We ended our first week of primarily legislative committee time with a few more wonderful and some not-so-wonderful examples of inclusiveness. First, we want to recognize the stars:
Bethany Amey of Greater New Jersey, mistakenly named in an earlier report, now correctly deserves recognition. Bethany, while chairing the Church and Society I legislative committee, never called on people by name, even when she knew them. In that way, a chair doesn’t imply connection to specific people or any particular positions. Bethany seemed to do that intentionally, which was much appreciated. Some of the other chairs called on some people by name and not others, a few calling on men by name, but women more vaguely, such as “the woman at the back table.” If all names are known, they can be used fairly, but it is often impossible to know everyone’s name. In those cases, it is a “best practice” for chairs to equalize the session by using no names at all, which is what Bethany did – a subtle but notable equalizer.
We would also like to recognize Isaac Chukpue-Padmore of Liberia. He was one of the sub-committee chairs in the Local Church legislative committee. Many in that room appreciated his use of inclusive “humankind” language when praying. It stood out because it was so rare. We also want to note his regular and active invitations to make sure that everyone had a chance to speak.
There were two legislative committees that also warrant recognition. The Faith and Order legislative committee ran business in ways that delegates and monitors described as civil and kind, despite the deep disagreements about petitions assigned to them. They even finished their work on time, graciously thanking each other, chair and delegates alike, for being inclusive. A Central Conference delegate in the Independent Commissions legislative committee made a powerful comment as well. He said that because a few petitions came late to the group, referred from other committees, he and some other non-English speaking delegates had not had a chance to study them as carefully as they would have liked. Still, because they had developed a sense of trust in the legislative committee, he was willing to trust his sisters and brothers and their explanations of the issues. That sense of trust started on the very first day, in the Christian Conferencing session, and carried through their work right to the end.
There have been some problems as well: gendered language, speaking for others, and insensitivity. All of these impact our ability to work with full inclusiveness.
In regard to gendered language, some have referred to women delegates as “girls.” In another case, when a woman identified her work as farming some thousands of acres, the chair later referred to her as a “farmer’s wife.” In the first case, adult women are reduced to the status of a child, and in the second, a woman is seen only as a partner (which she may or may not be), and not as a professional in her own right. Rarely do such speakers MEAN to demean, and women have frankly gotten quite used to these references, so rarely are they met with objections. As the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, it is our job to speak up and try to make us all aware of what these seemingly kind, but also subtly negative messages convey. We also ask for more attention to gendered God language. There’s nothing wrong with using “Father” for God, but if that’s all we hear, it is simply not inclusive of God’s richness, as described in the Bible. Many here yearn for more diversity in the ways we talk about not only humans, but God.
Regarding speaking for others, monitors have observed delegates reading from scripts that seem not to be their own, and at least once not on the topic being discussed. It was the bad timing that made it stand out. They have also observed American delegates getting up after non-English speaking delegates have made a speech, to rephrase or summarize what has already been said. There have also been a number of older male delegates interrupting and/or speaking over younger female delegates. Unlike the stars named above, we don’t want to name anyone here, but hope this gentle reminder will be received by everyone, as we ALL try not to speak for anyone but ourselves.
There have been quite a few insensitive comments, probably more than we can count. The worst example was after a heated debate about Native American mascots. A bit later, having moved on to another topic entirely, one delegate got up and introduced himself as from Atlanta and as an unashamed fan of the Braves. Ouch! Why did that seem like a good idea? While everyone is entitled to his/her position on the issues discussed here at General Conference, we must all be gentle with each other, careful to communicate our opinions and ideas as messages, not using them as weapons to do harm. Another example has happened more than once – delegates apologizing for hurting someone else, but not saying “I’m sorry I hurt you by saying” this or that, but rather, saying “I’m sorry YOU were hurt by what I said.” Again, to make sure everyone feels welcome and a full member of the body, we need to beware of language that shuts others down. Apologies are ALWAYS welcome, but not for someone else’s feelings. We can only apologize for our own words and actions.
Finally, when one of the monitors gave the report in one of the committees, noting that some of the women delegates had reported feeling bullied by others, one male delegate leaned over to a woman near him, snickering, and said, “That wasn’t me, was it?” Indeed sir, it MAY have been you. And bullying is NOT funny. In general, we would request that everyone put their own egos aside and seek better to understand the position, the ideas, and the feelings of others. And saying you were “just kidding” doesn’t help, and it cannot fall to the targets of the jokes to continually explain what is and isn’t funny.
So, our brothers: we are women, not girls, just as you are not boys. We are farmers just as you are, not wives. Like you, we can speak for ourselves. And please don’t interrupt us or make jokes when some of us feel bullied. We often laugh to be polite and so YOU don’t feel bad, but it’s really not funny.