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This year’s Women in Church and Ministry Conference in March was a rich and serendipitous encounter between women from a broad spectrum of ages, interests, and denominations who share a common desire to serve God with all their diverse and abundant gifts.

At the opening night dinner in the Main Lounge, I was struck by the counterpoint of our mostly female group sharing a meal under the gaze of the mostly male faces in the portraits overhead. Silently, I toasted the two women included on canvas; they must have been extraordinary to have arrived in the pantheon without the usual passkey of a y chromosome.

The conference’s fertile theme, “Inheriting the Promise and Then… Discovering the Voice of Sisterhood,” resonated in a myriad of motifs and timbres. Our banquet was enriched by the singing of several gifted Seminary students, spiced by an occasional guitar, and the ambiance created a warm sense of sisterhood. One student sang a song of piercing loveliness, a song that she had written while hospitalized for depression. It was a grace note — the courage of this young woman, the beauty flowing from deep pain — that brought up the deeper registers of the voice of sisterhood.

Thus fed and attuned, we moved to Miller Chapel to hear the Women in Church and Ministry lecturer, Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, professor of ethics and theology at Drew University Theological School. What a gift she was! Eschewing the elevated pulpit as “too hierarchical,” Isasi-Diaz chose to address us from the lectern — down to earth. A native of Cuba who was forced to flee at age eighteen, Isasi-Diaz dedicated her talk to five Cuban women who traveled here, at unique expense, to participate in the conference.

With authority and humility, Isasi-Diaz spoke on “Women, Justice, and the Future of the Church.” The struggle for justice has been “home” for her, she said, and was at the heart of the mission of Jesus. She defined righteousness as an entering into relationship with all of God’s creation. She described with compelling clarity how the dominant group determines the norm and marginalizes those who are different — a perversion of the divine plan.

“My job is a being with others — not a doing for others,” she said, and “salvation depends on a love of neighbor.” She sees ministry as an “ongoing conversion, a vocation that must not be choked by professionalism.”

One facet of her confrontation with injustice derives from being a woman in the Roman Catholic Church: “The doors to women clanged shut” in 1979, when John Paul became pope. On the other hand, she added, “The Pope is not eternal!” Isasi-Diaz is a force of faith, tenacity, and spunk, with a delicious sense of humor. I felt drawn to her as to a campfire.

We talked the next morning in her guest-room in Erdman, where she immediately insisted that I call her “Ada”; she practices what she preaches and has no hubris-driven need for power constructs. She shared some of her experiences as a nun in Peru.

“Obedience is not my cup of tea,” she said. “I banged my head on the establishment order…. I needed care and support from those I worked with, and I was getting opposition.” As one with a few dings on my own female cranium, I felt affirmed by her candor and by her intrepid spirit.

Her experience has strengthened her belief in the centrality of faith instead of doctrine. She fervently believes that the church must gather in the hopes and prayers of the people; this echoes last year’s WICAM lecture by Ann Belford Ulanov, who said that if the church fails to do this, it will not survive.

My experience of the conference was completed by a workshop whose focus was feeding the soul. Barbara Chaapel created a space that fostered a remarkable intimacy, a sisterhood discernibly bonded by the Holy Spirit, in which trust and connection flourished, and lo — our souls were fed. While the leonine winds of early March swirled outside, we were snug by glowing candles and the symbols of poetry, silence, and music. I was awed by the closeness engendered by this brief encounter and — reluctant to see it end — had dinner with several of these pastors. The networking that ensued has plopped me into the lap of my Field Ed placement for next year, a powerful and personal reminder that God is directing a choir in which women’s voices are vital and sing a glorious song. greendot.gif (43 bytes)

willis2.jpg (32376 bytes) Anne Hopkins will be a senior in the M. Div. program next fall. She is from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary
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