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Cover Story

Women of the cloth

11/27/2013

From the broad perspective of human history, the idea that women are spiritually challenged seems absurd. Most of the great ancient religions ascribed spirituality to the female principle and materiality to the male. If ancient Greeks wanted to smite their enemy with thunderbolts, they beseeched Zeus. To bring a plague on one’s neighbor, they went to Apollo. For luck in war, they called upon Ares, and to wreck ships they summoned Poseidon. Those were the main male gods. To bless a marriage, they went to Hera for love, to Aphrodite, for wisdom to Pallas Athena, and for a good harvest to Demeter — all women.

Such things were much the same in the pantheons of the ancient Hindus, Egyptians, Sumerians, Celts, Druids and the Yoruba people. Chinese philosophy ascribed the kinder, gentler spirits to yin, which was also associated with femininity, and the harsher spirits to yang, the masculine part of the essential duality of life. Women played important roles in the priesthoods of ancient religions, too, most famously the Oracle of Delphi and the Vestals of Rome.

The idea that women were unfit to minister to the spiritual needs of a community took off with the Judeo Christian tradition. Even that took awhile. During the first 400 years of the Christian era, women played a large role tending to the Christian flock, possibly because the church was still competing for converts with the old religions. St. Nino became so inspirational that she succeeded where many previous preachers had failed, healing Queen Nana of Iberia then converting her and causing King Mirian III to adopt Christianity as the state religion. A few years later, the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius shut down the Vestals. Not so coincidentally, the role of women in Christianity would be diminished, through the Dark Ages and on, till the Protestant Reformation.

“Biblical text was mostly written by, and interpreted by, men,” explained Rev. Jacqueline Thompson of Grace Methodist Church in Des Moines. “Because Jesus was male and his Apostles were all male, Roman Catholics began believing that only men should be priests. But Jesus could just as easily be interpreted as more inclusive. He did a lot, changing property rights and attitudes of tolerance.”

Through most of American history, the clergy has been male-dominant. When calling a new minister, most pulpits across the country only considered male applicants. That began to change simultaneously with the rise of feminism. Both female clergy and lay observers dispute any connection between the two things. The latter note that feminist-driven discrimination laws about gender equality usually included exemptions for churches. Thompson believes that the calling to the ministry, particularly in the Wesleyan tradition of the Methodist Church, is a totally different matter.

Black Madonnas, like these collected around the world by Josephine Barnes Watson, inspire women of all creeds and colors.

Black Madonnas, like these collected around the world by Josephine Barnes Watson, inspire women of all creeds and colors.

“It’s not away from sin, but toward a heavenly realm without distinctions between male and female, slave and master, etc.,” she said.

Still, it’s definitely happening. And it’s difficult to get a consistent gauge on how quickly. A 2006 story in the New York Times suggested that half of all seminary students were female. Wikipedia still concludes that the percentage is only 30. A 2009 study by the Barna Group found that the percentage of female pastors in the U.S. had doubled since 1990, from 5 percent to 10. It also found that, though the average female was better educated, she was also paid less than her male counterpart, mainly because men led larger congregations than women.

Confusion reigns on the subject. A Yellow Pages Web page lists 30 “Catholic churches with female priests in central Iowa.” Yet after Regenia Nicolosi, a bishop in the Roman Catholic women-priests movement, ordained Mary Kay Kusner in 2010 at First Christian Church in Coralville, both were excommunicated. Kusner, a chaplain at the University of Iowa Hospital, preaches now at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville.                 

India-born Christina Singh, Minister at Panora Church of the Brethren, went through a more stressful ordeal, documented in her autobiographical book “From Krishna to Christ.”

“When I was 6 years old, I saw a photo of Jesus. I could not take my eyes away. Jesus was calling me,“ she recalled recently.                  

That was considered blasphemous by her Hindu family.

Josephine Barnes Watson sits under wooden models she commissioned of seven of the 22 churches for which she has served.

Josephine Barnes Watson sits under wooden models she commissioned of seven of the 22 churches for which she has served.

“They persecuted me for that, but I could not give up on Jesus. I was not allowed to touch a Bible until I was 23. The moment I first laid my hand upon it, I was overwhelmed with feelings I could not have imagined,” she continued.

Singh followed her calling by applying to the Church of Brethren Seminary in Indiana and then escaped to America in 2003. Her family disowned her, so much so that she fears for her safety. She even changed her name.

“Singh is generic, like Smith or Johnson here. The whole Christian community is my family now,” she confessed.

Thompson’s calling came later in life. “I am a second-career pastor. Before this, I was a professional musician — singer, dancer and certified teacher. God waited for me,” she said with a characteristically big laugh.

If so, He waited like Jehovah in the Old Testament. Forty days and 40 nights after her husband died, in 2002, a friend asked Thompson to substitute for her at her pulpit in Corydon parish’s United Methodist Church. That experience drew her to the ministry.

“I prayed about it and felt it was where I needed to be,” she recalled.                  

Thompson grew up dreaming of being a preacher, but her African Methodist Episcopal Church wasn’t ready for women of the cloth at the time. She then attended divinity school at University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic institute. So the long-established gender inclusiveness of John Wesley attracted her to the Methodist church he founded.

For her, there were signs, too.

“A district superintendent told me I needed to be certified as a lay speaker. I downloaded some forms for an online class, filled out the paperwork and gave them to him. He told me I had done the work to become a lay minister, not a lay speaker. That solidified my faith,” she said.

Jacqueline Thompson says most people call her “Pastor Jackie” or “the minister in the ball cap.”

Jacqueline Thompson says most people call her “Pastor Jackie” or “the minister in the ball cap.”

For one of the pioneer female ministers in central Iowa, the call was less obvious. Josephine Barnes Watson, 88, says that in 1967 (21 years after receiving a bachelor’s of arts degree in English literature from the University of Colorado) she became the first woman to receive a ministerial degree from Drake University’s Divinity School.

“Forty men and me,” she recalled. “I knew at the time that I was interested in two things: art and religion. I don’t know why I chose the latter. I just remember going to my first class and discovering that I was dressed far more casually than the men. I adapted fast. Things were more serious then.”

Watson has remained faithful to both interests. Her office today holds a marvelous collection of religious art, including an exhibition-sized group of statues of black Madonnas collected from her travels across all continents, except Australia. When asked about encountering resistance from people not ready to accept a woman of the cloth, she references an old résumé in which she listed 22 “denominational activities.”

“The minister at my own church was reluctant to ordain me. A friend had to take him out to breakfast and convince him it was OK,” she said. “I was never THE minister anywhere — more like a dog and pony show. Particularly in small towns, they wanted to show that they were open to women, so they would hire me as an interim minister after one man would retire and before they hired another man to take his place. I did that in Perry, Dallas Center, Panora, Adel, Urbandale.

“Urbandale was a small town then. I’d drop by and visit with the parishioners, and they’d usually tell me I was the first minister who ever did that. One year St. John’s Lutheran had me guest speak at their pulpit one Sunday, and then they invited a black guy the next Sunday. I was the first woman ever on their pulpit, so they got good publicity.”

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Singh said she encounters challenges and resistance regularly but nothing quite like what she endured with her birth family.

“When I was graduating from seminary, an elder in my church asked me my plan. I said that God brought me here, and He would help me find a church. He told me that would never happen for two reasons: I was a woman, and I was colored. I told him that if God wanted me to have a church, I would not give up on God.”

Thompson said she, too, runs into resistance on a daily basis.

“Of course, I don’t ever really know if it’s because I am female or because I am African-American. People talk about it in code, too,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, ‘Oh, I’m afraid you’re too tall. You would intimidate people.’ Seriously? I’m only 5 foot 7.”

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These trailblazing women have similar coping mechanisms. Barnes Watson believes she found solace and reward in good works away from the pulpit. When the YWCA named her to its Hall of Fame in 1999, her curriculum vitae listed 22 groups for which she served on boards and committees. Other rewarding works ranged from initiating the Des Moines Public School System’s volunteer program to being the first president of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, where she lobbied to open the group to more faiths.

Singh says she copes simply by fully embracing her new family. “I truly love everyone and feel like they love me, too,“ she mused. She says she’s always in her church, except when she gets away on vacation.

“I like going to Branson. I love country music,” she smiled.

Thompson said she deals with such moments by pausing and letting God take over.

“I used to think I could break down barriers. It’s great to be free of that delusion. I have a big mouth, so I can’t play meek. I just rely on the Holy Spirit. God’s way works better than mine,” she said with another big laugh. CV

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