Thursday, December 8, 2016

The political is personal

I cried at least once a day for the first ten days after November 8.

There are a lot of reasons, and there is no single reason I can explain. But it’s been a month now, and its time for me to start writing stories again. Because stories are how I process the world, and goodness knows we need to process, and because stories will be so important in these months as we try to remember how to love one another.

This story is imperfect and selfish and true and has nothing to do with policy, really. And it’s not at all the most pressing reason to mourn, but it’s one that has somehow cut me deep in these weeks.

Photo by Walter A. Aue

On November 8, 2016, no matter how you spin it, this country chose as its next president an (alleged) sexual predator over a qualified (if polarizing) woman.

I could not have predicted the blow that that feels like to me as a woman.

During the campaign, I was more anti-Trump than pro-Hillary. And my chief concerns with Trump were about the effect his presidency could have on undocumented immigrants, refugees, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ people, international relations, the environment, free speech…I could go on…

The point is, I didn’t feel a personal threat or affront as a white woman. And I didn’t feel a particular attachment to Hillary. It took me several days of sobbing to realize that my grief after the election was not only for all the anger and fear and pain for people I care about (and probably also some kind of illusion/idolatry I’ll explore later), but was also deeply personal.

In one of the more poignant moments of the debates, Hillary said, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self worth, and I don't think there is a woman anywhere who doesn't know what that feels like.

I felt that. I know that. But I didn’t know, until 3 am on November 9, what it feels like to see that a person who treats women in this way, in word and deed, is judged fit to be our president.

I didn’t know what it feels like to hear in a concession speech a reminder to girls that they are valuable and powerful—and to sense that it was a word that needed to be said, a word that could no longer be assumed. “To all the little girls watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful,” she said, and I sobbed.

When I was eleven years old I became the president of my elementary school’s student council. I was really into it—whether as a power trip or because I really cared about which Lisa Frank items we sold at the school store, I can’t say. My grandma bought me a gavel for Christmas with the words, “President Katie” engraved on it. I told everyone I was going to be the first woman president of the United States. “Hopefully,” my mom said, “that will happen before you’re old enough to be president.”

In mid-October, with Hillary’s double-digit lead in the polls, I recalled this moment and smiled. My mom was right! We would have a woman president before I turn thirty-five. But I’ll be thirty-five in 2021, and (barring the problematic and improbable #Michelle2020) now my mom looks so na├»ve. Now, it looks like we were not at all ready for a woman president, so not ready we chose him. (And oh, I know it’s more complicated than woman vs. man, but I do think sexism played more of a role than we realize in Hillary’s unpopularity).

When I think of the convention center Hillary chose on election night for its glass ceiling, I understand why she couldn’t bear to speak that night in that space. I would’ve wanted to smash it.

//

But it goes beyond this, too. It turns out that I developed a fondness for Hillary, a personal sympathy far beyond my initial skepticism of her candidacy. Because when I think of a qualified woman being rebuffed for a job, when I think of how hard it is to be a woman in her career field, I think also of my own journey.

My church taught me that women cannot be pastors, and I think I believed it, or at least I let it seep into me, enough that I was 24 before I realized I might have a calling in the church.

I still love the church that raised me. They are loving and radically welcoming of immigrants and dedicated to the arts and marvelously anti-Trumpian and all the things you might not expect of a church that taught me women can’t preach. (Things are never what we expect, are they?)

In July, I happened to visit on the day that a peer of mine had been invited back to preach. He was being ordained that afternoon in our very church. And as he began to speak, at the same moment I felt excited that he was stepping into the path of his calling—I was overcome by a dull sadness.

Because I will never be invited to preach in that church.

Perhaps some of those church members will one day come to a church where I preach, and perhaps they will pray for my ministry, and surely there will always be hugs and love and encouragement for me in that place. But the church that first gave me a space to use my gifts in God’s service—a sanctuary in which to sing my first solo, a microphone to share my testimony of faith, a pulpit to write my first sermon, which was okay because it was a skit for youth Sunday—will not invite me back into that space.

The truth is, the hurt I feel from all of this isn’t strong or permanent; it comes in waves. It happened to be magnified on that day. But I left the church at 23, before I wanted to be a pastor. I never butted my head up against their (rather opaque) glass ceiling. I never tried to change their minds. It would hurt more if I had.

//

When I visit this church, I’ve never quite been sure how to talk with people about my career. I mention the places where I have been interning or the classes I’m taking, and most people are deeply supportive and interested. But still every word I speak feels to me too political, confrontational. By being who I have been called to be, I am an affront their system. So sometimes I talk about the community service program I started, and don’t emphasize the controversial parts like preaching. And when asked if I’m hoping to work with youth or be a chaplain I try to shake my head gently and explain that no, I want to be a pastor.

That Sunday my friend was preaching, the district president (our version of a bishop) was in attendance, and someone introduced me to him. He seemed apologetic about the place of women in our church. “Our denomination has lost a lot of very talented women to other churches,” he said sympathetically. In usual form, I smiled and shifted the topic to keep things non-controversial.

In this post-election, time, though, I want to engage more honestly, vulnerably, and fully in places like this. I wish I’d said, directly and gently to him, “Yes, you have lost us.” I wish I’d said, “It’s painful to me to hear my friend preach here this morning and know I’ll never be able to do that.” It probably would have been good for him to hear.

There will be many times when it is important to speak in the days ahead. And I know myself enough to know I’ll need a lot of fierce prayer to stay patient and keep telling stories. But after Hillary, after the tenacity of that glass ceiling, after the startling toleration in this season for violence and words against women, I’m no longer going to be sheepish--anywhere--about the political overtones of my calling or my identity or my beliefs or my story or the Jesus I believe in. 

It’s more dangerous to be quiet.

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