In Search of Male Role Models

During the Christmas and New Years season, I end up reflecting more than normal about some of the choices I make in my life.  In celebrating with family and reflecting on the birth of Christ, I’m reminded of many of the relational blessings in my life.  Although I’m not one to make New Year’s Resolutions, in starting a new year (and new semester), I’m often challenged to be more intentional in the choices I make.  It’s also a good time for me to reflect together with my husband about where we want our life to be headed, and what directions we feel will help us live most in line with God’s passions and vision.

With the end of the semester also comes the grading of tests and papers, where I ask students to reflect on how their gender (and other’s gendered assumptions) has impacted their own trajectories.  I am immersed in the literature on challenges faced by evangelical women (as women), so many of the responses from my female students are often not surprising.  As a woman myself, I also relate personally to many of their experiences. I am reminded that there are few models of strong women providing leadership in evangelical institutions.  The project I’m currently working on alongside Janel Curry at Gordon College and the Center for Social Research at Calvin College is focused on understanding some of the structural, cultural, and theological factors at play.

In her book Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles (NYU Press, 2003), Julie Ingersoll finds that for the married women who do succeed in being in positions of power in the evangelical world, having the support of their husbands is incredibly important. For myself, I’m incredibly thankful to work together as part of a team with my husband, as we jointly think about what it means to live faithfully.  (I do not think all people need to be married, and agree with the arguments made by Christine Colon and Bonnie Field in Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church (Brazos Press, 2010)) that the church needs to find more ways to support and encourage single people.)

As I’m mentioned in previous posts (Why We Should Support Men and Egalitarian Men and Working Fathers), the problem of women’s underrepresentation in leadership and decision-making roles is not just about women.  Men who are committed to more egalitarian relationships face many of the same work/life challenges; they also face challenges and pay-gaps in the job market. As I read some of the reflections from my male students, I’m struck by the fact that they also lack a plethora of strong role models to follow.  That is, for those men committed to living in egalitarian relationships in their pursuit of Christ, it can also be hard to find good examples to emulate. We need more examples and role models of strong men, working alongside strong women.

I want to highlight three of those models – strong men, working together alongside strong women – that have been influential in my own life.  They are models that my husband and I look to together of the type of people we want to be like.  Catherine and Andy Crouch, Ruth and James Padilla DeBorst, and Sandra and Paul Joireman.  Each of these couples has also traveled extensively as part of their vocation, be it spending time abroad or traveling regularly for speaking engagements.  For each of these six individuals, his or her career accomplishments alone make him or her a person I would seek guidance from. Yet it is through watching them do the dishes, answer their child’s question, lead worship, teach a Bible study, provide mentoring, and live in community, that they challenge me in my own journey.

I first met the Crouches as an undergraduate at Harvard, where I was part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  Andy was working as a staff worked with IV (and serving as the editor of re:generation quarterly). Catherine was a post-doctoral student in the physics department at Harvard.  Today, Andy is a senior editor at Christianity Today, and a popular author/speaker. (Andy has written a great piece on the need for churches to better deal with scientists, which to me exemplifies some of the ways the two of them live in mission together). Catherine is a tenured professor at Swarthmore. They invested deeply in the lives of the students at Harvard; they’ve prioritized their children in their decisions. I was able to witness the way they co-parented young children at a critical juncture in their careers. They’ve been committed to specific religious bodies, and the lives of their children, and institutional structures within the church.

A few years later, while I was in El Salvador with World Relief, I had the privilege to meet Ruth and Jim Padilla DeBorst. They were working with the Christian Reformed World Missions. They began the Seeds of New Creation network in EL Salvador. Ruth has served as the general secretary of the FTL (Latin American Theological Fraternity), spoke at the last Lausanne Congress and currently works for World Vision. Jim provides leadership to the Centre for Interdisciplinary Theological Studies (CETI), has worked in development for over 20 years, and teaches and researches on international development. Jim and Ruth have six kids in their family, and currently live in Casa Adobe in Costa Rica, where they are invested deeply in the local community of Heredia. They are leaders in the global and local church, committed to ideas of integral mission. They frequently are asked to speak at conferences around the world. Yet in their quest, they have supported each other and their children. They are one of the best examples of a couple who provide global leadership through their local commitments.

Most recently, we’ve been able to be part of Lombard Mennonite Church as we live in Wheaton, where we’ve been inspired by the example of Paul and Sandra Joireman.  Sandra was a political science professor at Wheaton College, but is currently the Weinstein Chair of International Studies at the University of Richmond. She is also the current chair of the Board of Directors of Bread for the World.  Paul works as an Advanced Developer at VG Bioinformatics.  He previously worked at Fermilab, and has been a chemistry professor at various universities.  They are deeply invested in the community of our small church, from children’s ministries to adult education. They have two children, who they have parented together (sometimes from different countries).  We’ve seen them deal with some of the same questions we ask regarding dual career households, and their advice and example has been especially important to us in this life stage.

As a woman, I’m really thankful for the different models that Catherine, Ruth, and Sandra have been, usually in ways they do not even know.  It’s the ordinary way that they live their lives. As a woman, I also really appreciate Andy, Jim, and Paul. None of them are leaders in the feminist movement (to my knowledge). But they support strong women, and encourage them to succeed. They are committed to their families, sometimes at personal cost to their career.  They invest in building community with their spouses.

Given the gendered norms and inequalities that still exist in the evangelical world, we should recognize that it’s not just women struggling to find strong role models, but also men as well.  I realize that some reading this post may not want egalitarian role models, but for men and women who do, they have to be intentional about those to whom they look to for wisdom. I want to especially encourage young men committed to greater gender equality and shared partnership with women to look for strong male models such as those mentioned; to look for mentors who not only pursue Christ in their vocations, but alongside commitments to church community, and who encourage their partners to exercise their full potential.

 

Religion and Income Inequality: The Paradox of the South

Originally posted in the Huffington Post: 7/29/13

By: Julie J. Park

The New York Times recently reported on a new study by economists from Harvard and UC Berkeley on income mobility across the country. The research team found stark differences by geographical region, with the odds of moving to a different income bracket being lowest in the southeast and higher in major metropolitan areas. They identified four broad factors in areas that contribute to income mobility: mixed-income neighborhoods, two-parent households, better schools, and higher rates of civic engagement, “including membership in religious and community groups.”

Why religion? There are numerous reasons, but I’d like to highlight one in particular: Religious communities as a source of social capital. As Robert Putnam addressed in Bowling Alone, religious institutions such as churches, synagogues, and mosques bring people together in a way that strengthens community life. This is vital in a society that is increasingly fragmented. This connectedness likely affects income mobility via social capital—the relationships and relational networks that lend themselves to the exchange of knowledge and resources. For instance, in a religious community, people might form relationships that lead to helpful information about finding a job, navigating social services, or starting a business. Rich relational networks also have payoffs for education, which has natural dividends for income mobility. Being involved in a religious community gives kids the opportunity to have multiple adults in their lives who are invested in their well-being, as documented by sociologist James Coleman and others. These overlapping social relationships (e.g., knowing an adult from the neighborhood, but also attending mosque with them) can reinforce social norms that are beneficial for educational outcomes.

Another perk is that social capital networks can help people access valuable information that can help them navigate the educational system, which has particular dividends for low-income students. In a study of first-year college students, I found that Korean American low-income youth had a particularly high rate of taking SAT preparatory classes. Taking SAT prep was higher for Korean Americans who identified as Protestant, and I suggested that these students are able to access information about applying to college through social networks in economically diverse immigrant churches.

Such social connections can potentially happen in any type of civic organization (and the Harvard/Berkeley study highlights the role of membership in non-religious community groups), but religious institutions tend to be relatively enduring. They often provide a joint social service function, especially among immigrant populations, and can provide rhetorical frameworks that help people endure through difficult times (“Remember Moses wandering through the desert…”).

Given all of the benefits of religious involvement, why is income mobility lowest in the South, given its high religiosity? As a social scientist, I am curious to know whether there is something different about religion in the South, or is it that the other elements that boost income mobility (two parent households, mixed-income neighborhoods, good schools) are somehow lagging in the South? Or is it some combination of all of the above? One hypothesis might be that Southerners are more likely to worship in megachurches, which might be less likely to foster the social relationships and networks that contribute to income mobility. A map of megachurches in the U.S. provides some evidence that there are more megachurches in the South, but we need more research on the social interactions that take place in these churches to draw any conclusions. Another idea is that White evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, a prominent Southern demographic, tend to support individualist explanations and solutions for inequality. This trend is documented by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in their book Divided by Faith. By individualist, I mean “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” versus questioning whether there are bootstraps there to begin with. This tendency may lead to diminished support for government spending—not just federal, but also state and local—on schools and other policy initiatives that could enhance income mobility. I recommend David Swartz’s The Moral Minority for a fascinating read on the political diversity of evangelicals.

Overall the causes for low income mobility in the South and elsewhere are difficult to isolate because they are most likely interconnected: In the South, high religiosity likely has some positive dividends for income mobility, but the effects may be blunted by other ramifications of religious practice and belief. Naturally there is diversity both within and between religious traditions. There is no neat and tidy answer for the pervasiveness of income inequality, but understanding how religion affects people’s beliefs about the solutions needed to strengthen families, schools, and neighborhoods is a critical part of the puzzle.

Julie J. Park is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education (Rutgers University Press). This post was originally posted on Huffington Post.

Race Talk in Colorblind Churches

In the wake of the weekend verdict over George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, my Facebook page was ablaze as various news outlets repeated the same story and as some friends expressed shock and a few fear. In the midst of this a colleague asked her friends for their reflections on how churches in America ought to respond to this moment that clearly bespeaks of the continuing racial divides in our nation. She sent us to noted progressive evangelical Jim Wallis’ reflections as a conversation starter. It got me thinking that I had left tabs open to several blog posts from noted Protestant Christian clergy, so I took it as an opportunity to synthesize the comments with Wallis’ post to start.

Wallis’ words are engaging as always. He joins some Christian bloggers in using this moment to speak directly about the anti-black racism in our nation, and how Christian can work against it. What focused my attention was his solution, the importance of multiracial churches, churches that have no more than 80% of its congregants reflecting one particular racial group. From here, Wallis contends, white and black parents can speak with one another, learn from one another and ultimately stand with one another against systemic injustices that are targeted against some but not others. Noted conservative evangelical John Piper echoed the same point in more theological language of “reconciliation.” His point is the same as Wallis; reconciliation requires some kind of exchange where individuals and groups address a grievance and restore a broken connection. Such an exchange presumes a preceding relationship, and for many Christians the relationships at church take precedence. Hence for racial reconciliation to be effective, multiracial churches must be part of the solution.

While I advocate the importance of racial diversity in our churches, I am not confident in their efficacy to raise the kind of awareness that many are calling for. Sociologist Korie Edwards observed a predominantly African American church as it tried to transition into a multiracial church.  Her observations were telling: even when African American Protestants led the church and were the larger numerical group, the culture of the church conformed to the new members who were white. Rather than an equitable exchange and compromise among both (or all) groups, inclusion of whites in non-white congregations often results in acquiescing to their perspective and cultural assumptions.

This results in colorblindness in matters of structural racism, while still maintaining the veneer of diversity. That is, a lot of churchgoers like the idea of diversity these days, just so long as we agree to “focus on Jesus” and remain silent and ignorant about injustices that affect people of color, women, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. So we can look like a racial mosaic while never really understanding that our fellow church members don’t experience their day-to-day lives the same way.

But again I want to support the importance of these churches because these form the largest voluntary organization in the US, and sadly the most segregated. Frankly, if we were to take Wallis’ idea to heart, American Christians have more opportunity for interracial interaction in the workplace and in some neighborhoods as well, much more so than their churches at present.

And yet, I suspect that even in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workplaces, there is still limited conversation on matters of racial injustice. If my guess is right, our everyday discourse is individualistic at its root; each of us, in theory, is only responsible for our own outcomes. Even when we are in a group, a team, a business, a church, the default attitude seems to be individualist. This way of thinking and seeing the world is so taken-for-granted that many bristle when someone makes mention of anything systemic. It feels artificially injected somehow to bring up talk of racial inequality. So if Wallis’ point is that multiracial churches are key because they allow for conversations among Christians across different racial groups, I would say, let’s look at all the other contexts that different Americans should be having these conversations, in theory, and ask why aren’t we having more conversations outside of church?

To be sure, African Americans, Christian or not, are having these conversations. And the shared sentiment of lament, moral outcry speaks to me as a sociologist: the patterns of interpretation are so consistent and racialized. Compare the reflections from Wallis and Piper with theologian Reggie Williamscampus minister Sean Watkins, and Wheaton College professor Shawn Okpebholo. While not an ideal setting, their posts have helped bring their voices to my mind when I have no one in my network at my place of work who echo a similar sentiment.

While there’s no study out there I know of that can document whether this can work, I suggest that the key is to dialogue within deep relationships that engage the mind, the emotions, and the body. I picture this: coworkers in the breakroom talking about anything but work; one of them mentions this “thing he read in the news the other day” which seems, from his perspective, like racism. Repeat this scene on a semi-regular basis, and perhaps someone might speak up and say “yeah something like that happened to a friend of mine last week.” At first some coworkers will find this unbelievable, exceptional, and dismiss it off hand. But if the stories keep coming in, and different coworkers speak up as well, then we are witnessing a conversation that brings structural racism into the fore. Regular exposure to this kind of structural awareness may nudge more people, churchgoer or not, to reconsider the notion of colorblindness.

For multiracial churches to promote structural awareness, they have to raise the community’s consciousness away from the trappings of individualism both in its beliefs and in its practices as an organization. Frankly this is a very difficult road to travel and requires more commitment intellectually and relationally than most people want to give to a congregation. Churches may have the advantage of more opportunity for relationship building than the workplace, but few have the wherewithal to create real deep relationships that demand giving up “me time” for the sake of getting to know others who face struggles that are completely foreign to one’s experience. It’s not surprising then that many churches emphasize “me and Jesus” Christian individualism. And if a church emphasizes “us and Jesus” Christian collectivism it can still suffer from colorblindness, even when the church is noticeably diverse. All you need is a community culture that does nothing to promote deeper engagement with others beyond a hearty handshake and hymns sung in unison for 60 minutes once a week.

Beyond the challenges facing a typical congregation that would like to have richer relationships across racial boundaries, we should consider the education of the clergy themselves. To what extent is their theological training in any way equipping their worldview to think in terms of structures (apart from the church)? I suspect that today’s seminaries too often describe racial difference in paternalistic tones or in a tourist-y/ buffet-style understanding of culture. It’s this thin understanding of culture that can create a church that has a sense of “we-ness” and still be oblivious to systemic inequalities. Of course it’s important to know that some traditions worship differently; it’s more important to know how these traditions reflect the way blacks and whites have lived in American society as sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson explained.  Understanding the historic role of systemic racism in cultivating theological traditions and practices is a first step that seminaries can take in creating structurally-aware multiracial churches.

For now, perhaps we can heed the suggestion of Eugene Cho, a pastor in Seattle:

Can we just take some time to hurt and mourn with many of our Black brothers and sisters?
Can we take some time to hurt with many Black churches and communities?
With our black friends, co-workers, and neighbors, can we commiserate with them – however limited we may be in that commiseration?

For us – as Christians – if our Black brothers and sisters in Christ are hurting…If they are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ; And if we are truly the Body of Christ as we profess…can’t we just shut up, listen, and mourn with them? Can we possibly try to listen, hear, and capture a glimpse of why they are upset, concerned, anxious, worried, and even fearful?

Fair Trade Battles

At the end of 2011, Fair Trade USA resigned from its membership in FairTrade International (FLO).  Just last month, an advertisement in the Burlington Free Press (Vermont) made headlines.  Equal Exchange, the largest fair trade coffee company in the United States, urged Green Mountain Coffee to leave the Fair Trade USA network.  Business Week and others covered the conflict.

This incident represents growing division over how to best help the population that fair trade was intended to represent.  Perhaps the central reason for the split between Fair Trade USA and FLO was the decision  of Fair Trade USA to work with large plantations and estates (instead of the traditional small farmers and cooperatives). Is it better to work with large farms to promote fair wages for workers, even if the ideals of democratic governance and ownership of the product by producers (requirements of FLO) do not occur?

While not trying to simplify all of the issues involved with a decision to include large farms, one issue at stake concerns the relationships consumers and producers have within alternative markets.  My guess is that most of us do not know the people that bake the bread that we eat, sew the clothes that we wear, build the houses we inhabit, or assemble the components in our computers.  One of the initial aims of the fair trade network created in the early 1970s was to try and make the market more personal.  Consumers were connected with producers through more direct buying relationships; narratives of producers were highlighted as important to the products themselves. You can drink coffee and know under what conditions (and where) the beans were picked.

As someone who studies the intersection of religion and the economy, I’m particularly interested in the role of Christian actors in alternative trade movements.  Religious organizations were important to the formation of the first alternative trade network (following the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 1968). Yet twenty years before that, the Mennonite Central Committee was involved in selling artisan goods produced in the global South to consumers in the global North, in a precursor to what was to become Ten Thousand Villages.

Christians are a relational people, both in terms of their interactions with the Divine, and their interactions with other women and men. Different traditions talk about these relationships differently, but most highlight the importance of these relationships.  For example, the Reformed tradition prioritizes the covenant among God’s people, while Catholics are more likely to rely upon concepts of solidarity and the common good.

This most recent disagreement between Fair Trade USA and FLO should cause us to think more critically about the relationships embedded within our economic transactions. I do not want to argue in this post for or against the decision of Fair Trade USA.  But for those of us who try to engage in ethical consumerism, what do we value?  Is the central goal higher wages for producers and workers?  Is it something more? How do we see ourselves in relationships with those producers, and what does it mean to have integrity in such interactions?

 

 


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