The Christian Scholars Conference–now the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars Conference, in honor of its founder and visionary of many years–has in recent years been a locus of cutting edge discussion in Churches of Christ theological issues as well as an increasingly substantive, cutting edge interdisciplinary academic gathering. It is, no contest, my personal favorite academic annual event.
In 2009, two landmark sessions initiated what has become a sustained, continuous look at issues of gender in Churches of Christ. The first session, convened and moderated by Dr. Ken Cukrowski of ACU, was simple in concept–and devastating in impact. A panel of a dozen women, of all ages and various occupations, told their stories of experiencing what it had meant to grow up in the Churches of Christ and what this had taught them–and what they had had to unlearn–about what it meant to be a woman, in church and in life. The power of making intentional space for these voices, these female voices which otherwise had no public space where they could be heard in our fellowship, was incredible, and even in the moment, those of us in the room felt it. It was a moment where the Spirit was palpable.
(This session, and the power of the narratives of these women, inspired the crowdsourcing project hosted at rudetruth, which is still open should anyone wish to add to the narratives archived there.)
This powerful session was followed the next day by an equally compelling and heartbreaking session, where we heard from those who had been–in the language of our memorial page–been called elsewhere. Micki Pulleyking, Katie Hays and Andre Resner courageously shared their narratives of working within, and leaving, the Churches of Christ, because of our deafness to the call for gender justice. I would like to make the claim that there was not a dry eye in the room at the end of this session, but I can’t be sure simply because I was too teary myself to see clearly.
What began in 2009 has been faithfully followed up each year by many, including Lynette Sharp Penya, who has presented her own cutting edge empirical research into attitudes on gender roles within our churches.
This year, in a session entitled “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Strategies for Social Change within the Churches of Christ,” Jeff Baker, Natalie Dunn Magnusson, James W. McCarty III, and I talked about the various initiatives and groups currently working toward gender justice in Churches of Christ. And the wonderful news is, there are several–perhaps more than we on the panel even personally know about–but we represented three key groups: the Women in Ministry Network, gal328.org, and 1voice4change. The point, however, was not merely to promote these efforts but to talk about them as exemplars of different strategies for working toward social justice within our churches and our fellowship more broadly. (Keep an eye on the blog here, as this post serves merely as an introduction to frame a full report on this important session.)
In addition, several others in our midst presented their own research and scholarship, and we had our first ever gal328 meetup for Thursday breakfast–though I caught only the tail end. When I walked into the campus Starbucks I saw a room full of energetic people deep in conversation who all counted gender justice worth getting up early in the morning for. I am encouraged, and I hope you all were too!
And finally: there were an outstanding number of big red buttons distributed and displayed proudly on lapels and jackets and at least one baby carrier! As we continue to collaborate with our friends at 1voice4change.com, keep an eye on the website for updates.
I’ll conclude this post with one of the most precious and serendipitous moments of the conference, for me. I was on my way to the car when I encountered a friend-I-hadn’t-made-yet, who called me over and asked if I had a moment to chat. At the end of our conversation, a blessing was literally pronounced on me–right there in the parking lot. Many times I have received a benediction in church, but never before in a parking lot. And these (as I remember them) were the spontaneous words of blessing pronounced on this work: “you have God’s grace in your heart, and on your tongue.” May we speak our words in the knowledge and strength of that grace, friends. Amen.