A mentor once told me that, in her view, a female preacher should wear “straight lines” behind the pulpit. That is, a suit. Straight lines command greater authority, which means people are more likely to give your words credit. As someone who has never worn a suit in her life, this didn’t sit well with me and would make me feel like an imposter. Fortunately, I’ve generally felt listened to when I’ve been behind a pulpit—unless I’m making a poor attempt at a joke!
While I didn’t heed that advice, I fully appreciate that the first generation of Mennonite women pastors/leaders needed to do all they could to be taken seriously when they preached. Those of us in the present generation, with the way already paved for us, are free to wear something different as we seek to honour our foremothers by continuing to be faithful, creative leaders in our context. And it’s my deepest hope to model myself after women who came before me, even as I layer on sweaters and scarves.
So what do we carry forward from generation to generation and what do we release? What do we hold on to and what do we let go of in families, in church and in the world at large?
A couple of years ago, when the #MeToo movement was finding its voice, at times I found there was a painful back and forth between women of different generations. Some younger women seemed to be pointing out the weakness of the way older women spoke up and out, while some older women didn’t always agree with the actions of the younger ones. Yet both were, and are, working towards equality and justice for women, often in harmony. This signifies that there are multiple ways, or layers, to work towards the same goal.
My particular foremothers were, and are, women who lived out their faith in numerous ways within the home, church and wider community. One significant way was hospitality. They canned and froze food, and made everything from scratch. They were able to offer meals I wouldn’t dream of attempting, while I pull out a frozen store-bought pizza or lasagna to serve even to guests.
Still, I hope I’m following in their footsteps, honouring their legacy, by extending hospitality in my particular context, even if the menu is different. I’m also profoundly grateful for the times when we’ve canned and prepared peaches, applesauce or corn together, to share on each other’s tables. Again, there are many ways, or layers, to extend hospitality.
At a recent Women of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada meeting, I was deeply moved by the respect and love for the legacy of the foremothers of our church that I sensed there. This legacy includes service, nurturing relationships and affirming each other’s gifts through women’s organizations such as ours. At that meeting there were laments that younger women have not chosen to continue this story in the same way.
Yet within that loss there was also a naming of hope: Mennonite women today, like generations of women before them who responded to God’s call, all the way back to Ruth, Naomi, Mary and Elizabeth, are continuing to keep the legacy of service and mutual support alive.
They are continuing to find creative and courageous ways to live out that call; adding to that layering of faithfulness, blessing and celebrating those who came before and after them; and valuing and honouring each generational story, layering on and interweaving new stories and new ways of being.
Like sedimentary rock, in which we can see all the layers, we give thanks for what each generation has done, continuing to hold tightly to following Jesus no matter what we wear.
Carmen Brubacher delights in her role as a pastor at Waterloo North Mennonite Church, Waterloo, Ont.
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