I recently had the pleasure of meeting with the Reverend Alison Dunn-Almaguer, an organizer for the Washington Interfaith Network (“WIN”). As an organizer for WIN, Alison spends her days working with people from the DC metro community from Christian, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and Muslim congregations, ethical societies, and other non-profit organizations and unions. After catching up about my recent travails with pet ownership and securing her Peppermint Tea and my iced vanilla latte, we dove into a conversation about feminism and faith.
Kate: If I were to introduce you, high on the list of things* I would tell people about you is that (1) you are an ordained minister, but (2) you also identify as a feminist. Would that be a fair introduction?
Well, I’m absolutely a feminist, and I am an ordained minister in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I see my feminism as springing directly from my faith. My feminism is about equality and recognizing that women should have the same rights as men. And my feminism is about trying to bring that vision of equality into reality, to bring about alternatives to the systems that are in place now that create inequality for women. I believe the life of Jesus shows us an alternative to the norms and restrictions on how people are told they must function within society. Look at Galatians 3:28, for example: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is a radical vision of no boundaries and or distinctions between people. Everyone should be free and treated equally.
And even in Biblical times, when there were serious restrictions on what women could do, women were empowered in the church. Women couldn’t own land or have any real power in society. But through the upside down values/radical vision of that Jesus was calling the church to, women led churches and have prophetic roles. There are all of these examples, even in records written by men. For example, Perscilla led a church. The first people that saw Jesus following the resurrection were women. So while there wasn’t freedom for women in the society there was greater freedom for women within the new community of the church – a greater recognition of the humanity of women and their leadership abilities.
Kate: I have a few friends who believe you can’t really be a feminist and a person of faith, or at least a person affiliated with organized religion. In short, they see organized religion as too mired-down with historical misogyny and too invested in supporting the patriarchy.
Obviously I don’t view the Church and feminism as inconsistent. But many view them as antithetical, and I understand it.
I learned a lot from the faith community I grew up in. But I also confronted real obstacles in that Southern Baptist community. To this day, one of the things I am challenged by are the remnants of patriarchy we see in organized religion. But I view those as things that are remnants that we haven’t yet fully addressed, haven’t fully cleaned out. As I said, the example of Jesus suggests we have to get rid of those external remnants of patriarchy, not further them.
Jesus also talks about mutual submission. His example says we can’t have men over women or women over men. He highlight power and how it is used. In society we often see power used as dominant and oppressive toward the “have nots” but in the church power is supposed to be redefined; power is for all and no one should be oppressed or exploited. Obviously we are not there yet but this again is the higher ethic Jesus calls humanity to. Really acknowledging and embracing these teachings, which directly challenge gender relations in his time and ours, creates the conditions necessary to recognize that we live in a patriarchal society but we have obligation to counteract that.
Kate: What, then, is your view of organizations like Promise Keepers and other faith-based organizations that encourage men to be the head of their homes and women to be subservient?
First, I want to acknowledge that the people in groups like that may be doing the best that they can. I don’t think it makes sense to shame or condemn them. And I recognize that some of that approach to life is consistent with the Bible when read through the lens of patriarchy. But it is inconsistent with what we know about the society that Jesus was trying to create. God and his vision for us is so much bigger than that.
I believe fully that the world is chaotic and unstable. Gender is unstable. Sexuality is unstable. Through scripture, we see God is the order in that chaos. God is the stability. We err when we think we can create order or can dictate the lines; we make mistakes, and we subjugate people. But I believe we are called to learn to live in that chaos through an ethic of love that extends to all people.
Kate: Can you talk a bit more about some of the struggles you mentioned earlier regarding your own faith community? Did you face challenges in shattering ceilings as a woman in ministry?
I grew up where women are not ordained and are not able to have leadership positions in the church. But from the time I was about 5 years old, I was drawn strongly to faith, to preaching and to leading. When I would voice this, I was told I could teach Sunday school or be a missionary. And that wasn’t what I felt, that wasn’t my calling. So I struggled with that for a long time, struggled with reconciling what I felt and knew internally with these restrictions that everyone else was telling me were just the way things were and had to be.
I remember my first day of college, at a Christian college, I said to some other students that I was thinking about going to seminary after college. And a male student – one of my peers – said something to the effect of “you can’t go to seminary, you’re a female.” It was that obvious and set. And I had professors echo the same thing. I had a pastor I worked with during my college years tell me “no” and that I couldn’t pursue this calling into the ministry. Essentially, they were all telling me that God wasn’t calling me because I had a vagina. And I honestly wrestled with that for a long time, really questioning whether my heart desire wasn’t from God.
Luckily, I had others in my life who helped and encouraged me. For me, I remember this moment when one of my other professors took my worrying and doubt head on. He told me that of course I could be in the ministry and see theology through a different lens, I just had to get out of Texas. And that really gave me hope. There have also been women professors and women preachers who served as inspiration. I remember one woman told me that “You can put boundaries on yourself, but don’t let anyone put boundaries on you. If you decide you don’t think you should be in the ministry, fine, but don’t let anyone else do that.” And that was so very freeing for me.
I never saw a woman preach until I was 21. But now, I’ve had young girls come up to me excited about seeing me preach. Full representation of women in the church – intersectional representation—is an important part of teaching our children and youth that God calls us to see all people as equal. That is a faith mandate that I am passionate about.
Kate: What is the role that the church or faith based communities can play in advancing goals of feminism? Is there a role?
I don’t think it is the role of the church to advance feminism or other secular or progressive ideals. Just like I don’t think it would be accurate to say that my progressivism influences my faith. It is the other way around. Scripture itself is a call to a progressive ideal, but it is above partisanship. It is a call to something deeper. The church’s goal is to bring about the kingdom of heaven, which requires that people are treated fairly. So faith and the church de facto create those conditions.
One of the biggest memories I have comes from the end of being at seminary, when I was set to be ordained. My family came. And I remember father looking at me at my ordination. He told me that he didn’t believe that women could be ministers, but that he believed that I could and should be a minister. And he concluded that maybe he’d changed his mind. That stays with me. We don’t change minds through berating them. We change minds through relationships. And the church is about building those relationships.
* Other things would be that Alison shares my obsession with driving only American-made cars (read Jeeps), and that she has the Alice Walker quote “Activism is my rent for living on this planet” as the header on one of her social media profiles.