This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA, the 40th anniversary of women of color, and the 10th anniversary of LGBTQ+ siblings.
It’s an incredibly important marker for the ELCA, though it is only the beginning for the Church, as women are still denied ordination across the denominations and hold less than 15% of the leadership positions in the worldwide church! Therefore, in 2020, we in the Oregon Synod will highlight one woman from Christian history every week. Some you may know, others you may not, but all worthy of our respect and gratitude. The women will be posted each Sunday afternoon on our Facebook page.
December 28, 2019: Unnamed Women
Before we begin celebrating the contributions of the named women in Christian history, we want to take a moment to acknowledge all the unnamed, unknown women who have testified, preached, healed, labored, taught, guided and loved Christ and the Christian mission from the very beginning. Women followed Jesus during his life, the gospels tell us that women stayed through the agony of the crucifixion and that women were the first to witness the resurrection and therefore, the first to speak about it. The earliest Christian worship services and sacraments were celebrated in the home, the domain of women. The earliest form of communion was the agape feast, cooked by women. There are non-canonical gospels and texts that recognize the role of women, as well as ancient works of art. Ordaining women is not a modern practice placed on an ancient religion, but rather a return to the roots of Christianity and the powerful female leadership which has shaped Christianity from its birth. So from these first female Christian leaders, to the women whose unacknowledged leadership and labor holds up the church today, we offer our gratitude. Though often forgotten, discounted, and overlooked, they too are part of the foundation of the faith upon whose shoulders we stand, and for the depth of their spirituality, courage and perseverance we are forever grateful.
January 5: Mary Magdalene
This week we honor Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, whose importance to the burgeoning sect of Judaism that became Christianity is hard to overstate. How do we know this? Well, number one, simply because she’s mentioned. Scripture was written in the context of such baked-in and rigid patriarchy that we know this truth to be self-evident: if a woman was mentioned, and named, she was very, very important. Not only do all four of our canonical gospels mention Mary Magdalene, they each mention her more than once. She also has a gospel (non-canonical) all her own.
Secondly, when women are listed, Mary of Magdala is listed first. This clues us into the fact that must have been a leader.
Thirdly, that such a tremendous rap sheet has developed about her through the years which indicates that there’s more there. Why, when nothing in scripture indicates that she was anything other than a woman from a small down healed from demons, who chose to risk everything to follow Jesus? Why, other than posing a threat of some kind to existing authority, would these other traditions develop labeling her a prostitute? Scholars tell us it’s likely that her leadership threatened some existing Christian powers and principalities. The age-old rumor mill that has dismissed and discounted multitudes of women. The four gospel resurrection narratives vary in details, but they all agree on this point: Mary Magdalene was among the women who stayed through the crucifixion. She was the first to witness the risen Christ, and most importantly, she was the first to dare TELL about it. That is the very definition of “apostle” – one sent to share good and often disruptive news. The gospels were written by men, and yet they all base their stories of the risen Christ on the experience, the word, of a woman! Mary Magdalene truly was the Apostle to the Apostles.
January 12: Thecla
You may or may not know of Thecla today, but she was a well-known leader from Iconium in the earliest years of the Christian movement. Her lively and somewhat fabulous story is recorded in the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Acts of Thecla, both of which were widely disseminated and used in worship throughout the Ancient Near East, but later deemed heretical and destroyed, though clearly, copies remained. In the apocryphal text, we are told of Thecla, a virgin-martyr converted by Paul, who refused marriage, cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and took up the duties of a missionary apostle. Threatened with rape, prostitution, and twice put in the ring as a martyr, she persevered in her ministry, courage, healing and faithfulness to God. Unsurprisingly, some ancient church leaders found themselves inspired by the fact of a woman preaching and baptizing, and others like Tertullian found it challenging or disturbing. Her legacy is an incredible reminder of all the audacious women of faith who have gone before us.
January 19: Perpetua & Felicity
Not only were women prominent leaders in the early church, some of the most widely known and respected were very young women, like Perpetua and Felicity. The story of their martyrdom, “The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions,” mostly written by Perpetua’s own hand, was so popular in the early centuries that it was read during liturgies. The story is tragic: two young women killed by Rome for their religious beliefs. It is a story that played out far too many times and took far too many lives. But a few things make this story noteworthy. Like Thecla, Perpetua stood up to the patriarchy, first by defying her father, then by defying Rome. She claimed her own identity in a time when women were not allowed their own identities. Perpetua made her own choices and she had the privilege (through literacy), of writing her own story. What does it tell us about the earliest Christian communities that it was the spiritual example of these young women that they valued so highly and lifted up?
January 26: Desert Mothers
At the same time that Constantine was gathering male leaders for the Council of Nicea in 325CE, (where women were decreed unable to hold leadership roles – no matter that many of the leading Christian leaders of the time were female), many of the inspiring religious leaders refused to let their spirituality be constrained and chose to head into the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Persia and Asia Minor. These Desert Mothers and Fathers lived lives of asceticism and founded the first Christian monastic orders. Unsurprisingly, the lives of the Desert Fathers are more well known, our information about the Desert Mothers comes from the Desert Fathers and their biographers. So today, we honor these women who defied Rome and patriarchy to follow Christ. Many of their names and stories have been lost to history, but the fruits of their devotion live on in the monastic orders of today.
February 2: Phyllis Wheatley
In honor of Black History Month, we are going to jump our series forward in time to spotlight the Christian leadership of African-American women, starting with Phyllis Wheatley. Her story is one among many revealing the gruesome nature of human slavery in our history. Captured and taken violently from her home in West Africa at age seven, Phyllis was transported in the bowels of a slave ship across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in Boston. Educated by the family that bought her -the Wheatley’s -by the age of 18 she became a poet renowned at home and abroad. So well known and loved was she that she corresponded with, and eventually met, leaders like President George Washington. Her achievements became an inspiration to, and catalyst for, the fledgling antislavery movement. Wheatley intentionally used her art to condemn the practice of slavery and remind her Christian audience of the universal and liberating nature of God’s love. For instance, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” the best-known Wheatley poem, chides the audience to remember that Africans must be included in the Christ’s promises: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” She strategically linked her nation’s struggle for freedom to the need for freedom amongst it’s slaves: “for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same Principle lives in us.”
February 9: Jarena Lee
In 1819, Jarena Lee was the first woman authorized to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. She was also the first African American woman to have an autobiography published in the United States, “The Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee.” She was not raised in a religious household, but rather came to her Christian beliefs through her own mental health struggles and the solace she found after many hours of prayer. After her own conversion experience she began to hear the call to go and preach the Gospel. The only problem being–at this time–women did not preach the Gospel. Having joined the AME church, Jarena went to it’s founder, Richard Allen, and told him of her call. He rebuffed her for her gender. Jarena married another AME pastor, Joseph Lee, who also dissuaded her from preaching the Gospel and for eight years these two men kept her from her call (Joseph until his death). But one Sunday in 1817, Jarena stood up during a worship service and began to preach. On hearing her, Bishop Allen had a change of heart and publicly affirmed her call to preach the Gospel – making her the first African American woman to preach the Gospel publicly. Jarena became an itinerant preacher, traveling thousands of miles on foot. She preached to racially mixed Protestant audiences across the United States and Canada, all at a time when slavery was still legal and neither African Americans nor women could own property or vote. She was part of the peak of the movement we call the Second Great Awakening, which included the idea that African Americans and women could preach.
February 16: Sojourner Truth
Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth is best known for her impromptu speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Though the exact wording invoked is debated by scholars today, it is clear that Truth used her faith, her bible and her lifetime of trauma in and through enslavement to liberate existing racial and gender narratives and set the record straight about women’s rights. She professed:“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” Truth was born into slavery in the North, but escaped with her infant daughter in 1826. When she learned that her 5 year old son had been illegally sold, she courageously took the issue to court and secured his return. The case was one of the first in which a black woman successfully challenged a white man in a United States court. On June 1, 1843, she named herself Sojourner Truth and devoted her life to her Christian faith, women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. As a teacher, preacher and activist, Truth traveled extensively throughout the United States, and alongside Frederick Douglass rose to be one of the leading public voices of her time. Unlike Douglass, she was forced to combat illiteracy all her life and thus memorized huge portions of the bible. When desiring to hear scripture read, she inevitably would ask a child – they don’t seek to tell me what it means, she said, but trust me to interpret it for myself. Sojourner Truth delivered an address in 1872, on the eighth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which she admitted that although once hating white people for what they had done to her, and hating her masters, once she found her final master, Jesus, she was filled with love towards all people.
February 23: Mother Mary Lange
Elizabeth Lange, founder of the first United States religious order of women of color, came to Baltimore a refugee from Cuba (and Haiti before that). She was a well-educated woman with independent means, (due to her family’s wealth), and a religious pioneer. She became aware of the need for education amongst the slave population, so she opened a school for Black children in her home, (Maryland was a slave state at the time and the education of Black children was outlawed). The free school that she created eventually transformed into the first Black Catholic school in the US. In 1829, she established the first religious order of women of African Descent, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, with a mission to educate Black children. Upon taking her vows, she took the name of Mary and became the order’s first Mother Superior. Mother Mary gave tirelessly and generously, On top of the schools she started there was also an orphanage, a woman’s home, spiritual direction, religious education classes, and vocational training (at night, the sisters taught Black adults to read and write). Mother Mary died in 1882. The Oblate sisters continue their work today teaching in schools, working in parishes and caring for the sick in the US, Cuba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and parts of Africa. Mother Mary teaches us to use what we have and do all the good we can, wherever we are.
March 1: Women of Words
At a time when only a fraction of the population was literate (350-450 CE), there were several Christian women known for their writing. These women, privileged with both wealth and education, utilized their creativity, to express and share their faith through their writings. The following four women were well-known and well-received, surviving patriarchy’s erasure through the wide-spread popularity of their work. Proba, wrote a popular epic cento poem of 694 hexameters detailing the Genesis account of the creation of the world and other early events in biblical history, and, in greater detail, scenes from the life of Christ titled: “Virgilianus de laudibus Christi.” Egeria, wrote a personal travelogue “Itinerarium Egeriae” (Travels of Egeria) about her three year pilgrimate to visit significant sites from the Bible. She traveled through the regions of modern-day Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and back to the region of Anatolia. Paula, first encouraged Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin (from Hebrew and Greek), then edited and proofread his work for publication. The Vulgate translation became an authoritative translation for the next 1,500 years. After being wrongly accused of adultery and banished by her husband, teh emporer, Empress Eudocia, left Constantinople for Jerusalem where she used her remaining wealth and influence to repair the city walls, build and decorate churches, create shelter for the poor, aged, and indigent and well as pilgrims, and financially support monks and clergy. She also promoted religious tolerance for Jews and pagans (an unpopular sentiment at the time). She was a prolific writer across multiple genres: centos, hagiographies and Church history. She is best known for her work “The Martyrdom of St. Cyprian” which tells the story of the chaste Justa, the attempts by the pagan Cyprian to seduce her, his conversion to Christianity, and martyrdom for his faith.
March 8: Empress Theodora
Empress Theodora is regarded as the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. Born in 497 CE, she rose from humble beginnings, overcoming the prejudices of her disreputable early career as an “actress” to marry Emperor Justinian and become Empress of Rome. Because of her intelligence, political savvy, and close relationship with her husband, she was able to use her position and influence to promote religious and social policies. At a time when women were not recognized as having rights she successfully advocated for stricter laws prohibiting the traffic of young girls, and altered the divorce laws of the time to greater benefit women. She was also known for her charitable work, sponsoring the foundation of many institutions for the poor such as orphanages, hospitals, and (perhaps significantly given her former profession) a home for former prostitutes seeking to reenter respectable society. During a time of fierce Christological debate, Theodora held firmly to her own beliefs—though they differed from her husband’s and the emerging orthodoxy. She is probably best known for her and her husband’s work to restore Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) Turkey.
March 15: Bishop Barbara C. Harris
Today we honor the life and ministry of Barbara C. Harris, who in 1989, was consecrated in Boston as an Anglican bishop, becoming the first female to serve in the role. She died Friday at the age of 89. Before becoming bishop, she was active in the Civil Rights Movement, including marching in Selma. Her appointment brought a lot of hate her way, but she remained joyful. Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry says. “Bishop Harris was not large of physical stature. In fact, the opposite, but she was larger than life. She was larger than life because she lived it fully with her God and with us. She did it by actually living the love of God that Jesus taught is about. She did it walking the lonesome valley of leadership, paving a way for so many of us whose way had been blocked. She did it lifting her voice for those who had no voice. She did with a joke, a whispered word, a secret joy in spite of anything that got in her way, including death. No wonder she titled her memoir, ‘Hallelujah, Anyhow!’” Remember Bishop Harris in your prayers today, a woman who used her life to advocate for “the least, the lost and the left out.” Rest in peace, Bishop Harris.
March 22: Florence Nightingale
During times of struggle, we need the bright leadership of those following their callings to care for the most vulnerable.
Florence Nightingale was one of these leaders.
She was seventeen when she felt that God spoke to her, calling her to future “service.” When she discerned her vocation as a nurse her affluent parents quickly forbade seeing it as unfitting for her social class. Nevertheless, she persisted and at 24 she enrolled as a nursing student at a Lutheran Hospital in Germany. After graduating, within a year of being hired for her first nursing job, she was promoted to superintendent. During a cholera outbreak, she made it her mission to improve hygiene practices (wash your hands!) which were unsanitary and aiding in the spread of the disease. Her efforts significantly lowered the death rate at the hospital.
In 1853, the Crimean War broke out. In 1854, Florence was asked to organize a corps of nurses to tend to the sick and fallen soldiers. She accepted the call and quickly assembled a team of 34 nurses—mostly Catholic and Anglican nuns—sailing out just a few days later. Conditions in Crimea were horrific. Contaminated water, moldy food, poor sanitation, vermin, lack of supplies, rampant infectious disease, and human suffering. Florence got to work. She enlisted the more able-bodied patients to assist in a massive cleaning effort. She spent every waking hour ministering to patients. Because of her nightly rounds, they took to calling her “The Lady With the Lamp.” Some called her, the Angel of Crimea. She established a kitchen, a laundry, a classroom, and a library. Hers was the first all-female run field hospital. She wrote a book detailing her practices that sparked a total restructuring of the War Office’s Administrative Department.
When she returned to Britain, she was rewarded for this work by Queen Victoria. She used the money she was gifted to start the Nightingale Training School for Nurses. Thanks to Nightingale, nursing was now viewed as an honorable vocation.
Her faith was “mystical,” she said. After all, “the kingdom of heaven is within.” She sought through prayer and silence reminders of the God who loves all. For her, Christ was healer, presence, and supporter of all on the margins. Speaking once with nursing students she said, “It is Christ himself who is the author of our profession.”
Florence died in 1910 having tirelessly devoted her life to follow her call to service, thus preventing disease and ensuring safe and compassionate treatment for the poor and the suffering.
March 29: Clara Barton
Clara Barton lived a remarkable life caring for the needs of others through wars and disasters, at home and abroad. Born in 1821, she was a charismatic crusader for equal rights and equal pay, a suffragist, and abolitionist who began her nursing career volunteering on the American Civil War battlefields, earning the nickname “Angel of the Battlefields.” Abraham Lincoln appointed her with the job of tracking down missing soldiers and informing their families once they were found. After a trip to Switzerland in 1869 introduced her to the work of the Red Cross, she became an advocate for and eventual founder of the American Red Cross in 1881. She advocated for an expansion of International Red Cross relief efforts, covering victims of natural disasters, called the American Amendment. She also advocated, through three American presidents, for the signing of the Geneva Treaty (now part of the Geneva Convention). She believed in equal rights and helped everyone regardless of race, gender or economic station. She brought attention to the great need of disaster victims and streamlined many first aid, emergency preparedness and emergency response procedures still used by the American Red Cross. Clara Barton saw the need for humanitarian aid and care, and she spent the rest of her life trying to meet it. The legacy of her work continues on today.
April 5: Julian of Norwich
Today we honor Julian of Norwich, a woman who spent most of her life in self-quarantine as an anchorite. Becoming an anchorite was a symbolic death. You received the last rites and were walled into your “tomb” which you would never leave again. Julian’s tomb was in a church and had two windows: one interior window allowed her to observe services and her maid to bring her food and take her waste, and one exterior window that allowed her to converse with passersby. She also was more physically, than socially distant. At the age of 30, Julian became very ill. She was on her supposed deathbed when she instead experienced sixteen ecstatic visions of God. She recovered and wrote of her experience in her book, “Revelations of Divine Love,” the first English language book written by a woman. Julian experienced God as both male and female, referring to Jesus as “mother.” She experienced God as purely loving and without judgment. She is best known for the quote “all shall be well” which Jesus told her in her vision. She didn’t write this as someone living during easy times. She lived during the time of the Black Death (plague) and the Hundred Years War as well as the usual scourges of poverty and famine. The people who came to visit her and receive spiritual counsel from her kept her from being completely isolated from the realities of her day. But in her visions, she was shown that even in the most frightening of circumstances, if you are with God, you are never alone.
April 12: Thérèse of Lisieux
As a little girl, she had big dreams. She wanted a big, important life, doing big, important things. She dreamed of being a priest, a missionary, a saint… but she didn’t see any possibilities for her dreams to manifest. She was a female and she lived the hidden life of a cloistered nun. She struggled with the divide she saw between serving God as she felt called while living within her real-life circumstances. Then she realized her true vocation: love. This led to her developing the “little way” which is detailed in her autobiography “Story of a Soul.” Thérèse teaches a practical theology of tending to everything and everyone with the enamored attention of a child—thus doing the ordinary with extraordinary love. She lived a short life—dying of tuberculosis at 24. Twenty-eight years later, her childhood dream came true when she was canonized as a saint—and declared the youngest doctor of the church. She was called the Little Flower and she teaches us that we can always bloom where we are planted and love that which is before us.
April 19: Corrie ten Boom
When the Nazis invaded Holland, Corrie ten Boom, the first woman licensed as a watchmaker in Holland, and her family began hiding Jewish people in their home. The façade of the watch shop made the house an ideal front for these activities. A secret room, no larger than a small wardrobe closet, was built into Corrie’s bedroom behind a false wall. The space could hold up to six people, all of whom had to stand quiet and still. A crude ventilation system was installed to provide air for the occupants. When security sweeps came through the neighborhood, a buzzer in the house would signal danger, allowing the refugees a little over a minute to seek sanctuary in the hiding place. Before the ten Boom family was turned into Nazi authorities, they saved nearly 800 people from death camps. Corrie was the only member of her family who survived her time in a concentration camp. A clerical error allowed her to be released one week before all women prisoners her age were executed. “God does not have problems. Only plans,” she proclaimed. Corrie told her story in a book entitled The Hiding Place, inspiring many to see God at work through the darkest of life’s circumstances. Her experiences led to a worldwide ministry through more than 60 countries where she preached about forgiveness and Christ’s love. She died on her 91st birthday, April 15, 1983. Her passing on this date evokes the Jewish traditional belief that states that only specially blessed people are granted the privilege of dying on the date they were born.
April 26: Teresa of Avila
There hardly seem enough adjectives to describe Teresa of Avila: courageous, quick-witted, independent, natural leader, outgoing, talented, well-read, beautiful, rebellious, affectionate, funny, adaptable, tenacious, enthusiastic, and charming—so it is surprising that she ultimately used this surfeit of charisma to lead a monastic reform that advocated for more intense contemplation and further withdrawal from society. Her life’s work—she established seventeen convents and as many men’s cloisters, and wrote several spiritual classics, including The Interior Castle—began after a series of mystical experiences she had in her forties. She believed these experiences came from God because they gave her peace, inspiration, and encouragement. Speaking of these experiences—and retaining her sense of humor—she quipped. “If these effects are not present I would greatly doubt that the raptures come from God; on the contrary, I would fear lest they be caused by rabies.” The Interior Castle describes the soul as a “castle made entirely of diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms and in the very center . . . is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.” In her role as a spiritual director, and in her books, Teresa teaches others how to pray, or in her terminology, enter the interior castle, so that they might commune more intimately with God. Her monastic reforms were based on the belief that one must withdraw from distraction to more clearly hear the voice of God within. In other words, most of us need time for reflection, silence, stillness and the treasuring of this life.
May 3: Marguerite Porete
Marguerite Porete was a Beguine—part of a community of 13th-century holy women who lived together in semi-monastic communities. They were not nuns; they didn’t take formal vows— could leave at any point, and were therefore not governed by any ecclesiastical authorities. They lived lives of spiritual intention and practice. Marguerite Porete was one of their leading figures, particularly popular because she wrote her book, “The Mirror of Simple Souls,” in vernacular French, rather than in Latin. The reach of her teachings extended outside of France—German mystic Meister Eckhart was a fan of her work, but this acclaim brought her to the attention of the Inquisition. She was arrested for refusing to stop proclaiming that God is Love and circulating her book. So what is this heretical book about? It is a story of the spiritual development of the Soul which culminates in union with God. Why was this condemned by church authorities of the time? Because she states that the relationship between the soul and God does not rely on the church. Because she refused to recant, she was imprisoned for over a year and finally burned at the stake on June 1, 1310. Her book remains in circulation, though her authorship was only restored in 1965. Though the ending of her story is tragic, Marguerite’s mystical wisdom, the culmination of her years of spiritual practice, live on.