26 July 2013

A Letter from the WATER Interns

"Together we are a genius,” a saying from women of The Grail oft repeated by Mary E. Hunt, has been verified by us time and again in the WATER office.

You are part of this collaborative genius too, so we want to share our experiences at WATER with you and to ask you to give a gift to help WATER train more interns—like Cathy Jaskey who is arriving in August for her year here!

As we began our internships, we were welcomed into WATER with neatly arranged desks. Now at summer’s end, we are gathered around one big table—tea, chocolate, papers, and collaboration. This migration towards relationship, towards collaborative genius, is a WATER tradition that we will take with us on our journeys. At WATER, our feminist education comes not only from the books we read and the papers we edit, but also from our connections to you and the Alliance.

A fieldtrip to the Supreme Courthouse on DOMA decision day, visiting with the folks of social justice nonprofits, spending time with friends of WATER—these we will not soon forget. We have learned that the office work will always be there (and by all means good work it is!), but that it does not trump having tea with a friend of WATER. Relationships are the lasting work.

WATER is a vibrant and growing place to intern. We have been encouraged, empowered, and educated. Like the many interns before us, we have gained practical knowledge about nonprofit daily work. We have learned with and from wise women and men, and we have seen what feminist ministry looks like. Our feminist theological knowledge has quadrupled.

As the four of us scatter to different states to continue our studies in university settings, we promise to carry WATER in our suitcases. So, we thank you for being a part of this Alliance. 
Thank you for making this genius opportunity possible for us and for future interns.

With boldness and confidence we ask you to make a brilliant gift now to WATER’s internship program so future interns can join this Alliance where “Together we are a genius.”
With you in WATER,

Molly Bolton                              Rebekah Renfro
Elizabeth Lancaster                       Wendy Mallette

16 July 2013

September 11 Teleconference with Linn Marie Tonstad

Wednesday, September 11, 2013
1 -2 PM EDT

Linn Marie Tonstad is a constructive theologian working at the intersection of systematic theology with feminist and queer theory. Her research interests focus on the relationship between the doctrine of God and anthropology, or the way in which God is thought to be similar or different from visions of human beings.

She is currently completing her first book, provisionally entitled "God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology," where she examines and critiques the visions of divine personhood advanced by a number of contemporary theologians. She pays particular attention to the implications of such visions for thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Christian theology.

Born of a Norwegian father and Iraqi mother, and raised in Norway, Linn received her MAR in philosophical theology from Yale Divinity School and her PhD in religious studies from Yale University. She served as a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University and as assistant professor of Christian theology at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University before joining the faculty at Yale Divinity School as assistant professor of systematic theology.

 She has published several articles on contemporary German-language systematic theologians. In her work, she seeks to put the often antithetical discourses of systematic theology and queer theology into conversation with each other. She blogs monthly at

Email "Register Me Teleconference" to by Tuesday, September 10, 2013 in order to receive dial-in information.

 Recommended resources related to this teleconference include:

Notes on Teleconference with Monica A. Coleman

"Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought"
June 12, 2013

WATER thanks Professor Monica Coleman for her spirited presentation on her new book, AIN’T I A WOMANIST TOO? THIRD WAVE WOMANIST RELIGIOUS THOUGHT. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. We highly recommend the book and offer the following summary of the conversation to augment the audio. 

The underlying question, or “story behind the story,” in Monica Coleman’s book was why people call themselves feminist, others black feminist, and others womanist. She described being able to feel the differences between/among these terms but had been unable to name them clearly. Monica also was interested in the question of “Must I Be a Womanist” (the title of a roundtable article that set the foundations for her book) in order to examine questions of naming and self-naming within academic institutions and publishing companies. In this process of that project, the term “Third Wave Womanism” arose. With the encouragement of colleagues in the field, her book Ain’t I a Womanist Too? Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought emerged.

One major consideration of her book was to examine the terms of “third,” “wave,” and “womanism.” She raises the question about what womanism would look like if womanists held to other definitions coined independently of Alice Walker’s definition such as other branches of U.S. womanism, Africana womanism, etc. Dr. Coleman also explained how she was drawn to third wave feminism with its edginess, iconoclasm, and hybridity and was interested in the ways in which it relied (often unacknowledged) on strands of women of color feminisms, Chicana feminism, womanist, and the black arts movement, etc.

Monica was fond of term “wave” to describe some of the new work being done. She liked how it evokes waves crashing, making noise, and coming one after another. She explained that wave implies a notion of generations but does not necessarily require it. There are still many first waves occurring across disciplines where womanist thought only just entered the field while second and third waves are “troubling the waters” across the same and other fields.

Dr. Coleman laid out four components that make up third wave womanism:

1. Expounds upon terminology.
While womanism traditionally placed the religious lives of black women in the center, a third wave womanist might begin to trouble each of these terms. What does black mean? What does woman mean in light of gender identity, intersex, and transgender persons? What does religion mean in a world of religious diversity and for people who are not Christian?

2. Maintains the goals of justice, survival and quality of life
Like previous waves of womanism, a third wave womanist may still hold to womanism’s goals of justice, survival, and freedom.

3. Affirms an ideology politic rather than an identity politic.
There are authors in Monica Coleman’s volume who do not identify as women or as black, but they work closely with womanism. That is, her anthology includes articles by men and white and Asian scholars. The naming of “womanist” is about the work that is done – its subject matter and ethics – more than the person who is doing said work.

4. Relies on earlier womanist thought but departs from it.
Draws from wider circles, especially from areas that black feminists often engaged.
Third wave womanism often engages with religious plurality, pop culture, and politics.

One participant raised expressing concern with Monica’s description of third wave womanism as “more about ideology than identity,” especially concern for how white feminists want to coopt the term.

Dr. Coleman explained that she uses this expression to be able to acknowledge that people who are not black women are able to do work that fits into womanism and that black women do not always do womanist work. She agreed that coopting identities is a challenge that all people must be aware of, especially with respect to racial power dynamics. She suggested that we need to acknowledge our roots and where we get our knowledge.

Another participant asked if there is space in theology for the “sassy” and “womanish” parts of Alice Walker’s definition?

Monica has observed that this kind of work was present, especially in the boldness of first wave womanist scholars. She agreed that there is still room to be bold or “sassy” in our work and that much of Alice Walker’s definition remains to be explored.

A woman who identified herself as an Asian American woman raised concern about the racialization of feminism as white and related how she has been asked, “If black women have womanism and latinas have mujerista then what is your feminism?”

Dr. Coleman emphasized the importance of self-naming, which is what womanism is about. Terminology becomes problematic when names are placed upon us. Monica explained that she prefers to use the term womanist to describe what she does rather than her identity. This allows her to identify what she is doing in her work rather than allowing someone to place her identity in a box.

A seminarian asked about the risks of departing from a classical position within womanism, especially when those circles provide personal support and professional mobility.

One suggestion Monica offered was to recognize that there is diversity within womanism, even within more traditional positions and across generations. Secondly, she suggested a recognition that the politics of the academy will be particularly challenging for black women because of its white male dominant structure. She explained that we have to negotiate these realms of power and politics in our work, whether in the church, academy, or our homes. She emphasized that it is important for a rising scholar to do work s/he stands by and enjoys. Lastly, she suggested that scholars draw from their own traditions ways to treat themselves and others with grace and compassion, especially when their work may be controversial.

Another woman discussed how she wanted to apply Monica’s work to preaching, specifically how she encourages people who are not black women to use womanist thought their own preaching.

Acknowledging that preaching is not her area of expertise, Dr. Coleman explained that she learned her preaching from Renita Weems. When looking at a text, Dr. Weems encouraged people to look for what is not there and what is not said. Monica asserted that you don’t have to be a black woman to notice these things and to call them out. Monica believes that everyone should put this emphasis in their work.

The final question raised was about how academics can become practitioners of transformation that Monica describes and about how they can embody a “politics of creativity” within their own communities?

Dr. Coleman offered a couple of suggestions. First, she explained that who you are is going to come out in your work. Second, she brought up the importance of self-care and care of loved ones. Monica also suggested recognizing that you must take things in turn and season, while being as creative and transformative as possible. For example, blogging, writing church resources, volunteer work, bible studies, and preaching are ways to do work outside of academy. She stressed that there are a variety of ways to embody a politics of creativity, and this will be different for each person.

WATER is grateful to Monica A. Coleman for her insightful and thought-provoking presentation and looks forward to following her future work.

15 July 2013

July 2013 Notes from Teleconference with Grace Ji-Sun Kim

"Colonialism, Han, and the Transformative Spirit"
July 10, 2013

WATER thanks Professor Grace Ji-Sun Kim for her spirited presentation on her new book, Colonialism, Han, and the Transformative Spirit. NY: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2013. We highly recommend the book and offer the following summary of the conversation to augment the audio.

Dr. Kim began by outlining the present global context. It is a world full of slave labor in which wealthy people collude by buying cheap goods made in inhuman working conditions by those who are paid little. She insisted that Christians and other people of good will are called to changes of heart, habit, and life style. She laid out the damage caused to the planet, air, and water by unjust business practices. Since all life is interconnected, damaging earth in one place leads to widespread destruction. Her example was the recent factory fire in Bangladesh where more than 100 workers died. She alerted us to recent protests at Gap stores in Chicago as one response to this unspeakable situation.

The myth that money brings happiness is just that. In fact, having too much is greed and results in stress on other human beings and on nature creating a grave imbalance. We need a new perspective on the planet, on the divine, indeed on how we live. Climate change, for example, deepens the distance between rich and poor; misuse of natural resources knows no borders. Professor Kim told the story of her Nicaraguan student who detailed the way in which small fishing efforts became big business in a globalized economy. Rather than making the community prosperous, it led to a few people doing well and many people being without work. They were reduced to taking the garbage from the factory to scavenge fish protein to eat from the bones that were thrown away.

Professor Kim asked what we living in the U.S. and Canada can do to change such conditions. She referred to a movie, Mardi Gras Made in China, that depicts the making of beads to be thrown at Mardi Gras parades. The beads are made in near slave conditions and sold cheaply. She urged new levels of engagement with biblical resources, doing theology as a resource for the empowerment of those on the underside of world.

Theology is about God, but it is the Trinity that allows us to see our connection to others. Her emphasis was on the Spirit that breaks down barriers. Spirit is in a component of all major religions. Spirit connects us. Spirit forces us to rethink who God is.

How do we reverse problems that humans have created by lifestyles of greed and egoism? One way is to reimagine selves as created in the image of a God of love, beauty, life. We can look to the universal erotic Spirit of God for guidance. It is time to act now for ecojustice. In fact, it may be too late for many parts of the world. The Greek word oikos (house), which is linked to “ecology” and is also linguistic root of “economics” is useful in this regard. We need laws that guide the globe. If God creates all then we need to learn to co-habit with other creatures to live sustainably. Values of fellowship, friendship, caring, comfort, and sympathy can lead to human flourishing.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim spoke briefly of han as destructive, noting that Gina Messina-Dysert talked about in an earlier WATER teleconference. She concluded with an invitation to reimagine flourishing life where Earth can replenish itself, where the Spirit of God resides in all of us and in all of creation.

Questions and Discussion followed:

1. One caller asked Dr. Kim to say more about han from her perspective. She directed us to her book, The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology as well as to the work of Chung Hyun Kyung and Andrew Sung Park. She described han as “unjust suffering”—something done to someone through no fault of their own. Poverty and rape are examples of han. Ecocide is damage to earth; when we over consume, for example, we cause earth to suffer. That is han that needs to be released.

2. Another caller asked about han pu ri. Grace spoke about the relationship of Christianity in Korea to other religions including Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, etc. that have existed for thousands of years in Korea during the various times of colonization. Shamans traditionally released han. There is collective han and individual han. Han stays within one or within a group if not released in positive way. It can cause harm to others. The process is like a spiral; for example, a rape victim who has not released han may want to murder rapist. Releasing han is key so that it does not take hold of our lives.

3. A participant who studies theology and farms cited Off the Menu as a useful resource. Grace spoke of   as the other side of han. She also talked about communication that takes place through Spirit in aboriginal traditions. Spirit, she said, gives life and wholeness. She cited the Hebrew Ruah and the Greek pneuma as well as the German Geist to signal the ubiquity of Spirit in the world. She linked Spirit with immigration describing how helicopters on the US/Mexico border blow things around such that people die in the desert as they try to cross over.  Instead, she suggests welcoming immigrants who are part of one Spirit.

4.  A Canadian colleague asked about the disconnect between poorer parts of the world and richer countries. She asked about how faith communities can act now to bring about social, economic and ecological justice. Dr. Kim cited a recent World Council of Churches meeting on ecojustice in Geneva. She talked about how churches can monitor their utility bills to live with less, how they can use and promote Fair Trade products, how the Gap protests in Chicago focused attention on the horrible working conditions in Bangladesh. She mentioned fair wages, improved working conditions, and concerns about child labor.

5. One of our Buddhist colleagues brought up the Zen tradition of the Oryoki Meal—“just enough.” Diners think about where food comes from; they eat slowly, dedicating their meal to the welfare of all. When finished, they wash bowls and put water on plants.

6. Another caller raised the conundrum of poor people who of necessity shop at big box stores. She said sometimes people have to go places to purchase things that are cheap as they live on a fixed income. She asked what is responsibility the churches have in offering alternatives, creating food/clothing banks, selling Fair Trade goods that are affordable etc. since sometimes it can be very expensive for poor people to shop healthily. Dr. Kim said that churches need to take more responsibility for poor people. Church people usually have so much. Seminaries need to recycle, reuse, and realize that ministry students have limited incomes for the most part.

7. The final speaker observed that churches need to start at home with passing on clothing; taking care of mother earth starts at home. Dr. Kim agreed, saying that homes and small communities are the starting points for change. Children need to be taught that they do not need the latest clothes, and toys. She shared that talking about Sophia, wisdom, the “feminine side of God” is helpful for providing leadership in this arena.

WATER thanks Grace Ji-Sun Kim for her work.

There will be no WATER Teleconference during August.
Our next WATER Teleconference will be Wed. September 11, 2013 with Linn Marie Tonstad of Yale Divinity School on “The Sexuality of God.” All are welcome.

10 July 2013

All or Nothing? By Mary E. Hunt

Originally posted on Feminism Studies in Religion

If there is anything new under the religious sun in the United States it is the changing patterns of how people are or are not religious. What this means for feminist studies in religion is of interest to me because it reshapes the backdrop of our work.

One of the major religious stories of the last year was the Pew Research Center’s study entitled “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” The study clarified that about twenty percent of the U.S. adult population has no religious affiliation whatsoever. Among people under the age of thirty, the percentage of ‘nones’ rises to thirty percent. These people include atheists and agnostics, but most are simply people who have no strong connection to a religious tradition. Apparently they do not want any because heaven knows that religion/spirituality is a big commodity in the contemporary marketplace. This means that upwards of 45 million Americans choose to leave religion aside and go about perfectly normal, and, one hopes, happy lives.

As a longtime feminist student of religion, I can understand the general sentiment of the nones. Religions can be their own worst public relations machines. My own religious heritage, Catholicism, has given religion as such an increasingly bad name. Kyriarchy has no clearer articulation than the Roman Catholic Church institution. Discrimination against women, same-sex loving people, and others is rampant and encouraged within the community. The safety of children and well being of women are in no way assured. Of course there have been notable exceptions to the rule—Dorothy Day, certain feminist theologians, and feminist ministers come to mind—but for the most part if I had to rely on my own tradition for being religious, I would be a none (no, not a nun) as well.

I propose that we explore another option, if only for the sake of discussion. It is what I think of as the “everything” option. The problem with studies about religious affiliation is that there is no box to check when one wants to affirm some aspects of many different faiths. This is frequently my situation. I admire, benefit from, yes, even feel a certain sense of belonging to more than one tradition at a time. There is simply no way to convey that in a list in which I am asked to check a box that corresponds with my faith. I can choose “everything” in the bagel shop, so why not in the larger world?

It is the very complexity of contemporary faith, especially for feminists who see the limits as well as potential of each one, that is at issue. Some people solve this by checking several boxes—Buddhist Jews, Catholic Unitarians, for example—but what if one really wants to be far more eclectic, inclusive, ecumenical, interreligious than all that?

At a recent interfaith Pride service in Washington, D.C., I found myself inspired by a number of religious practices that were part of the program. I felt a certain thrill at the drumming and responded viscerally when the shofar sounded. I was edified by the procession of candles and incense that sanctified the space. The Gospel music was soul stirring. The sermon was well focused and not over long. The collection went to a good cause. The very sanctuary itself was a spare, postmodern congregational style that could as easily be used for theater in the round. The prayers were heartfelt. The congregation was diverse. Other than some non-conforming language (masculinist words, for example) I liked almost everything that evening. It felt like we were religious people together, not each one in her/his own boat but religious together.

The problem with this kind of smorgasbord approach to religion (not to be confused with the “cafeteria Catholics” approach so vigorously opposed by those who think they know what the main course ought to be) is that such events are just that, moments not commitments. What most people think of as their tradition is what they experience during what Catholics call “ordinary time,” when things are just going along day by day without benefit of feast or special event. Nonetheless, feminists have worked across boundaries in religion for decades. Why not live that way too?

Some of what prevents us from thinking more creatively about the ways we are religious is the marketplace. We are expected to declare loyalty to a brand, membership in a club, making religious expression something like choosing an airline for the frequent flyer points. Feminists have deconstructed religions of virtually every stripe. So why not think about a reconstruction project that includes some novel combinations of things religious on their own terms? Why not let insight meditation stand alongside Eucharist, fasting for Ramadan alongside other disciplines? If all are aimed at making us more religious, as inreligare “to bind fast,” to be connected, then it seems that the more the merrier is a reasonable strategy.

Questions of commitment and accountability remain to be answered. Matters of membership and identity are in the balance when “everything” is an option. At a minimum, religious scholars and leaders need to reconfigure our assumptions about how religion “works” for the people with whom we connect. For feminist studies in religion, this is one more invitation to leave aside the silos that have defined us. For feminist ministers it is a call to prepare for much more broadly based service than virtually any of our theological schools are currently imagining. For me, it is a way to claim an identity I was taught did not exist. And for you?