Storytellers emerge at ecumenical gathering of women

October 24, 2006

More than 200 people gathered for the "Women in Religion in the 21st Century" conference, held October 17-19 at the Interchurch Center in New York City, to hear the history of various faith traditions and share stories of the strength, courage and vision of women.

The conference featured speakers, presenters and moderators who represented the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Shinto, Afro-Caribbean, and Zoroastrian faith traditions.

"The level of intelligence and engagement on the part of the women has been extraordinary," said Sue Dennis, president and executive director of the Interchurch Center. "It was magnificent."

During the course of three days, ecumenical and religious organizations, seminary and theology students, and representatives of non-profit agencies from the U.S., Africa, India, and Lebanon explored the roles of leadership for women, the impact of women in religious communities, how religion affects women's lives and the historical perspective of women in religion.

The opening plenary recognized the contribution and vision of Ruth Stafford Peale as a guiding force in the establishment of the Interchurch Center, home to more than 60 faith and non-profit agencies. Peale, who recently turned 100 years old, was unable to attend but sent appreciation and greetings through a brief videotaped message.

Setting the tone with the first presentations of the conference were Dr. Ann D. Braud, senior lecturer on American religious history and director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program of Harvard University, and Lorelei F. Fuchs, theological consultant at the Interchurch Center. Their themes, "Faith-Filled Foremothers: Women in Religion in America in the 19th and 20th Centuries," and "Ecumenical Foremothers: Women and the Intra-Christian Conversation," provided a brief overview of the historical roles women have played in religion.

Fuchs' presentation focused on the contribution of a select group of women, among them Anglican Janet Lacey and former Episcopalian Dorothy Day.

In the "Equipping Students for Ministry in their Multicultural Environment" workshop, the Rev. Dr. Marsha Snulligan-Haney, associate professor of missiology and religions of the world at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia, explained that the topic is "a real challenge" for the 95 percent African American student population she teaches.

"It's too easy for them to say that other religions just need Jesus," she said. "I try to help them understand the questions, and the responses of other religious traditions so that instead of being afraid of them or ignoring them they are willing to engage them and realize they are people just like them on a spiritual journey."

A Presbyterian minister, Snulligan-Haney said women tend to be more pragmatic about issues such as health care, poverty and childcare that affect communities.

"I think women are more adaptable, not saying that they are ignoring their religion but they see that their religion can be a stepping stone to address these kinds of problems," she said.

"If we are serious about being loving to those who are different from what we are, we first have to understand," said the Rev. Jayne Oasin, social justice officer at the Episcopal Church Center. "That is the first step in being truly multicultural, tolerant and loving of each other."

Six documentary filmmakers, among them Jane Zip, producer of "Shall We Gather: Anglican Women Together," a DVD documenting the 2005 gathering of the Anglican Communion's delegates to the 49th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW), were able to show and discuss their work October 17 and 19.

"Women with religious themes as filmmakers have really hit their stride," said Lucinda Mosher, Th. D., interreligious relations consultant at the Interchurch Center.

The future

"Women are the leaders in their community," observed Abagail Nelson, vice president for program for Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), as part of a panel discussion focused on women as agents of change. "Eighty percent of ERD program participants are women."

Using ERD's malaria program as an example, she explained that it is assisted by the Mother's Union, a worldwide Anglican organization of women of faith whose purpose is to be concerned with all aspects of Christian family life.

Nelson, along with the Rev. Suzue Nitobe-Matsuda of the International Shinto Foundation, Inc., Tenaz Dubash, producer of the film "Zoroastrians Today," and documentarian Valarie Kaur, master's candidate at Harvard Divinity School, spoke on the theme "Continuing the Legacy, Breaking New Ground."

Nelson, the daughter of an Episcopal priest, said she was "raised in a community of faith" and attributed her present career path to the "legacy of social action in her family and spiritual forefathers." Describing the women in her family -- her grandmother never learned to drive a car; her mother married her father, a white man, during the height of racial discrimination; her aunt became a Black Panther -- Nelson surmised that, as she has matured, she has realized that there are "spheres of power" and that she "has learned from all of them."

Dubash said she is continuing her family's legacy by her work as a filmmaker.

"Through my films, I hope to show that we have more in common than we have differences," she said.