Despite understandings of women as helpmeet and co-creative presence with the Divine, humanity prefers to focus on the “Curse of Eve” to justify abuse and violence. Women are first line collateral damage in wars, and often ignored like Wisdom in the streets (Proverbs chapters 7-9). Yet, women are at the forefront of ministry, challenging the norms of patriarchy and offering different ways of being.
Here’s a piece of my story …
Called by God to ministry in my early childhood, I didn’t recognize that I was going against the grain of tradition. I only knew within my heart that I desired to be a missionary, serving in Africa, India and South America. And then I discovered David Livingstone.
He was all I thought a missionary should be, except there were two prohibitive factors when I read about his life and others of his time … Yes, you guessed it. Livingstone was White, and Male,
And my hopes got slightly altered. As Langston Hughes said,
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?…
Or does it explode?”
Sometimes it dries up; however, a raisin returns to plumpness when soaked in wine. But that’s jumping ahead of the story.
Having recognized the difference between myself and Livingstone, I determined that ministry would be my ‘side job’. That is, I would get involved with some kind of vocation which afforded travel, and do my ‘church-thing’ on the side. In my childish ignorance, I plotted and schemed. First it was the diplomat corps, then the military. When those were unsuccessful, I tried for various airlines. Nothing happened. That was my raisin season.
But, as intimated earlier, raisins retain plumpness when soaked in wine. Ironically, raisins are said to be dried grapes, and grapes are often the chief component in winemaking. Moreover, a plumped raisin is not the same fruit as the grape it was previously. The chemistry changes, the flavor is different and so is the texture. Nor can that plumped raisin return to the same state of dryness as before, because its composition has shifted.
As I grew older, my spiritual walk improved and soon, the dream deferred became a Living Hope. While teaching at a high school in the garrisons, I discerned that A) God was calling me to something more; and B) I was beginning to suffer from burn-out. Neither was a satisfactory place to minister from as a teacher of hormone-laden teens.
In faith, I applied to seminary (some 5 months after the institution’s stated deadline) and awaited their response. My home pastor was confident that I would be successful. He facilitated a sending off and sent me on my way with a Love gift from the church, which I later I concluded was God’s confirmation that I was indeed called to ministry.
Naive novitiate that I was, I thought that God called me, I got a scholarship, so life’s gonna be a dream now.
Jamaican artiste Buju Banton summarized my experience with the title of his hit song, “Is not a easy road”. In fact thereafter on that Faith-Free Fall called ministry, I was wont to explode – to forsake the dream of God’s call to ministry rather than be subject to snide remarks, continued judgement, sexist comments and out-and-out disregard for the call upon my life simply because my genitalia didn’t reflect that expected by the patriarchy.
In one class as a final year seminarian, our professor was helpful enough to caution that the Ministry Search & Call process had a hidden hierarchy as follows:
White Male (preferably married)
It quickly dawned on me that as a Black Caribbean Female, who was very keen on chaplaincy, I wasn’t even on the list. With that I consoled myself that I was headed to Jamaica, where things would surely be different.
Er, not quite.
Although I was excited to meet and work with women in ministry within the Jamaican context, I had not been privy to their experiences. So I had my own trial by fire …
… A man complaining throughout the entire sermon that a woman must know her place, and that I should be wearing a hat; while I preached at a country church one Sunday
… Continued critiquing of my actions and dress, and being told that I was not “free” to style my hair as I pleased
… Having a member walk out during a sermon, simply because he didn’t agree with what was being said
… Being weighed in the balance of male pastors and found gravely lacking
… Being called “Sister Nicky” by folks who would then refer to the males as “Pastor X” or “Reverend Y”. I soon realized that that was intended to put me in my place (except that I still haven’t found it!)
The icing on the cake was perhaps being asked by a colleague why I thought it necessary to take on a man’s role, if I was just trying to be different? Although it was accompanied by a smile and a quick refutation/retraction, I realized that support from male colleagues wasn’t guaranteed. Thank God that those attitudes were in the minority.
Despite all of this, there were some highlights. Working with feminist male colleagues who were willing to note and lift up the gifts and skills of women ministers. Collaborating with colleagues, lay and ordained, to effect transformation for others, just because we were crazy enough to believe that God has called us to make a difference for others. Having my call affirmed by family, friends and colleagues in the face of unwarranted criticism and gendered discrimination.
Having had ‘The Book’ thrown at me for justification of patriarchy and exclusionary practices; I also turned to The Book to affirm my call. I noted Miriam, Deborah, the Proverbs 31 Woman, Mary (x 3), Martha, the SyroPhoneician Woman, Anna, the women who ministered to Jesus (Luke 8); Lydia (the seller of purple) who supported Paul’s ministry and my all-time favorite: the first Evangelist, the Samaritan Woman at the Well of Sychar. Those women stand as proof that women have served a vital role in ministry from time immemorial and in the Biblical culture.
There was also a need for me to keep myself grounded. Collaboration with women in active ministry locally, regionally and internationally provided strength during the rough moments. Serving as a Mover for Gender Justice with the World Council of Churches confirmed that discrimination against women is not only restricted to the glass ceilings and ecclesiastic spaces. This exposed me to the precarious position of women internationally.
In a recent conversation I was asked about my thoughts on Gender Justice, or rather gender injustice. I replied that each time I enter a space, I bring the very real issues of gender to the table. I bring with me all the women who have been sidelined, silenced, supportive and supported in every space. I bring with me the hopes, dreams, expectations of every woman who has dared to be different; challenging norms and mores for the sake of transformation and grace. I choose to be involved in the fight for justice, working along with males in ministry; as I stand for those who have remained on the sidelines.
Rev Nicqi Ashwood is an ordained minister, by the grace and power of God. She is a transformational ecumenist, having served as Education in Mission Secretary at the Caribbean and North American Council for Mission (CANACOM), Roving Faculty for the Council for World Mission (CWM), and Moving for Gender Justice for the World Council of Churches (WCC).