Reclaiming Birth with Sacred Worth

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By Katey Zeh

file000450171216In most instances when U.S. media portrays the birth of a baby, the storyline typically goes something like this: The woman’s water breaks in the grocery store. Her awestruck partner starts panicking that they need to rush to the hospital immediately. When they arrive the woman screams obscenities as she is wheeled into the delivery room where a doctor shouts like a drill sergeant for her to push a few times before the baby is born. It’s loud, exciting, and kind of terrifying.

The birth of my daughter was nothing like this. In fact, as it turns out very few women I know have had experiences like the ones we see in movies and on TV. But our consumption of this Hollywood narrative of childbirth—excruciatingly painful, lightening fast, always with a happy ending—shapes our collective imagination about childbirth in powerful ways. If the only births we ever see are fictionalized, sensationalized, and sanitized representations of the experience, what else do we have to go on?

There are consequences to this. I spent a good portion of my pregnancy trying to unlearn the culture’s explicit and implicit messages about childbirth that taught me to be afraid of it, to discount my physical and mental stamina; that told me to entrust my birth experience to medical professionals without complaint or question. I was shocked when a friend of mine shared that her OB, who entered the delivery room groggy from a nap, answered her cell phone and talked casually as my friend begged to push her baby out. Even as her daughter was crowning, the doctor said to my friend, “Hold on another minute.”

As a person of faith, I hold to the sacred truth that as children of God, all women and girls have innate sacred worth. No woman should have to beg for compassionate, respectful maternal health care.

In my advocacy for global maternal health, I am passionate about lifting up and honoring the stories of women’s births that we find in our ancient scriptures and connecting them with what is happening in today’s world. Even though these women lived thousands of years ago, their experiences are not unlike those of many women today. I’ve written about Mary as a young, poor teenager with an unexpected, high-risk pregnancy. I’ve shared about the story of Rachel in Genesis who died in childbirth, not unlike the more than 800 women this very day who will lose their lives bringing new life into our world.

This year on April 11th organizations and advocates who care about maternal health are calling for the day to be recognized as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights. Communities of faith have a real opportunity to reclaim our collective stories, both past and present, to ensure that the sacred worth and dignity of every woman–no matter where she lives, no matter the circumstances of her pregnancy, no matter what access to resources she has—are honored during pregnancy, childbirth, and throughout her life. If you are looking for a way to get started, I invite you to take a look at our resources for how to get your congregation involved in the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project.

Birth is sacred. Let’s make sure it’s treated that way.

This was originally posted on the United Methodist Church’s Healthy Families, Healthy Planet website.  Reprinted with permission from the author.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, and Feminist Studies in Religion. She lives in Cary, North Carolina with her husband Matt and their daughter Samantha.    

Joy in Creation

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By Claire Bischoff

My best friend growing up was not into the usual play date fare; no Barbie dolls or playing school for her. What she really loved was art, so when we knew she was coming over, my mom would let me pick out an art kit at the local toy store. A go-to favorite was a pin making kit. We would pour the clay into the molds the night before, so that when my friend arrived the next day we could get right to painting our new jewelry. Try as I might, my pin never turned out as cool as the box made it look like it should be.

Unfortunately, “try as I might, but never” became the refrain I associated with most of my arfile000276834555tistic endeavors. Try as I might, my coloring never looked as beautiful as my mother’s, who outlined each part of her picture with a firm bold stroke before coloring in the space in between in a gentler hue. Try as I might, my construction paper snowman was never as cute as the model the teacher had taped to the board for us to copy. While other students struggled with reading and multiplication tables, I inwardly stressed out about art class, since I could never make the product match the vision in my head. By the time I got to high school, I had given up on artistic creation completely, electing to take art history and art appreciation courses rather than studio arts to fulfill that portion of the graduation requirements.

Despite my own uneasiness with producing art, when I had my first son seven years ago, I anxiously awaited the moment he would be old enough to grasp a crayon or run his pudgy fingers through finger paint. This felt like a second chance to get good at art, and in my impatience to recapture (or maybe experience for the first time) a child-like joy at creating, I picked out projects that were wildly beyond his ability level and then felt frustrated and disappointed when they did not hold his attention for more than thirty seconds or when the final product was not aesthetically pleasing enough to hang on the fridge for all the world to see. Fortunately, I had wiser friends around me, and from them I learned some crucial lessons about doing art with children, namely, to follow my children’s lead in terms of their artistic interests and to focus on the process more so than the product.

It is with great joy that I have watched my two sons blossom into artistic creators as they have grown. This past weekend, as we were getting ready to leave a restaurant, my four-year old leaned over to ask if he might bring the discarded pull-tabs and drink coasters from our table home for an art project. Where most people would see material destined for the garbage, he envisioned a new pig he could make for the live-action Angry Birds game he plays constantly. With a piggy nose drawn on it and googly eyes glued in place, the coaster became the pigs’ face, and taped to the back of the coaster with green washi tape, the pull tabs became ears and a hat. With a huge smile of pride and satisfaction on his face, he emerged from the basement art room, saying, “Mom, look at what I made!”

When I see the joy that my sons take in making something new, I can better understand what it means to affirm God as Creator, not just at the beginning but as an ongoing force in the universe. Rather than being hemmed in by fear and uncertainly, as I was growing up, God (and my sons) create with excitement, with hope, with an eye toward possibility,  and out of the desire to see what might be and with the trust that what might be will be good because the Creator wills it to be good. Like my son gathering up the waste from our table and making something new, God nudges us to remember the parts of ourselves that we would rather forget and empowers us to use them to make the world new. God is present with us in the times of the deepest sorrow and biggest regret and finds a way to make something beautiful out of the tears and ashes, because that is what Creators do.

In an effile0001089343368fort to tap into the joy that comes with creation, last week I met a good friend at a craft store, and she helped me pick out yarn and needles. This weekend she is going to give me my first knitting lesson. It is my fervent prayer that I can learn from my sons, focus on the process of creating something with my hands rather than harshly judging the product as not quite good enough, and connect with the Creator who knit all of us together in our mother’s wombs and who continues to fashion us in Her image.

Courage and Faith: A Motherhood Journey

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by Jamie Mabe
file5581302923593We begin with so much inexperience; this inexperience is the necessary cornerstone to the hubris that is required to begin the journey of motherhood in the first place. We have no idea what we’re in for. We want to have a child, a baby, a family.  What seems like a simple act; starting a family, is actually the first step of the epic journey that we didn’t really know we were starting on.  It is leaving home forever, unknowingly.

We “prepare” for our journey with planning, purchasing, and “nesting”. We do all that we can to “see” what our journey will be like, but like a bad vacation, our well-laid plans are often ruined. We didn’t  foresee that the journey would include death of self.  If we knew that ahead of time maybe we would never have undertaken the journey in the first place, or we would try to outsmart the death and in turn create a monster.

We think we are brave but we’re not; you can’t be brave unless you’re scared first, and when we start on this parenting journey, we often don’t know enough to be scared properly.  We walk out the door with our chin up and chest proud and immediately we are stripped of sword, pack, comforts and map.  When the labor pains start our journey into the shadow of death begins.   We descend to Hades, we leave our bodies.  When the baby is born and our soul comes back it has been irrevocably changed.  That is the first death of the many deaths that are necessary to be a mother.  We learn that we will have to love with all our heart someone who will never be in our control.  Great love and death are the same; they kill our ego.

When we get baby home, where we NOW feel so in control, we try to regain our footing, try to be the woman we used to be.  But this is where we begin to realize that we are not the same person as the one who left for the hospital.  The “heroine” has returned home but home has changed forever.  Home is no longer comfortable. We keep trying to “put new wine into old wineskins”, and it doesn’t work.  Our relationship with our partner has changed.  Our relationship with our self has changed.  Our new soul, reworked by the death of who we once were, now inhabits our bodies, and belief, faith, habits, thoughts, and actions of old are (in most cases) no longer useful and productive.  Our selves are re-created like quilts, throwing out the old ripped cloth, patching it with new cloth, and becoming something altogether new.

It is necessary to let go of more of our ego, that is, our own exaggerated sense of self importance and control.  This is not to be confused with selflessness, or having no concern for oneself.  You should have an even greater concern for yourself. Remember, this baby thinks that you and s/he are the same creature, and in so many ways you still are.  Putting yourself first means putting you both first- prioritizing health (mental, physical, emotional, relationship) is crucial in this new-found symbiotic relationship. Putting aside your control, however, is something new. You love this child as much as yourself – but you are not in control. Releasing this control (or ego) helps you become the new wineskin that can hold the new wine.

To let go, release, and re-make, we start out on another epic journey.  This new journey is a little easier because now we have seasoned faith. We know that the outcome is unknown and out of our hands.  We know that we have to rely on something that is not us.  We have one of the key elements of faith, vulnerability, and it helps the next death not hurt so much.  In fact, now that we realize that these personal deaths (or releases of control) are for our betterment, we welcome it.  Our faith wrested from us the control that was never ours in the first place. We are now brave, because we are scared but we carry on anyway.

As mothers we are the shepherds, the ones covered in sheep poop, standing up to the wolves, taking care of the flock.  Unfortunately, this holy work often comes without gratitude or rank. It’s not a sexy job. When we come back from our epic journey we aren’t put on the crowd’s shoulders and carried through the center of town.  We come back and are celebrated in the smallest and most significantly insignificant ways: our partners are happier, our babies are comforted, we experience our selves as re-made. Our faith is seasoned, tested, transformed.

Jamie Mabe is a mother of two boys and lives in the triangle area of North Carolina.

Between Finitude and Openness to the Infinite

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By Claire Bischoff

Recently, it was President’s Day, one of those horrible Monday holidays that schools have off and corporate America does not, meaning I would be STUCK at home with my three kids while my husband went to work. I use the verb STUCK intentionally here; the weekend before all I could imagine was an endless day of interrupting sibling squabbles, refusing their requests for screen time, and trying to suppress my frustration when they whine, “There’s nothing to do. I am so bored!”

My first strategy to deal with this impending doom’s day was to make plans with another family and to get out of the house. When that option did not pan out, I decided to orchestrate an at-home Winter Wonderland Day, complete with an art project, an indoor “snowball”/sock ball fight, and a special lunch that my four-year had enthusiastically picked out of the kids’ cookbook he got for Christmas. As I puttered about on Sunday night, gathering the items we would need the next day, visions of sugar plums danced in my head, or rather, visions of my three angelic children and a completely calm and composed me spending a magical day together, laughing and cuddling, creating and cooking, making memories that would last a lifetime.

Do I even need to write the next paragraph? When my six month old daughter went down for her morning nap, I announced it was art project time. Groaning, my four and six year old sons said that they wanted to play “Run and Tackle” instead, a game they had just invented which involved one of them standing by a couch and the other one running at him and tackling him onto the couch. “Okay,” I thought calmly to myself as I put away all of art supplies that were supposed to turn into adorable doily snowmen, “At least they created their own game and are playing nicely together.”

When their sister woke up from her nap, the boys asked if we could have the snowball/sock ball fight. As it turned out, we spent more time gathering and balling white socks than we did actually throwing them at each other. (Although all four of us were all smiles for the roughly two minutes and eighteen seconds the fight lasted.) “We’re getting hungry,” the older one said. “Time to make my special lunch,” the younger one chimed in. “Okay,” I thought, a little less calmly to myself, “At least they are excited to do some cooking, even if it is only 10:30 in the morning.”

In theMess kitchen things really unraveled. My daughter, who is usually content to sit on the floor while I cook, sucking on an ice cream scoop and dumping spoons out of a mixing bowl, started to cry anytime I tried to set her down. She attached herself to my hip, leading me to employ the ever-tricky, making lunch with one hand maneuver. And the boys could not be much help; the only part of the recipe my son had picked out that was safe for them was spreading Nutella on crackers. The low point came when I was yelling at the boys to quit wiping Nutella on each other, trying to sush their crying sister, and crying myself because I had just spilled the soup I had made all over while trying to pour it from the heavy soup pot into a blender with one hand. When we finally got to the table, the crackers with Nutella were a hit, but the boys spit the soup out on their first bite, and I honestly could barely eat it myself. It tasted like I had just dumped tomato sauce into our bowls, and it took me all of my daughter’s afternoon nap to clean up the mess we had made trying to make incredible memories.

As I wiped spilled soup off the counter, the work of Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner came to mind, which admittedly is not the usual place my mind goes when I am cleaning. While I have forgotten most of what I worked so hard to know about Rahner for my comprehensive exams in my PhD program, there is one line of his that sticks with me to this day and that seemed particularly apropos  not only to my President’s Day morning but also to my experience of parenting more generally. Rahner asserts that human beings exist between our finitude and our openness to the infinite. In other words, what makes us human is that we have limits at the same time as we strive to overcome these limits. We live in this middle ground of ambivalence, aware of our dependence and vulnerability yet always aiming to step beyond this toward the infinite horizon that is God.

In my openness to the infinite, I dreamt of a wonderful President’s Day at home with my children.  In my finitude, I could not will my sons to acquiesce with my plan for the day (nor, after careful reflection, would I really want to!).  In my openness to the infinite, I strove to balance the needs and desires of the various members of our family. In my finitude, I got caught between the demands of a crying daughter, hungry sons, and my own sanity.

As I loaded the dishwasher that afternoon, I realized that I have gotten in trouble in the past when I have let go of one end of this tension. When I have quit reaching beyond myself in parenting because of a fear that my visions will not be realized or because I was simply too tired and sad to dream, I resign myself to existing only in the mind-numbing, soul-squelching monotony that parenting can be. Yet when I ignore the mind-numbing, soul-squelching aspects of parenting in favor of presenting a vision of our family life that speaks of “success” and “being all put together,” I silence an important aspect of the truth of my existence and make it impossible to connect with others in the human vulnerability that we share.

That evening when I finally got my sons tucked into bed, we proceeded with our usual routine of sharing our “ups and downs” from the day. Without hesitation, my four year old replied, “My first up was getting to have an indoor snowball fight, and my second up was having an awesome lunch!” Bless his heart! As he thought back on the day, it was not the limits that he remembered but rather the joy and wonder and fun. It was an important reminder to me that lasting memories are not made in some magical Neverland but instead are forged in that human place we cannot escape between our finitude and our openness to the infinite.

You can’t outgrow hope

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by Annie Hardison-Moody

For a lot of reasons, I’ve been thinking this week about hope. Key among those reasons is a piece that Monica Coleman posted on her beautiful mind blog, Ordinary Saints.  There, she writes about pregnancy loss and the trenches of grief that often surround us when we try to find hope or joy or life in the midst of loss.  It’s difficult (and feels, at times, impossible) to see life where you only know death.  But, she writes, there are saints among us who show us that hope is possible, even when we can’t find it.

With my colleague, Dara Bloom, I’m working on a project with the women’s committee at the Islamic Association of Raleigh (IAR). Maryam Funmilayo, a gifted and passionate nutrition educator, has been holding classes with immigrant and refugee women there through our Faithful Families Eating Smart and Moving More program (which I direct), to connect spiritual and physical health in an effort to help faith communities have access to healthier foods and physical activity.  Through that project, we learned that the women at the IAR wanted greater access to fruits and vegetables that they grew or ate in their home countries. We started out with Maryam offering tours at the local farmer’s market, but the project has evolved into working on a community and school garden, and doing some container garden workshops so that women can grow food from their home countries here in the U.S.  Dara and I have loved working with this group of women – when we show up on a Friday night for a meeting, the room is always filled with smiles, good food, hugs, and such care and concern for us.  The project has been a model, for me, of what academic and community partnerships should look like.

So you can imagine how we felt when we learned that the three students who were killed in Chapel Hill this week were members at the IAR, and they grew up going to the Al-Iman school, where we are working with Cooperative Extension to revitalize the garden.  The funeral was yesterday.  It was across the street from the school, the site where soon we hope to watch the garden come alive again.

Yesterday at the service, Monica’s post kept coming back to me.  Her words echoed as I saw them carry the three coffins away: “I want my babies back.”

I feel like all I write about on this blog is loss.  But it is so hard to talk about, and so I write, hoping that in doing so I can better understand grief.  But it’s incomprehensible.  I try to imagine what might be going through the minds of the parents of these young people – Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.  I hear Monica’s words again: “I want my babies back.”

The father of the two women who died, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, spoke at the funeral, encouraging all of us who were there to learn about Deah, Yusor, and Razan.  He urged us to learn about the example that they set for others in the world – the way they cared for their communities, the way they honored God with their works.

The hope they had for a better world, where does (did) it go?

Their former teacher, Mussarut Jabeen, spoke to NPR this week, to follow-up on the beautiful Story Corps piece she recorded with Yusor in 2014.  In it, Jabeen recalls their bright smiles, their caring hearts, and the hope that Yusor had for a world where we could show love instead of hate:

Jabeen remembers when Deah was growing up, he was getting so tall that he started to outgrow her.

“And because I’m a short person, he would stand behind me and put his hand over my head,” she said. “And I just told him, ‘Deah, you can never outgrow my heart.’ “

“You can never outgrow my heart.”  Is that hope?  If so, it’s still here, even if we can’t feel it right now.





Book Release! The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology

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PVL Cover

One of the reasons that Annie, Claire, and I have embarked on this long journey of compiling an edited volume and launching this blog is that we see the everyday experiences of mothers as a valid, rich, significant, and potentially transformative source for theological scholarship. Yesterday marked the release of my first book, The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology, which is driven by this same conviction. In the book, I mine a diversity of maternal experiences in order to think in fresh ways about the human condition, the problem of violence, and the resources available for resilience and resistance that are located deep in the mother lode of the Christian tradition. It turns out that women’s experiences of maternity and natality, which have traditionally been marginalized in theology and spirituality, can help us to approach the human “problem” with greater clarity, deeper insight, and ever more expansive compassion.

Here are some things that some theologians that I admire greatly have said about the book. I share their comments with you only in the hopes that they will convince you to do me the honor of reading the book!  My further hope is that a dialogue will ensue about its contents, so please let me know what you think!

“With this book, an important new theological voice challenges us to reconceive suffering and redemption through the lens of maternal vulnerability and resilience. Combining insights from liberation and contemplative theology, Gandolfo is relentless in her attention to the hidden corners of human pain and perhaps even more relentless in her witness to divine compassion. This is an important text for feminists and systematic theologians, as well as for Christians thirsty for hope that emerges from the depths of anguish.” Wendy Farley, Emory University

“It’s so refreshing to read a work that takes vulnerability so seriously. Our challenge is not sin but vulnerability. This changes everything (to see how, you need to read the book). Most impressively, Gandolfo could not know what she knows without direct encounter with mothering, including other mothers’ narratives and practices. I love how she weaves maternal knowledge and Christian sources into a conceptually rich portrait of what it means to be human.” Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Vanderbilt University

“As various scholars in the humanities increasingly name the temptation to deny our vulnerability as the source of so many of the problems facing our world, Gandolfo offers a heart-achingly stunning theological exploration of maternal experiences in a way that illuminates our human capability for the life-giving vulnerability that we so desperately fear and that our world so desperately needs. Since she plumbs the depths of suffering revealed in contexts of intimate relationships and practices of care in order to name sources of and resistance to violence, this is a must-read for constructive, feminist, political, and liberation theologians.” Maureen O’Connell, La Salle University

Caring About The Other

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by Pamela J. Pettyjohn

I grew up in a church where only men could teach junior high age classes and above, because women were not allowed to teach men. What does it say to a girl, when a wise adult woman, a faithful Christian woman who leads an exemplary life for Jesus, is not qualified to teach a middle school boy? What it said to me is that, despite the statement of Galatians 3:28 that we are all equal in Christ, women were less equal than men in my church. Certainly, the women could cook the food, clean the church, care for the babies, teach young children, and sing in the choir, but they were not qualified to teach teens and adults, serve as a deacon, or ever be a minister. So what happens when a girl in this environment feels called by God to be a minister? In my experience, she is given a book about being a pastor’s wife. As an adult, I am now part of a denomination that does support the leadership of women in the church, and I am finally following the call to ministry which I first heard as a teenager.  However, I have not forgotten what it is like to be considered “less than” and unworthy; this experience continues to shape my thinking and choices on a daily basis.

DSC09606Until March of 2013, I was not a coffee drinker and didn’t even like the smell of coffee. It was an increasing lack of sleep from a convergence of events, including beginning seminary, which turned me into a coffee drinker for the caffeine boost. Granted, it had to be “milked and sweetened up” to be tolerable, but nonetheless, I had to admit that it appeared I was going to be drinking coffee on a regular basis into the foreseeable future. I also had to admit that I had easy access to fair trade coffee, and if I was going to be drinking it regularly, I needed to buy fair trade. It was not an easy decision since my family lives on a very tight budget. Despite that, we spend an extra $3-$5 a bag more to buy fair trade coffee. This is a small price to pay for knowing that these dollars join with those of others to ensure more humane treatment of those who grow the coffee beans to give me my caffeine fix. Yes, we need to be frugal with our funds, but this is a time we can and should put “the other” above ourselves.

The “others” are not just coffee growers in other countries though. They are right here among us in the “land of plenty.” When the workers who hold down multiple minimum-wage jobs and still need government assistance to make ends meet are vilified, they are turned into “others,” marginalized and treated as unworthy of the concern of those of us who are not quite as bad off financially. Nick Hanauer makes a strong economic case, speaking from the perspective of a millionaire many times over, for increasing the minimum wage.  But for me, this is not just an economic issue, or even just a human rights issue. It is a theological issue. Each of us is created in the image of God and worthy of respect and deserving of being treated fairly. Yet, it is easy to lose sight of that in the quest to get the “best deal” for our family. Those we are tempted to treat as “others” are also our family, our brothers and sisters. They are our neighbors, both in the U.S. and outside of it. We need to do what we can to lift them up.

This is a continuing journey, and my family has certainly not arrived at the place of making every purchase based on ethics instead of economics.  But I take heart that my son is aware of how unfairly some workers are treated and the existence of fair trade items at a much younger age than I. He knows that, while we may not be able to avoid all products that come from unfair sources, there are two companies which our family purposely avoids because we do know about their mistreatment of workers, as well as the negative impact which one of these companies has on the environment. Just because we cannot be perfect consumers does not negate the small steps we can take to show that we want others to be treated humanely, a fair wage to be paid, and environmentally friendly practices to be employed. A little at a time, our purchasing practices will make a difference as we thoughtfully choose to care about “the other.” And together with other families, we will raise a generation who will grow up to make an even bigger difference, of that I am convinced.

Pamela Pettyjohn is a licensed minister and certified teacher with an M.Ed. in Elementary Education from the University of South Carolina. She currently serves as an Associate Minister for Children and Families in Louisville, KY, while also working towards an M.Div. at Lexington Theological Seminary.