By Michelle Freeman, M.Div.
Houston–I grew up in a large Missionary Baptist Church in Austin, TX in the 70s and 80s. This church had vibrant worship, an awesome choir and good preaching. I loved Sunday School because of my teacher Mary. Mary was an educated middle- aged woman who wore a short Afro and male pantsuits. At the time, I did not understand why Mary wore male pantsuits. I asked my parents and was ignored. As an all-gender loving woman in a same-gender loving relationship who is now 51, I realize Mary was probably transgender but given that this was the 1970s, it was not discussed in public conversation. Nonetheless, I was fascinated with Mary because she was articulate, intelligent, had a wonderful sense of humor, a beautiful smile and a kind heart. I learned so much about the bible and its stories from Mary. She taught my class for 2 years when I was in Junior High School.
There was something very troubling about Mary though. Mary had a voice that was constantly silenced in worship. What do I mean? Our Pastor held the strong belief that women should not be allowed to preach, lead worship or be ordained clergy. He believed and had Baptist doctrine to support his feelings that women should be silent, referencing I Timothy 2:11-12 (11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. NRSV)
As an inquisitive teenager, I got into a whole lot of trouble for constantly questioning the Pastor and the deacons WHY this was true and WHY it could not be changed! SURELY, there is a woman who has a voice and a word from God, which needs to be heard. Surely, God calls women to ministry as God calls males to ministry!
But back to Mary…Mary tried on 3 or 4 occasions to rush up towards the pulpit and preach and the deacons would drag her out of the church kicking and screaming. Mary would eventually calm down and would sit on a back pew and just cry uncontrollably. No one would comfort her during these times. I tried to approach her once to console her and my mom dragged me out of the church by my hand and told me to never do this again. All of the people in the church said
that Mary was “crazy”. This horrifying image is in my mind even today in spite of this happening over 4 decades ago. That was not my experience of Mary as my beloved Sunday School Teacher. She held a master’s degree and was a professor at a local college. She was not “crazy” but horribly misunderstood. I vigorously questioned the Pastor and asked him, “Why will you not let Mary say what God has clearly placed on her heart?” He never would answer my question and in fact told my parents I needed to be spanked and disciplined so I would get out of “grown folks business”. This hurt me deeply. I felt so much pain for Mary. I felt someone, anyone needed to speak up for Mary for she had no one in her corner, no one she could call family, no one who cared….
The whispers from the congregation about Mary included that “she was not married so something must be wrong with her.” Mary challenged the heteronormative and patriarchal behavior of the Baptist faith on allowing women to speak and voice what God has placed on their hearts. She challenged this when it was impossible for her to do so. Mary was shunned from the church and eventually left. I was saddened because I lost my favorite Sunday School Teacher. I felt deep down inside, although I did not know why then, that we had a kindred spirit…that we had a connection and that God was giving us both a voice that SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SILENCED!!!
I often wonder what happened to Mary. Every time I am given the opportunity to preach, I speak for Mary and all of the other women that were and still are silenced, bullied and ridiculed by the sexist behavior of the churches that do not allow their voices to be heard. Our Creator God did NOT intend for any of us to be silenced and that includes our women with all of the nuances, complexities, beauty and wisdom they bring to life and its many experiences.
Our Biblical stories are replete with examples of women who were leaders and used their voices. How can we forget Deborah, Naomi, Ruth, Esther and others’? And yet, today we still have many mainline denominations that will not allow women to become clergy or ordained. You know whom they are so no need to name them. What is also troubling is the scarcity of calls and ministry positions that are available for openly lesbian, bisexual and transgender women who have been called by God to serve the church and community. I am one of those women and I add the additional layer of being a woman of color who is all-gender loving in a same-gender loving relationship. The calls are scarce, the need is great and yet our voices continue to be silenced. Women’s Voices DO Matter….Black Women’s Voices DO Matter, Lesbian Women’s Voices DO Matter, Bisexual Women’s Voices DO Matter and Transgender Women’s Voices DO Matter, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow!!
When the church silences the voices of the women in the room, they miss out on their rich cultural experiences being brought to life by women and especially women of color who can open up the stories and experiences in the Bible in a whole new light which can serve to uplift a generation and a people.
For all of the Mary’s and all of the Michelle’s who were told NO BE QUIET, you cannot speak, God says, SHOUT OUT with Thanksgiving in your heart. Impart the wisdom of the ages to your people. Let your souls and spirits soar because ALL WOMEN’S VOICES DO MATTER and yes even BLACK WOMEN’S VOICES DO MATTER! They mattered yesterday, they matter today and they matter tomorrow.