organizing of members of this group will reflect intersectional analysis and complexity as never before, pushing the LGBTIQ movement as they go.
- We understood the importance of working as a team from beginning to end, and how that spirit spreads to others who may not be as accustomed to it as we are at WATER.
- We recognized the importance of hosting at a comfortable, welcoming, and hospitable place such as the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours that we recommend highly to other groups. That way all of the energy can focus on the work, not on small inconveniences, and people feel well cared for along the way.
- We facilitated the meeting so voices were heard on their own terms and highly skilled and committed people resourced one another. We became confident in our model of leaving plenty of open time in the schedule (after lunch, a free evening, break times, and more) so that organic conversations could emerge.
- We affirmed that having some spiritual component to a meeting of this sort is challenging but important. We used collective silence/meditation a few times. We used several simple songs/chants. We focused on “Gifts” in the closing ritual to give people a way to give thanks and praise.
- We learned that it is critical to bring interns to these events so that young women as well as more seasoned colleagues are part of the mix.
- We realized that we could repeat this process with a similar group and emerge with equally compelling outcomes.
- We discovered that a short-term project of this sort could be accomplished with focus and hard work.
- We took away the need for using media to best advantage. To this end, we videoed much of the discussion for archival/teaching purposes, we asked people to record short statements, capturing some of the dynamic relationships between individuals and their groups which make up this movement. A short video of the meeting is forthcoming from WATER staff.