I have a friend whose courage I admire.
My great hope is that someday a tiny bit of her confidence will rub off on me. Because, you see, despite how confident I may (or may not) appear in my writing, in person I’m a complete flake. I’d rather eat bugs (you know about my cricket phobia, right?) than cause a stir. Heck, just this week I received the wrong order when I stopped for take-out at Panera. Instead of asking them to change it, I smiled and thanked them for my wrong food. And I went home and ate it; every last bite of what I did not want.
But this friend—Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton—knows how to say what is on her mind and instead of people being threatened by what she says, they respond positively.
Last summer a group of about ten women were eating at a restaurant close to our conference hotel. We had spent the day in meetings making numerous decisions that were both important to the continuing viability of our organization as well as in tune to what it means to practice justice in concrete situations. It had not been as easy day and we were exhausted.
Despite how we were feeling, there was ample laughter and conversation, the kind that happens only in the midst of deep trust and true friendship.
Into this dinner break walked our male waiter, a young and affable man. He welcomed us: “Hey, guys, we’re glad you are here for dinner. I will be your waiter this evening.” There was no way he could have anticipated the response he received. After all, who would guess a room full of women, mostly over fifty would be gutsy as well as gracious?
Jann Aldredge-Clanton with her sweet southern accent didn’t miss a beat. “We are not guys,” she said. “I’m from the South; perhaps you could address us with ‘y’all’ or ‘you all,’ but we would prefer not to be called guys because that is not who we are.”
All of us around the table feel the exclusion each time someone says “you guys,” but only Jann had the courage to make his greeting a teachable moment. Despite what you may imagine, there was no anger or animosity but rather good-natured encouragement to think more seriously about how our language is experienced by those around us and also how our language affects what we think…about ourselves and about God. The evening consisted of lots of humorous interactions with our waiter and throughout our meal, I’m sure he felt appreciated and we felt valued because he changed how he addressed us.
In the short two years that I’ve known Jann, she has taught me not only the importance of courage in our interactions with others but also the courage to embrace my convictions about God, a confidence that for years I did not have because I have learned the power of doubt much more often, especially doubt about the divine feminine.
Earlier this year I read Jann’s autobiography, Breaking Free: The Story of a Feminist Baptist Minister. At every turn in her career she was met by challenges that I think would have stopped me from forging ahead, would have kept me from doing what I thought was my calling. But Jann, slowly “began waking up to her own voice, and became one of the first women ever to be ordained as a Baptist minister in the South.”
She was almost fired by a Baptist university for refusing to sign their belief statement; she was labeled a heretic for recognizing the divine feminine; and because of her strong stance for women and for others who suffered injustices, she was called “Waco’s Give ‘Em Hell Minister.” Her memoir provides a glimpse of how Jann came to be such a strong advocate for gender justice.
In a brand new book—She Lives!: Sophia Wisdom Works in the World—Jann provides space for others to tell their stories. For anyone seeking to understand more fully the connection between language and faith, this is a must read. Within this collection of narratives, there is ample evidence that the church must change its sexist ways if it hopes to cooperate with the Spirit of God. Sophia–God’s Wisdom–is giving birth to new feminist worship communities utilizing feminine images and language.
Jann writes that as a child in the Baptist tradition she loved singing the hymn He Lives. She “had learned to worship a God who was named and imaged as male.” But while in seminary, she discovered the divine feminine. This discovery led Jann to wonder: “If God can include three persons, can’t God include two genders?” The answer, of course, is the reason for her courage and confidence.
Last week Jann and I met for lunch and to celebrate the publication of She Lives!. You can guess what happened: our waiter greeted us saying, “Hey, guys, how’s it going today?” Jann politely but firmly suggested he refer to us in another way, one that recognized we were not guys. And, this time, I didn’t find myself squirming or sinking into the booth.
I’ll take this as a small sign that Jann’s courage is beginning to rub off on me, even if it is still slightly so.
***Melanie and I are included in this collection. Melanie’s story—“Gathering Everyone Under Her Wings”—appears in the chapter on racial justice while mine—“Embracing our Mother”—appears in the chapter on gender justice.