Celebrate Within the Struggle

“Things happen when women talk,” the woman who was giving the opening welcome at the evening gathering of the Cactus in Lima, Peru, addressed me. “Si,” I answered, “When women speak, the world changes.”

I had been brought there by a friend, and when they asked me to introduce myself, I had said (in my terrible Spanglish) that I did not know what was happening, but I was very glad to be there. My ignorance had prompted her introductory explanation, and now I gratefully knew both where I was and what was happening. I was in the place where the world changes.

I looked around the circle of women that surrounded me with an appreciation bordering on the surreal. For years, I had read about these kinds of conversations, in articles for my seminary classes; then later, after I graduated, in books by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz that I read by choice, devouring them to the last crumb. This was where truth was spoken; this is where practical theology was created; this was where voices before unheard learned to resound like thunder. This was the circle. This was the Cactus.

Ever since Mary and Elizabeth greeted one another, both holding a miraculous baby within their womb, there have been women gathering to speak the mysteries that only a woman can understand. Ever since the moment when God hung on a tree, there have been women gathering in circles at the foot of the cross in a display of courage and faithfulness. Ever since the moment when God chose a woman to announce the resurrection, there have been women bold enough to speak the word’s that change the world.

It is as true today as it has ever been: When women speak, the world changes.

Cactus is one of the many forms that the convergance of women has taken throughout time and place. About eighteen years ago, Cactus was begun by a group of women in Peru who wanted to create a space for empowerment and truth. They named it Cactus in order to represent survival in the desert. That is what it can often feel like as a woman when you do not follow the script.

Over the years, three of the founders had moved to other countries – two to the United States, and one to Mexico. But the circle still met, and strengthened, and grew, and spread. There are now two Cactus circles that meet in different parts of Lima, Peru. From time to time, the evening’s leader explained, they have the honor of receiving back one of the original leaders when they visit Peru. Tonight was just such an occasion; and the Rev. Rosanna Panizo, who had brought me, was just such a person.

Rosanna had been the first woman that the Methodist Church in Peru had ordained; and although people in Peru were proud of the ministry she was doing with immigrants in the United States, it was clear everywhere we went that her presence was sorely missed.

So, that evening, when they asked Rosanna for some words of wisdom, she did what all good leaders do – she started by listening. She asked them what had changed in their life over the past two years.

Most of them gave answers relating in some way to relationships; and if I had not been reading Marcella Althaus-Reid on the bus on the way there, I may have been in danger of mistaking this for one more gathering of girls talking about boys. But this was something entirely different; what they were describing was a revolution, lived out one household at a time. As Althaus-Reid writes, “machismo could not exist without women playing a specific part in society, and such is the model of hembrismo.”* These women were talking about the progress they were making away from passivity, and into strength. As they made this passage, their homes were changing and their community was changing; because machismo cannot survive without hembrismo. Lessen one and you weaken the other. This is why Tracy Chapman says that talking about a revolution “sounds like a whisper.” Only in this case, it may have started as a whisper eighteen years ago, but Cactus was slowly building to a roar.

The women of Cactus asked me to answer the question as well. Not having a household to foment a revolution within, I had a slightly different answer. Yet, it had in common with their sharing that my relationship with my first love had changed dramatically. I started by telling them that I was experiencing a freedom with God that I had never felt before, and that I was using this change in our relationship to follow God in a whole new way. I told them I was choosing to be an example, rather than to be made an example. I told them that I knew that the journey of freedom and love that God and I were on was taking a new direction, and I would be landing soon.

It was remarkable to me to find myself in the midst of the circle, in the embrace of the Cactus, at just the moment in my journey when I had been struggling to find where my voice belongs. Two things had happened that day that put me in a place of questioning God about my voice.

First, that morning I had read a blog with advice from Black Girl Dangerous about how those with privilege can resist it. She verbalized things I had been feeling, but put them in such a clear way that they really hit home. One was that she pointed out the fact that people of privilege are used to being heard, and so they always feel like they need to be heard; but sometimes they just need to sit down and shut up. Point taken. Second, she pointed out that people with privilege tend to find places where they can “identify” with the marginalized and, thus, take on that voice when it does not belong to them. Again, point taken.

Second, as I mentioned, I was reading Marcella Althaus-Reid on the bus on the way there. Even more specifically, I was reading a reflection on Mariology in Latin America entitled “When God is a rich, white woman who does not walk.” In her reflection, Marcella Althaus-Reid speaks of the arrival of Christianity in Latin America under the flags of the Virgin Mary with these words: “It was as if God had come to Latin America as a rich, white, carefully covered woman, to defeat women who tucked up their skirts to fight for freedom and country.”* I felt this deeply, for although I had not felt I was raised rich, in comparison to much of the world, I had to admit I was. And as for the rest of it? Oh yes. A white, carefully covered woman was exactly what I was raised to be, and I was still in recovery. And while I cannot help what body I was born into, I can choose to live in that body in a way that seeks not to harm others. I have been trying to learn how. For years, I had been struggling to learn to be a traitor to the script.

So, amazingly, in the moment that I felt perhaps my voice should be silent tonight, in that very moment, God interrupted as usual, with the voice of a Cactus, and invited me to speak.

So, where does my voice belong? My voice belongs here, in la lucha, in the struggle. But only after it has listened; only after it has been invited.

When the sharing was finished, the circle stood and with arms linked sang a song in Spanish that meant – “I need you. I can’t do this without you.” The evening’s leader stopped the song mid-sentence and instructed the group, “No, you must look each other in the eyes when you say those words.” And then we began again, “I need you. I can’t do this without you.”

My mind went back to other circles I had stood in, where we had said similar words, “I need you, we’re all a part of Christ’s body.” Circles, interlinking, interdependent, changing the world.

Isasi-Diaz wrote that white women, women of privilege, often don’t realize their need for and their place in these circles – because they are going through life expecting their own individual happy ending like the Disney princesses that throughout much of history have looked like us. But the rest of the world knows a different truth. The mujeristas know; the Cactus know; that la vida es la lucha – life is struggle. And we are in it together. There is peace in finding that, in accepting that life is not about finding your own individual happy ending, but rather about finding your place in the struggle that seeks justice for all.

The conversation ended. Someone called out, “Music, por favor!” And then we danced – speaking that universal language that women around the world have always understood.

Dance was the only thing for such magnificent women to do; because, as Alice Walker writes in We are the ones we have been waiting for – life is struggle, but we must remember that more importantly, life is celebration.

So celebrate.

*Althaus-Reid, Marcella. From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology, p. 31, p. 38

The women of the Cactus gather for an evening of conversation with Rosanna Panizo in Lima, Peru
The women of the Cactus gather for an evening of conversation with Rosanna Panizo in Lima, Peru

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On of the group celebrated her 20th birthday that night, what a way to turn 20!
On of the group celebrated her 20th birthday that night, what a way to turn 20!
And then we danced
And then we danced
The women of the Cactus
The women of the Cactus
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