By Winter DeGraaf-Hamilton
We often take for granted the things we assume are normal. I remember being a small child just learning how to read. Not just Dick and Jane read, but more on the level of Berenstain Bears read. I was sitting in my mother’s office and trying to read the posters that covered her walls at the large suburban church where she was a diaconal minister. There was the classic Robert Fulghum quote, “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our Air Force has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber.” A framed cross stitch quote said, “There was a time when only God could end the world.” Looking back, my mother’s anti-war activism of her youth was all around me. Though she no longer has those particular wall hangings in her current office, where she serves as a deacon, I know they still touch on some of her deepest understandings of God’s purpose for creation. But I must keep my focus here. So there I was, about 6 years old, looking over all of these sayings hanging on her office wall. On top of the file cabinet was a little plaque that read, “Trust in God and She will provide.” I remember thinking to myself, “Of course she will. She always does.”
Seeing God through the lens of the divine feminine was something that I assumed all people did. In my 6-year-old logic this was all very easy to understand. Of course God is a father, and a mother, and all of those things, and none of those things. Of course God loves us like the best parent in the entire universe, gender notwithstanding. Why wouldn’t we call God she if we called God he?
My assumptions went hand in hand with the fact that I loved church and all of the people in it. I had a deep trust in that first faith community of my childhood, and I was sure that every one of those people had the exact same understanding of a God who stretches all the way around the world, under many different names. I thought that we were all the exact same, because it seemed like we loved each other the exact same. We were all feminists, right? That movement must have made the whole church and the whole country, and maybe even the whole world aware that girls could be ministers and boys could be nurses and we could all go to school to become doctors and lawyers if we wanted.
By the time I was nearing confirmation age, my world had done a back flip. It turns out that there were people who not only were very uncomfortable with me referencing God as she, but there were even people, including people in my own family, who didn’t think that women should be ordained.
African-American activist and feminist Florynce Kennedy once said about her upbringing, “My parents gave us a fantastic sense of security and worth. By the time the bigots got around to telling us that we were nobody, we already knew we were somebody.” Though I have no way to understand racism from the perspective of an African-American, I do relate to the strong sense of identity that she received from her parents. By the time I heard women couldn’t be ordained and God could never be a woman, I already knew the opposite.
I was privileged as a child to take for granted the work of our mothers and grandmothers before us. When I told my mother that I had been called to ministry, she showered me with support, while being soberly honest about the difficulties I would face. But just one generation before, when she told her parents she was called, my grandfather said to her, “Oh, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. It says in the Bible that women shouldn’t be leaders in the church.” To which my grandmother responded, “Well if women are good enough to do all the work in the church, teach the kids, cook and serve, lead Vacation Bible School and sew the Christmas costumes, then they should be able to be ministers, too.” My mother’s paternal grandmother, my Great Grandma Iva, said, “There’s really no good reason women shouldn’t be ministers…it’s just how it’s always been.” Hearing the small voices of resistance from the women that raised her offered her hope and support. It was these voices, my mother’s resilience, and the grace of God that brought her to be ordained in The United Methodist Church.
This Women’s History Month I want to lift up my mother and all of our mothers before us. It is their hard work that has allowed me the privilege to take for granted all that I was taught. The waters of their continuous, gentle, and sometimes fierce pushback carved out a place for women in my generation. Upon my graduation from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary this May I will wear red shoes in honor of Georgia Harkness and all of the other women who dared to follow their call from God into the church and the academy. I will stare out over the faces of female clergy and faculty who worked tirelessly to provide me the opportunity that so few women on this planet have been given. I will look upon my mother’s face in thanksgiving. Thankful for the hard work of those who came before and the privilege it has bestowed on me. Then I will box up those shoes until I am commissioned and then ordained, and the label on the box will say, “For our mothers before us.”
Winter DeGraaf-Hamilton is an intern at GCSRW. A third-year student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, she is a certified deacon in the Missouri Annual Conference and hopes to do parish ministry in the St. Louis area.