31 May 2013

May 21 Early Influence Endure by Mary E. Hunt

Posted originally on Feminism in Religion Forum

Attention all campus ministers, youth workers, student chaplains, and assorted colleagues who work with young people: A number of leading women in the Protestant world began their work in and around the student movements. Their lives show that your work lasts forever!

Sara M. Evans’ edited volume Journeys that Opened Up the World: Women, Student Christian Movements, and Social Justice, 1855-1975, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003) includes many of their stories. It is dedicated to Ruth Harris who was its “organizer and cheerleader” when the authors met in person and on the phone to reflect on their lives. Ruth Harris, a longtime feminist colleague who worked very effectively in the United Methodist Church, died recently well into her 90s. Looking at her life and her impact on others made me think about how early influences endure through a lifetime. For many women in religion, experiences in various student movements were formative in ways that shaped their careers and contributions to the world.

Ruth was born in Nebraska in 1920. She studied music, and then applied to the Women’s Division of the Methodist Board of Missions to become a teacher. She trained at Scarritt College, a women’s school in Nashville that prepared students for domestic and foreign church work. Her church work began in China in 1947 and continued through active participation in the civil rights movement.

She served the United Methodist Church both in the Women’s Division on student issues and later for the Board of Missions as first executive secretary of University World. She was a tireless supporter of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) and one of the guiding forces behind the development of the Methodist Mission Intern Program. Countless young people got their ecumenical starts in programs and projects in which she was active.

Ruth Harris was a modest giant among women at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City, the Interchurch Center, where many of the mainline Protestant churches had their headquarters for decades in the twentieth century. Some are still there. The stories of the early women in those bureaucracies deserve a book that I hope someone will take on soon while there are still people to interview.

The great United Church of Christ leader Valerie Russell, Executive Director of the United Church of Christ's Office for Church in Society and former head of the City Mission Society of Boston, got her start in the YWCA. She became the assistant to Dorothy Height who was head of the National Council of Negro Women. They and many other YWCA women put eradicating racism at the top of their agenda. Val Russell, a lay leader like Ruth Harris and so many others before the ordination of women really caught on, died at age 56 after a career fuller than many who live to riper ages. She touched many young women’s hearts and minds. Her story is in the book thanks to Letty Russell’s writing.

Margaret Flory was a Presbyterian wonder who has written books of her own. She worked in that church’s bureaucracy starting the Junior Year Abroad, Frontier Internship in Mission, and Bi-National Service groups. Her ecclesial offspring are legion, her influence profound around the world which is more tightly connected because of her work. I met her when I was appointed to the Frontier Internship Program in the late 1970s. Ruth Harris was the Methodist funder of that “experiment in mission” which sent so-called “creative young Christians” (we FIs debated each term!) to places where the Protestant churches did not have missions. Margaret liked that I was the first Catholic participant. My years as an FI in Argentina turned me into a global citizen and an ecumenical, later interreligious, stalwart.

I thought of these women when I attended a recent SCM-USA 2013 National Leadership Conference in Chevy Chase, MD (suburban Washington, DC). Young colleagues came from around the U.S. and abroad for a long weekend of training and strategizing. One SCM colleague from India shared her region’s work. These seminary and college women and men are revitalizing that movement in ways that I predict will catch fire. Professor Rebecca Todd Petersled off the speakers with a presentation on contemporary ethical challenges.

Senior Friends of the WSCF met together and with the students over the same weekend to talk about ways of supporting this important work. One concrete expression was the donation of copies of the Journeys book to each student so that they could link their own journeys with those who went before them. Several Senior Friends, notably Alice Hageman, a retired feminist minister and lawyer, and Jim Palm, retired longtime director of the Stony Point Center, told poignant stories of own rich histories of involvement in this movement for peace and justice and how it shaped their lives.

I was struck by the comments of one young gay man who spoke of problems in a local student group over his sexuality. I was happy to point out to him that of sixteen authors in the Journeys book I could assure him that at least five, and probably more, were lesbians. They include the incomparable Charlotte Bunch, who cut her justice teeth on the student movement in the 1960s, founded the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and went on to receive the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights from President Bill Clinton. I alerted this young man and the rest of the group to the fact that they follow in the large footsteps of powerful, many of them ‘out’, women.

Read the book to see how many of the women pioneers trace their roots to Ecumenical Student Conferences in Athens, Ohio, or to YWCA sponsored antiracism events. Lots of links to Duke University in the 1960s and 1970s make clear that some campus pastors there were on the job. Duke alum Nancy D. Richardson tells about the influence of the YWCA and related progressive groups on her formation. She became involved in campus ministry and student services at Boston and Harvard Universities. She was one of the founding co-directors of the Women’s Theological Center (WTC), which in turn shaped dozens of women in the field into feminist activists/academics.

The threads are interwoven as people meet one another, begin to read and discuss the same authors, take courage and example from one other’s activism. Today’s dynamics are similar. Plus, we have technological possibilities our foresisters never dreamed about. One especially fun, creative example was the thirtieth birthday conference (yes a real conference) that my friend Emily Goodstein,  held at Hillel at George Washington University. It was informative, imaginative, and did I say fun with extra funds and donations going to Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC on whose board the celebrant serves.

Take heart that today the digital, Skype, Webcast, and even in-person meetings that religious leaders develop for and with young people are shaping lives for the long run. If they are half as successful as the amazing people and events that preceded them we are in good shape as a world.

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