by Rebekah Thornhill
In 2009, our ELCA Churchwide Assembly authorized a social statement process on women and justice. Social statements are teaching and policy documents that provide broad frameworks to assist in thinking about and discussing social issues in the context of faith and life. These statements often guide our work as a publically engaged church. But what does this work look like and how can you, as an individual or with your congregation, get involved?
First, a task force was formed that was charged with leading our church in the development of this statement. Since 2012, the ELCA Task Force on Women and Justice: One in Christ has held over 100 listening events and heard presentations form nearly two dozen specialists to help understand the issues that would contribute. We talked to a member of the task force and one of those specialists that are active in our own synod to help introduce you to this work and invite you into the process.
Fern Lee Hagedorn addressed the 2013 MNYS Assembly to introduce the ELCA Task Force on Women and Justice: One in Christ and invite comments.
"We started by listening and getting information on a wide range of issues including gender based violence, women in media, biblical interpretation and all the way to asking what is justice and the church’s role in seeking it," says Fern Lee Hagedorn, a member of St. Paul’s, Narrowsburg and the task force.
"Let us not be afraid," says Antonia Clemente, Executive Director and co-founder of The Healing Center in Brooklyn. "It’s not a women issue. It’s a community issue. It’s a faith issue. We need to talk about it." The Healing Center began with a grant in 2000 that provided seed money to address domestic violence in the community and in the church. Clemente was a specialist who addressed the task force in their early stages to share the work of The Healing Center and the people it serves.
"When we first started [The Healing Center], it was challenging because people didn’t want to talk," recalls Clemente. "Domestic violence is very much in the silent shadows of our society." But since their start meeting women in a church kitchen, they have grown significantly. They now have offices at Bethlehem Lutheran Church where they have expanded past their women’s support groups to work with children, teens, and older adults. "We are a domestic violence organization and as such, we see the whole family," says Clemente. One program, Daughters of the Lotus, works with teens to understand healthy relationships and their bodies through dance and art therapies. The Healing Center also organizes the New York City Teen Dating Violence Walk, which is held each April from downtown Brooklyn to the steps of City Hall. They have a psychologist on staff that works with children and a staff member who helps with advocacy around elder abuse.
Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez (left) joins Antonia Clemente (right) and The Healing Center at the NYC Teen Dating Violence Awareness Walkathon in 2016.
They don’t stop here. The Healing Center reaches into schools and churches to create awareness around intimate partner violence. "For our churches and our congregations, there is a need to talk about this as a community of faith," says Clemente. Our churches are often the first place people will go when they need help and so our leaders need to be prepared. Learn some ways to be prepared on our MNYS Domestic Abuse Task Force page.
"We need to talk about it," Clemente continues. "God has called us for such a time as this. God did not create us to live in the shadows or to be a church that is not responsive to those in need."
The ELCA Task Force on Women and Justice is calling us into conversation about violence against women and so much more. As a task force member, Hagedorn found a shift in her own view. "The feminist movement meant something much different when I was younger," she says, explaining that in the 70s, it seemed to be for white women. "I have come to understand it differently as one of 19 members of the task force -- we voice our views and listen to each other. This is a more holistic approach that looks at the intersections of faith, race, economics, human trafficking, education, and more. It is all relevant to women and men, boys and girls, and I feel much more in tune to that."
They have brought together this broad and holistic approach in "Faith, Sexism, Justice: Conversations toward a Social Statement." Released this past summer, this study guide for individuals, congregations, and groups is the next step in the process of creating a social statement.
The study guide includes an expansive amount of material that is easily customized to your normal practice. You can do all of the modules and utilize the "going deeper" materials or pick and choose your modules, focusing on the highlighted "must read" paragraphs. Feedback can be given towards each module or the entire study. "We value feedback from everyone," says Hagedorn. "Are we going in the right direction? What is missing? Have we stated this clearly? Do you have another understanding? This is a conversation."
"My question has always been, are our congregations a place where people feel safe to express an opinion? Why or why not? We need to be honest about how we feel. Issues like racism and gender equality are avoided because everyone has an opinion and we know we won’t always agree. But we have to create a safe space to talk about the hard issues. Set the stage for the safety of the conversation," advises Hagedorn.
And with a study guide that looks at the many intersections of women in society, participants will see a broadening idea of how economics, education, race, violence and sexism will contribute to our understanding of God’s justice in our world.
For example, modules in the study guide shed light on the words and images used for God and how scripture has been misused against women and girls. "I remember in one meeting we were talking about language," says Hagedorn. "The issue of language to describe God isn’t just semantics, or equality; language can limit our own understanding of God. When we break out of these limits, we realize how expansive God is -- more than we can ever imagine; how much more meaningful God becomes!"
"It matters that the church is involved in this," says Hagedorn. Each congregation has been sent a copy of the study materials, which are also available for download. "It is the church that will make the difference and we have a responsibility and call to be present with those who suffer. We as a church have the responsibility to journey and walk with people," says Clemente. "I am glad our church has a social message and is moving towards a statement. This speaks volumes. I take pride that our church is taking such a bold step."
"Faith, Sexism, Justice" can be downloaded at no charge at ELCA.org/womenandjustice. Print copies are available at ELCA.org/Resources or by calling 800-638-3522. Congregations, groups, and individuals are asked to provide their feedback to the study by August 31, 2017, after which a draft of the social statement will be published. Hearings will again be held to give comment before the 2019 Churchwide Assembly considers the social statement.