Coming from the Catholic world of sexism, I have sharpened my eye to the role of women in religious settings. As a teen, I was told that I could not participate in the role of the "alter boy" because, well, I'm not a boy. My eyes were opened to how my vagina has its place and needs to stay there because God said so. Luckily, I never connected the treatment of women by religious institutions to my own beliefs. God isn't human and I can easily separate the two. I needed to move away from the rules of Catholicism. As an adult I decided to change my faiths. I joined a Black Baptist Church.
Out of the frying pan into the fire.
My skepticism remained intact. I've watched similar situations within the black church that I've witness in my catholic experience. The roles of women regulated, not by individual purpose or passion, but by dogma and doctrine. In both cases, women have partnered in their own oppression. This isn't to say I haven't experienced and befriended female pastors who lead their congregations with authority but I also know they have struggles with acceptance from some in their faith communities. When I see panels talking about church leadership, community engagement, etc., male pastors sit in authority. We maybe thrown a bone of having one female pastor allowed to engage. Its always clear its a male dominated sport. This isn't to say that I don't feel men aren't important in these roles but I believe in inclusion. Include us.
Bring a skirt to talk with pants.
So, I will again admit to not being fully cultured in the ways of the black church and its protocols. I believe in approaching a pastor as I would any person and I've had to be "schooled" and that's fine. I had not clue to armor bearers and deacons. I'm still learning. This is why I attend workshops on working with the Black Church. I respect its legacy. I respect that some believe its still very important to engage the church if you want change in the black community. While attending the U.S. Conference on AIDS, I attended a workshop on how to work with the Church in HIV/AIDS outreach. This was presented by The Balm in Gilead, a well respected nonprofit organization who works with the Black Church to address this epidemic. The nonprofit allowed pastors and healthcare providers working in Louisiana to speak about how they approach this topic.
In this workshop, there was about 65 attendees with 75% being black women. The first speaker was a pastor from Louisiana who has been successful in implementing an HIV/AIDS ministry. He wanted to provide some "best practices" in engaging pastors. I listened. I was open and ready to receive his message mostly because of the nonprofit who thought this was the best person who could talk on this topic. I listened. One of his first suggestions when talking with a pastor who I guess we are to assume would be male, is to "bring a skirt to talk with pants." My brained said, "wha?" and I looked at my colleage and asked him if I heard right. He said, unforunately, yes. The speaker continued. He said that men need to feel like they are helping a "woman in need" so playing the damsel in distress may work. He also reminded us not to send a fat "wobbling" woman (hand gestures allowed us to know what size a fat wobbling woman would look like) and to make sure she looks good.
Now, understand, I was messed up by this but I was floored that at no point did any female stop him but a few "amen" and "that's right" were yelled. I will admit to sitting there. [Silence=acceptance] I'm full of shame that I didn't take that time to stop him. I didn't.
Again, I continue to see myself as an outsider looking in and the view is terrifying. The objectification of women should never be accepted. He pushed the view of the Pastor Pimp to another level and all of us accepted this. Religion, objectification, and social justice thrown together as a strategic plan has dangerous implications but was rolled out smoothly, backed up with the agreement of silence, and documented as a practice. In talking about black male privilege, the Black Church is where this happens most of all it seems. It is supported by those at the receiving end of its oppression and pushed by doctrine, tradition, and dogma.
What actions can I take? First, I'll never be silence again. Its generally unlike me to hold my tongue but this time I did. I know that I'm tired of trying to find a safe space for myself and other women and girls to be celebrated and respected. Black women and men have to believe first that sexism and misogyny are even issues to be addressed. We have to acknowledge it, call it out whenever we see it or experience it just as we do with racism.
As a cisgender African American heterosexual female, its my responsibility to address my oppression and understand my privilege. We all must do the same.