Beth Martin Birky is a professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Goshen College, where her favorite courses include World Literature and Gender in a Global Context. Beth and her husband David Birky live in Goshen, Indiana, with their two children Maddie (22) and Hugh (18). For the past five years, she has served as the editorial representative to the Mennonite Women USA board and attends Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship.
I came to the Orlando convention for two reasons.
The first relates to my work as a Goshen College professor: three recent Goshen graduates (Sarah Hofkamp, Laura Miller and Zachary Zimmerman) and I offered a seminar on the Bystander Intervention program we have developed at Goshen College.
The second emerges from my role as a board member for Mennonite Women (MW) USA: I helped Marlene Bogard and the MW USA staff (Berni Kaufman and Katie McKinnell) celebrate the organization’s 100th anniversary.
These were two very different roles, two very different activities, and, not surprisingly at a t-shirt filled convention, two very different t-shirts. I began the day wearing my purple Goshen College t-shirt for the youth workshop. After lunch, I donned my MW USA centennial t-shirt to staff the exhibition booth and usher at the evening centennial celebration.
Differences in roles and dress aside, my convention responsibilities felt distinct in other ways. Bystander education was aimed at the future, with college graduates challenging high school youth to play their part in creating safe and supportive communities and congregations, even when our culture reinforces sexual exploitation. The Mennonite Women centennial celebration looked at the past, inviting us to recognize the ways women have served and led the church toward more supportive and faithful communities, even when limited by church policy and strict gender roles.
As I write these short descriptions, I begin to see common themes emerging. Beyond the obvious fact that both roles relate to gender issues, I see actions and behaviors that are essential to foster relationships, congregations and a denomination based on love, especially God’s love for every one of us, regardless of gender, race, sexual identity, or age:
- Both recognized the ways gendered social norms limit us. For example, when we ask a victim of sexual violence what she wore or did (or didn’t do) to invite such behavior, we assume that a victim of sexual violence is somehow to blame. When churches assert that women shouldn’t lead or preach, or when they limit them to part-time or support roles, we assume that women haven’t been called by God to use their gifts. We need to recognize how these assumptions, along with many others, contribute to unfair and painful experiences in the church. We need to recognize the way our assumptions about gender alienate and exclude God’s beloved people.
- Both honored people whose stories have been overlooked or silenced. Once we recognize the way gender assumptions have limited us and hurt many in our community, we begin to name and honor all experiences, especially those that might not fit our gender expectations. Bystander education teaches us to recognize a destructive situation in order to intervene and disrupt potential violence and prevent harm. Likewise, the MW centennial celebration reminds us to honor the suffering and the persistent strength of Mennonite women in the past in order to prevent inequality in church leadership and participation today.
- Both shared hope for a more inclusive future. The Bystander educators offer a vision of communities free from sexual violence, pointing toward beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that may get us closer to that goal. Mennonite women envision a church that believes we are all created in God’s image and that all are called to serve and lead the church.
Recognizing, honoring, sharing our pain and our joy: these actions reveal common work underlying my two convention roles. They can also guide our work of creating a supportive and safe church community for all of God’s people.