It was the second week of my final semester of college. I stepped into Abrahamic Feminisms, a 4000 level religion seminar led by Professor Vanessa Ochs, feeling, as always, like I was entering my weekly group therapy session rather than a class. This session, we were discussing Faithfully Feminist, a collection of essays written by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women who claim identities grounded in both feminist principles and their own faith traditions. These are two identities that are often difficult to hold in tandem. Many feminists claim that one cannot be a true feminist while also ascribing to the tenants of such historically patriarchal traditions. Likewise, many people of faith claim that one cannot be a true believer while also claiming a feminist identity. These contradictions, manufactured as they may be, often lead to women being ostracized and isolated from their communities. Faced with these challenges, the contributors to Faithfully Feminist were asked to speak to the question “Why do you stay?” What makes it worth it? If you feel oppressed or disempowered as a Christian/Jewish/Muslim woman, why not just leave? As you can imagine, their answers were complex. For some, leaving meant forfeiting their entire community of family and friends; for others, their economic security. And for many, breaking with their faith tradition would mean something more abstract—a fracturing of their identity at the deepest level. Who would this woman be if not an Orthodox Jew, a Sunni Muslim, a Protestant Christian?
Although I knew the personal histories of my classmates to varying degrees, some very well and others hardly, I venture to say that everyone had some sort of troubled history with faith and feminism. This has certainly been the case for me. As we reflected on this book in class, I felt propelled to ask myself the same question: Why do I stay?
When I began my career at the University of Virginia I was nothing if not fervent. I had been very involved in my high school youth group and I was ready to continue this trend in college. Coming from a fairly conservative hometown I was warned about college professors who would try to turn me into a hedonistic atheist---or worse, a liberal—but I wasn’t afraid. I was open and curious about differing perspectives, but I felt secure that my deepest beliefs would remain unchanged.
In the beginning, everything played out exactly as I expected. First year brought with it many questions—my first year small group leaders will tell you that I spent every one-on-one meetings “raging against the patriarchy”—but I believed with everything in me that God cared about my questions and wanted me to find both justice and peace.
I can’t really pinpoint when that began to change. But it did. It was a slow process. A steady erosion. Nothing remained unshaken. Maybe it was studying religion in an academic setting, maybe it was just growing older – it was probably both—but I slowly became more and more disillusioned. Faith no longer came easily. Sometimes it didn’t come at all.
As I progressed through my four years here, church services, large campus fellowship meetings, and even my small group became suffocating. The Bonhoeffer House was there when I just needed a break. A break from prayer groups and worship sessions and mission trips, from hands held high and heads bowed, eyes clenched shut and tears streaming. When I just needed to open my eyes, breathe deeply, and think, the Bonhoeffer house was there. A place that exists to support Christians and “seekers” in the academy – a breath of fresh air.
Why do I stay? As a fourth year I took a pretty big step back from the Christian community at UVA. I resigned from my post as a small group leader in my Christian fellowship and stopped attending our weekly large group meetings; I no longer ventured out to Trinity Presbyterian on Sunday mornings and became a rare sight at many of the Christian gatherings that I used to frequent, including Vintage on Friday afternoons at the Bonhoeffer House. I’m not sure that I have “stayed”.
But, as I sat down to write this, a friend pointed out to me that the counterfactual of staying—leaving—is not what I did either. I still came out to small group more weeks than not; I remained a Horizons fellow and enjoyed biweekly coffee chats with my awesome mentor (a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies who absolutely gets it). I still hang around the Center for Christian Study; I still take classes like “Abrahamic Feminisms.” I could have turned and ran in the opposite direction. But I didn’t. Because who am I if not an angsty little Christian(ish) feminist?
I am thankful for all of these institutions that have been the pillars of my college experience, and more importantly, for the graceful humans that have comprised them. I am especially thankful for Christy Yates, Karen Marsh, Gillian Breckenridge, and everyone involved in Theological Horizons for their kindness and sincerity. I am thankful that I could take a step back instead of running away and still feel loved and supported by the Christians in my life. I am thankful that even when spaces that used to warm my heart now feel cold and foreign, the Bonhoeffer House remains open and inviting, welcoming me in with open arms.