|Posted by chesterlanducc on January 25, 2017 at 12:35 AM|
This congregation’s first building was a Presbyterian meeting house, which like many churches built in the 1820s, had two doors—one for women and one for men. And it had divided pews so that men and women would enter the church separately and then worship separately. The division and the inferiority of the role of women in the faith was literally built into the architecture of the Church.
In Christianity today, many if not most women are still second class citizens in the religion that women helped establish, that they have nurtured and built up for two millennia. It is clear in the gospels and especially in the Epistles of Paul that women were amongst the earliest disciples — both religious leaders and financial benefactors who helped build the Church. Despite this fact, many women can still not serve as clergy in the Churches they worship, and even for those women who serve in denominations which now ordain women; women are still often not afforded the same opportunities as men are.
In our own nation, Antoinette Brown was the first woman to be ordained as a mainstream Protestant minister in the United States in 1852 by the Congregational Church (our denomination). Brown was a graduate of Oberlin College and a fierce advocate of women’s rights and she prepared the path for thousands of female clergy after her to be ordained.
After Rev. Brown, there were other pioneers in our churches and in our own congregation who were ordained and later called to serve. At Community Church the Rev. Evelyn Walsh became our first female minister in 1930. Later we called the Rev. Harriet Patterson in 1944, whom some of members remember, and who came to this faith community at a moment where we were ready to close our doors and it was her leadership that helped to sustain and grow this faith community in the 40 and early 50s.
When we attended the Church Vitality Labs by Rev. Michael Piazza, he shared with us that he consults for many, many churches, and as part of his consulting he always seeks to learn about the Church’s history. And he told us that almost without exception, when he reads or hears the history of a Church there is a spike in its vitality and engagement following World War II. Before World War II, church attendance was much lower, and approximately the size it is today.
Rev. Piazza said it is often suggested that it was the men coming back after experiencing the horrors of war that brought families back to churches and brought about a golden era of Churches in our nation. He contends however that it was actually the women who had been empowered and greatly successful in filling in the jobs that the men had left behind as they left for war, that lead to what is often referred to as a third great awakening—a significant and historical growth of Churches and of faith in our nation.
These women he suggests were talented and successful and when the men came back and their jobs were given to men, these women took their passions and their talents and they employed them in Churches across our nation and they engaged in significant social action, they created great wealth for churches, they established women’s groups and circles, many church buildings were built and many congregations thrived during this period.
Rev. Piazza suggests that it is because of these women, women like many of whom we celebrate in this Church’s history, some of your mothers or grandmothers, that the protestant Church thrived in the 50s and 60s the way it did. In this Church women started a catering service to help pay for this building, they formed women’s circles and study groups increasing the intellectual and theological engagement of this congregation. They lead our congregation in engaging in issues such as fair housing in Cleveland, Cesar Chavez’s Farm Workers movement, and that marched and protested for civil rights.
They created a culture of social justice in this faith community which has continued today and has become one of the defining characteristics of who we understand Community Church of Chesterland to be.
As many of you know, yesterday I was among approximately half a million people in Washington DC, and millions across our nation, marching for women’s rights in our nation and our world and I would like to think that we marched in memory and solidarity with women like Antoinette Brown, like Rev. Evelyn Walsh and Rev. Harriet Patterson, and the many female leaders of our Church who in the 1950s and 60s not only helped build this physical structure that we worship in today, but who helped build a spirit of inclusion and justice and compassion that feeds us spiritually still today.
We have come a long way since our church building had separate doors for men and women and our pews were separated in order to separate the sexes—and we have come a long way since women were not allowed to be leaders in our faith communities—but it is overwhelmingly clear, that just like with the issue of race in this country, that we still have a long way to go to afford true equality for women in this country—true equality for health care and equal wages and freedom from sexual harassment and abuse. We have a long ways to go. But as one of our former female members once said “We cooked because we had a vision, and visions have to be paid for like everything else. Our Church back in the 50s was a collection of men, women, and families who felt a togetherness we wanted to celebrate. Therefore we raised and borrowed money and built a grand edifice in which to carry out our vision for a peaceful world.”
As I stood on that crowded subway train riding into DC Saturday people broke out into song, singing about peace. And even though the crowds were massive and you could barely tell where you were or where you going or which line was what line into the subway, there was both civility and compassion for one another, as well as a palatable sense of hope and unity for women.
Those voices of those millions of women and men chanting and marching for women across our nation were but an echo of the millions upon millions of women who have come before us to help lay the foundation and the path towards equality for men and women—that one day my daughters and your daughters and granddaughters and great granddaughters may enjoy the same type of safety from sexual abuse and harassment that most men do today—that one day soon they might have equal pay for equal work—that one day not far off in the future they might not have to worry about their appearances or how they are perceived just because they are strong and intelligent and beautiful!
Someday all of the work and sacrifice of so many generations of women will indeed culminate in a society in our nation of mutual respect and appreciation for diversity—but until that day, I imagine people, women and men, will continue to march and to protest and to speak out and to push for legislation that moves us towards a vision of equality for men and women in this country.
Thanks be to God for God’s still speaking voice. Amen.