Advocating for Others, Ministering to Myself

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by Katey Zeh

scotuszeh11Ever since I moved away from Washington, D.C. nearly three years ago, I find myself in the midst of some strange weather event whenever I return. The day that I was scheduled to speak in front of the Supreme Court was no exception. Nearly a week after the official start of spring, our capitol city welcomed me with freezing temperatures and a heavy, wet snow, but the weather couldn’t put a damper on the rally, attended by hundreds of advocates defending access to contraception under the Affordable Care Act. As I spoke from the podium about my faith and my commitment to advocating for contraception access, the crowd whooped and hollered at all the right moments. It was a true highlight of my advocacy career.

What I wanted to say at the rally but felt like I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) was that I was ten weeks pregnant—and that thanks to my access to contraception, my husband and I had been able to plan our pregnancy. I can’t even imagine what the response would have been! But the idea of displaying that much vulnerability was too much. I wasn’t ready to make my pregnancy quite so public.

Therein lies the tension of my life as an advocate. Where does the self fit into advocating for others?

For the last four years I’ve dedicated my ministry to advocating for global maternal health and universal access to contraception from a faith-based perspective. As a woman of childbearing age but with no experience of pregnancy up until this year, I could relate to the need for contraceptive care, but the world of safe motherhood was another story. I leaned on others—biblical mothers like Rachel and Mary, advocates from Kenya and Sierra Leone, statisticians with solid facts—to fill in my perceived gaps. Finding out I was pregnant abruptly shifted my perspective on the work I was doing because I could start to weave my own experience into the tapestry of stories of women past, present, and future. But I struggled over when would I make that apparent to the outside world.

Would I ever feel ready for this work to become more intimate and personal than it already was? I felt my call to advocacy when I was in seminary and saw how few faith voices there were in the world that affirmed the dignity of women and girls. God broke my heart through the stories of women’s suffering and pieced it back together with the hope that I could partner with the divine in creating a more just world.

Each day I approach my work as a holy practice, as ministry. The times when I feel most connected to the church have not been during traditional worship, but rather in the midst of teaching and learning with fellow advocates who share my commitment to the least of these. With these brothers and sisters I have experienced the beloved community I always longed for. I pour myself into the work and do so gladly. But soon after I become pregnant, I realized that suddenly, I was no longer in a position to give in the same way. In fact, I was the one who was in need of ministry.

Truthfully, the first trimester of pregnancy was anything but a spiritually deep time. I spent most of it tending to what felt like an unrelenting case of the flu—nausea, debilitating fatigue, and dizzy spills. I hardly had the energy to shower, much less engage in thoughtful theological reflection about maternal health or brainstorm new advocacy strategies for my project. I resented how my days had been reduced to just getting by until I could crawl into bed again. What was worse than the physical discomfort was how miserable I felt about my lack of productivity. My self-esteem took a massive hit when I realized I could not push through the pregnancy fatigue and had to put nearly everything in my life on the back burner. Worst of all, I was suffering internally and not allowing others in to provide the support I needed.

As I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court, nausea and fatigue in full swing, I somehow mustered up the energy to advocate for the millions of women whose access to health care was at stake. Suddenly it hit me—I wasn’t just advocating for other women; I was advocating for me! I had to ask myself, why is self-advocacy so difficult for me personally? How can I speak passionately about the need for others to experience health, abundant life, and well being when at the same time, I have trouble listening to my own needs for the very same things?

For me pregnancy has been an exercise of constantly letting go of any semblance of control I thought I had. I’ve had to learn and re-learn daily how to turn inward in order to listen to my body, mind, and spirit without resistance. Sometimes it’s about stepping aside to let others lead in my place, canceling speaking engagements, or taking longer to finish writing pieces (like this one). But, I am learning that this is part of self-care. Learning to advocate for myself is part of my ministry.

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. Her essay “A Pregnant Silence” was published last year in the book Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. She was recently named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. She lives in Cary, North Carolina with her husband Matt and their dog Lucy.  

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