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Field Notes from a Strong Daughter with Sarabeth Weszley
I don’t really think of myself as a strong woman.
I just think of myself as a woman.
The “strong” is implied. Referring to myself as a strong woman feels like calling myself a “breathing woman.” I think it strange that I could be anything but.
I don’t say this to dismantle the impetus of the blog you are currently reading (how to raise strong women), but to give my mom some credit.
I don’t actually know what she did to raise me as an empowered woman, other than become one herself. I watched (in somewhat of an adolescent haze) my mom as she wrestled with the expectations placed on her as a mom in ministry, and I watched her slowly feel less and less of those expectations coming from God. What Christianity no longer seemed to expect of her, she no longer expected of herself, and I knew that whatever she no longer expected of herself as a woman, she didn’t expect of me. It was a rather free-spirited girlhood.
I experienced pretty dramatic culture shock when I moved three hours West of the Chicago bubble I grew up in, to Iowa. Both of my parents held a view of God that made them feel equal as partners. My dad did the laundry; my mom led a non-profit. I led worship for my home church congregation, composed of grown men and women. None of these ways of life felt political to me; they felt common sense, and they felt spiritual! I didn’t believe God left me out of any part of his kingdom because I was a woman.
I landed in an Iowa church that didn’t let women lead worship, preached on Christian gender roles, and didn’t leave much room for me to question any of that (although I was still quite vocal about my concerns). When I did express disagreement, I was told my defiance was unbiblical womanhood. My role, I was repeatedly told, was to come under men and silently make their ministry unto the Lord look better. This so contradicted my egalitarian upbringing, which also claimed to be rooted in and defended by the Bible. I was confused. I started to study scripture, theology , and church history, attempting to understand how the God who so respected me all my life was also the God of this church.
At the same time, I was old enough that I started to notice the mistreatment of women all around me—not only in my church but also in my classes, and even in the stoner-artist “progressive people” parties I attended. Sexual violence and verbal abuse were commonplace for women in my town, both in and out of the church. I wasn’t quite sure of my theology yet (and to be honest, I’m still not) but I knew this was evil to God.
My mom and dad both let me throw my fists and tell them the world was ending as I discovered gender inequality, as if it hadn’t existed in Chicago. They didn’t tell me to calm down. There were enough people labeling female anger “hysteria” and “moral decay.” They knew I just needed to be listened to, even though not everything I said was entirely sound.
Eventually, through all the unrestrained anger, I began to hear God asking me to forgive my church, and ultimately, to forgive what I now came to know as sexism. I even felt called to acknowledge my own near-sightedness and sin in how I dealt with the leadership there. The funny thing is, when people had told me to do the same (submit, forgive, apologize to people who should be apologizing to me) it felt like sexism. When God told me, it was absolutely liberating.
That’s what I’m most grateful to my parents for. They trusted the Holy Spirit enough to let me discover righteous anger and forgiveness on my own. This was their parenting style as a whole, actually! I’m sure they were slightly terrified at the time, letting me screw up and swing between extremes in my worldview, but that freedom empowered me as a woman, and taught me how to empower others.
Now, although I dismiss many of the expectations my society places on me as a woman, I actually have some new expectations of myself, as a human.
I expect myself to forgive oppressors, as I hope others forgive me for my own inadvertent role as an oppressor in society (my nationality, race, wealth). I expect myself to be kind to the man who comes into the restaurant I waitress in, who asks me to compare my body to his fiancé’s and humor him with some flirtation—not because he deserves it, but because I’ve deserved nothing I’ve received. I expect myself to stand against sexism with strength and humility.
I must repeat, though, had anyone tried to convince me of this besides the Lord himself, I would not have listened; I am too spiteful and stubborn, and all too familiar with human attempts to silence women in the name of “morality.” So thank you, parents, for letting me stumble my way into self-sustained empowerment.
Sarabeth Weszely is a twenty-one year old writer, musician, and waitress who recently graduated from University of Iowa with a degree in English and Social Innovation. She recently released her first full-length, live album, I Talk to God out loud and we call each other Babe. This project along with many others serves as an unconventional prayer for those who do not pray and who are tired of praying alike, also addressing issues such as racial injustice from the angle of personal confession and apology. Sarabeth has a passion for human equality, playful art, and free-spirited Christianity. Her poems and essays have been published in the Iowa Chapbook Prize, Earthwords literary magazine, and Mockingbird.
Angie Weszely is CEO and co-founder of the Christian nonprofit ProGrace. She has spent the past 12 years equipping Christians to create a third response to the abortion debate and meet the needs of both woman and child, first as President of a Chicago-based Christian pregnancy organization, and now in her work with ProGrace. As an accomplished speaker and coach, Angie leads ProGrace workshops and training sessions, while directing the mission, vision and direction of the ministry. In her free time, she likes to hike in her Colorado mountain neighborhood, watch any BBC drama she can get her hands on, and hang out at home with her husband, two kids and three dogs. Connect with her on Twitter @angieweszely.
The Year of Phenomenal Women with Tamara Cook
When I was a teenager, I had the amazing opportunity to hear Maya Angelou tell her story live. I had been blown away by I know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her poetry including the beautiful and a bit cheeky Phenomenal Woman with the famous refrain, “I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me”. I loved the strength that Maya Angelou projected in her story and especially in this poem. So, when my husband and I decided to design a coming of age process for our twins building up to their 13th birthdays, I was inspired to call the process with my daughter the “year of phenomenal women.”
As I thought and prayed about how I wanted my daughter (and me!) to grow, the fruits of the spirit from Galatians 5 seemed a beautiful guide for our journey. During a silent retreat, I sketched images linked to each fruit and brainstormed scriptures, books, movies, songs, inspiring women and related activities. I then reached out to an artist at Kitengela Glass to commission small round stained-glass circles to represent each fruit. Each outing began by giving my daughter a stained-glass which now all hang across her bedroom window. Our outings ranged from extravagant nights away to a simple lunch on the way home from the salon but each holds a special place in our hearts. Our conversations ranged from the silliness of crushes to the deep complexity of cross-racial adoption and identity. We laughed. We cried. And we each grew more into the phenomenal women that God made us to be and become.
Here is a taste of our experience during the year linked to each of the fruits of the spirit:
Love: We kicked off the year with a night away including a sushi-making class. We studied the famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 about love as an action, not as a fairy tale. The stained-glass was a simple but powerful heart. We stayed up late watching movies linked to love (one from her generation: Catching Fire with lots of examples of selfless love and one from mine: Pretty in Pink with several different angles on what love means). I tucked her into bed by reading our worn copy of I Love You as Much and singing The Rose, a song I used to sing at bedtime.
Joy: We considered the joy of our salvation in Psalm 51 and the line in Amazing Grace “the hour I first believed” that always brings a smile to my face. The stained-glass was a smiley face. The outing was a lunch out where we spent time joyfully staring at the clouds and imagining what shapes we could see.
Peace: We explored the armour of God described in Ephesians 6 and especially what it means to have our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. The stained-glass shows a dove in the shape of a hippy peace sign. Our shoe shopping outing was perhaps a bit too silly of a connection but we had a deeper conversation around I am Malala.
Patience: We listened to U2’s 40 inspired by Psalm 40 and the idea of waiting patiently for the Lord. This stained-glass is an acacia tree reminding us of the patience of Wangari Maathai who embodied peace in her fight to bring the green belt movement to Kenya. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the same year we adopted the twins while living in Kenya.
Kindness: We pondered the words of Isaiah 58 to loose the chains of injustice, share food with the hungry and provide shelter for the poor. The stained-glass was a sunrise recalling verse 8 “then your light will break forth like the dawn.” We also learned more about the work of Jane Addams and the Hull House.
Goodness: What better description of goodness could there be than the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5? The stained-glass was a mountain and I had hoped we would go for a hike but she wasn’t interested so I didn’t push it and we still had a good talk.
Faithfulness: In a world where faith can be so misunderstood, Romans 12 especially verse 2 reminded us that faith is not about conforming but about being transformed by the renewing of our minds and testing and doing God’s will. The glass was a simple cross reminding us of how Jesus embodied faith as well as all the other fruits.
Gentleness: The imagery of Psalm 23 reminds us of God’s gentleness as he leads us beside still (and gentle) waters. The stained-glass was a stream and we read a stunning rendition of Psalm 23 interpreted for an African-American urban community.
Self-control: We used Paul’s self-discipline metaphor in 1 Corinthians 9 of training for a race as we prepared for a 5k and our last night away. The stained-glass was a rainbow finish line accompanied by a silver necklace with all the fruits inscribed. We ran the 5k on our own because the race we registered for was the same morning as the baptism service. Both twins had decided to follow their steps of faith into the pool that morning where Daddy dunked them with tears in his eyes.
It has now been almost a year since we finished the Year of Phenomenal Women. The teenage years continue to come with the expected and some unexpected challenges. But those stained-glass windows still glisten in the window to remind us both what it means to be phenomenal women.
Tamara is a follower of Jesus, wife of an amazing man who happens to be a pastor (www.lavingtonvineyard.org), mama of three very cool kids, and head of digital innovations at Financial Sector Deepening Kenya (www.fsdkenya.org). She was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, studied international affairs at George Washington University, got an MBA at INSEAD in France and has lived with her family in Washington DC, Nairobi, Paris and Seattle while working to increase the value of financial services for people living in poverty.
Read more from Tamara in A Voice Becoming: A Yearlong Mother-Daughter Journey into Passionate, Purposed Living.