Vocation Enmeshed

This week I will be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the final meeting of a group of scholars with whom I am working on a new volume dedicated to reflection on vocation in higher education.  I’ve written about this project before.  Here is an adapted piece of the chapter I will contribute, which first appeared on the community blog of the Council of Independent Colleges Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE).  Stay tuned for more:

“Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career.  Have you been giving it thought?” …

“Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.”  Lansing certainly had no Negro lawyers – or doctors either – in those days, to hold up an image I might have aspired to.  …

Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.  He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic.  Don’t misunderstand me, now.  We all here like you, you know that.  But you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—-.  A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a n—-.” …

It was then that I began to change – inside.

~ The Autobiography of Malcolm X

This exchange between young Malcolm and his teacher, Mr. Ostrowski encapsulates the tremendous influence of social and political systems on our daily and mundane interactions with each other.  What a young person thinks that she or he can become is overwhelmingly shaped by the culture in which she or he lives, and the people encountered along the way.  The tragedy in that moment, perhaps, lies with the teacher’s response.  He was unable to see beyond his own bias and limitation, unable to be prophetic, himself fully a product of a racist segregated time and place.

We all live enmeshed, caught up in various systems of privilege and oppression.  Whether it’s white supremacy, misogyny, heteronormativity, or any other way in which we human societies have found to order and stratify our lives, navigating them is a part of discerning vocation.

In her 2012 book, A Church of Her Own, Sarah Sentilles points out that “our ability – or inability – to realize our call and the calls of others is shaped by our context and by the limits we put on ourselves and each other.”  She makes this comment in light of her interviews with and research on women navigating the ordination process in Protestant Christianity, confronting and resisting the sexism embedded in their churches.  I noted in a recent blog post the convergence of two significant moments in the history of two churches and their work toward inclusion of women:  On October 5, 2013, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America installed Rev. Elizabeth Eaton as the denomination’s first female presiding bishop.  At the same moment, in Salt Lake City, over 200 Mormon women lined up outside the priesthood session of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to request admission.  They were denied.  The leader of that protest, Kate Kelly, has since been excommunicated by her church.

Looking at these two moments together, I don’t want to insist that Lutherans have sexism conquered.  Far from it.  Rather, with Norma Cook Everist’s reflective piece on the history that led up to this moment, I mean to illustrate that structures of inequality are dismantled only by women and men who organize against and actively resist them.

They are dismantled by people who are called.  People who act in spite of teachers, priests, bishops, and governments who tell them, as Mr. Ostrowski did, no … that’s not a realistic goal for you

Vocation happens like this.  We need to be honest about how it is enmeshed in an imperfect world and equip ourselves and each other to navigate the systems and structures regardless.

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


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