Women’s Herstory

Tall thin woman with big curly hair, in old newsprint photo, singing open-mouthed holding a tambourine.
Me at 29, singing and holding a tambourine

I’ve been going through old boxes from my past, and am currently working on the time I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from 1979 to 1983. It was such a different time–not many photos, for example. But I found this one in a clipping from a women’s periodical, attached to an article I wrote about how women’s history is not just reading about women from the past, but an imperative for us to make history in the present–herstory. I still believe that!

My partner at the time, Gary, and I were trying to make history/herstory through non-violent activism, and through running a Catholic Worker hospitality house. We called it Grimke Community, named after Angelina and Sarah Grimke, white southern women who worked for the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s. We opened our house to a person or family in need of emergency shelter, often in cooperation with the local battered women’s organization. The house was in a kind of land trust, and we lived there rent-free. We could pay the bills if one of us had some sort of half-time job at minimum wage.

I held various jobs during those years, from being a maternity aide for a home-birth midwifery group, to visiting women in the local jail, to cleaning houses, to being a library “page.” I was also doing a lot of music those days, and performing in any local venue I could arrange, from nursing homes to social justice rallies. It is funny to look back at my big naturally-curly hair, my extremely thin torso, and my wide-open mouth. I was learning to use my voice!

In early 1983, when this picture was taken, I was trying to make sense of how to follow my calling. It was something like a call to ministry, but still being Catholic, and being a woman, I felt like I had to invent something totally new. Eventually, I was able to take the next steps by going to Chicago to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary, where I was lucky to receive a full fellowship. Gary and I moved to Chicago to take over also, serendipitously, the leadership of St. Elizabeth Catholic Worker House. Those were years of profound transformations. And after seminary, I did invent something new for myself–a ministry which was a combination of activism, offering feminist therapy for women, and leading feminist ritual and community education. (This was years before I eventually was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.)

Now, looking back at my own herstory, I can feel the continuity between the me of now and the me of back then. But I feel some sadness that the changes for which I struggled, while meeting some success, have also faced incredible backlash and new challenges. Still, I don’t regret any of it.

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Every Person Is Sacred

Star in logOne purpose of spirituality is to restore our connection to each other, or rather, to wake up our awareness to the connection that already exists. We are always connected, but we forget, we lose hold of it, we suffer from the illusion that we are separate. Spirituality is our experience of being a part of the larger whole. Spirituality is restoring our awareness of our connection to the earth, to other people, and to the Mystery at the heart of our vast universe. All of it is one.

Every person is sacred, and we are all one family. The early Universalists said that everyone was getting into heaven. As that belief evolved over the years, they began to say that there was something of heaven, something of God, something of truth in all people and all religions. The circle kept expanding. Today, some of my beloved congregation members don’t even believe in heaven, but we all believe in the common circle of human beings. We profess that everyone is sacred and everyone is welcome.

I am reminded of one of my favorite stories about heaven. Everyone was gathered around the pearly gates, waiting for judgment day, when a rumor started going around.
Did you hear that God’s going to let everybody into heaven?”
You mean, whether or not you followed the commandments?”
That’s what I heard! Even murderers and heathens!”

Well, some people started griping.
I’ve worked hard to be good all my life! I don’t want to be thrown in with sinners!”
And others complained, “I can’t believe he’s going to let in the perverts and the terrorists!”

Finally, God showed up. And sure enough, everyone was welcomed into heaven. But a few proclaimed, “We’re not going in with sinners and heathens!” So they were the only ones who remained outside.

On this spiritual journey, we choose to open our hearts to all people. We learn to see that which is divine in all people. When I think of that kind of vision, I think of a story about Dorothy Day. She was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, of which I was a part for seven years. Catholic Workers live in houses of hospitality to serve the homeless and poor, while working for peace and justice. One day a donor came into the Catholic Worker house and gave Dorothy Day a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented homeless lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman.Diamond

Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?” Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?” Dorothy looked for the treasure in each person who came through the door.

Story recounted in the essay “A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day’s Witness to the Gospel” by Jim Forest