(Almost) wholly ungrounded


As I read the story from the Citizen-Times.com website, I tried to remember a few basics about what it’s like to write for a paper in a smaller market. Local papers (as in Asheville, North Carolina) might not have a full-time religion reporter. They often don’t have space for longer articles, thus making it possible for details to get lost. And they may assume that their local readers know about churches and institutions that those of us surfing from “abroad” might not know.

But even after making huge allowances — this article, about the closing of a “feminist” ministry, is almost like one of those Madlibs where readers get to fill in the blanks. Let’s start at the beginning:

After 15 years of being a safe place for people to explore and expand their spiritual selves, the feminist retreat ministry Holy Ground will close at the end of the month.

What does “feminist” mean in this context? That Holy Ground used inclusive language in their ceremonies? That they had retreats exploring women’s spirituality? That they donned flowing robes and held orgies devoted to pagan goddesses? OK, I’m having too much fun here. But it would be very helpful to learn what “feminist” means to those who live in this part of North Carolina.

A closing ceremony is planned for June 28.

What kind of a ceremony? Probably the same type of ceremony the organization did for 15 years — about which we learn almost nothing.

In the beginning, founders Sandra Smith and Dorri Sherrill, both ministers, wanted the ministry to see itself through a uniquely female perspective.

“We filtered our teaching, our theology, our language through the lens of a battered woman,” Smith said. “We did not exclude men, but we began with women’s experience.”

Are Smith and Sherrill Congregationalists? Quakers? Lutherans? And what’s the link to battered women? This quote should have been explored.

The first Holy Ground gathering took place in October 1994, when Roberta Bondi spoke about prayer and images of God.

Smith and Sherrill worked to make Holy Ground a place where people of all faiths could feel welcome, and when Sherill moved on to other work, Smith continued to run Holy Ground.

“One of the gifts was bringing women of different faiths together so they could explore faith together,” Smith said.

Should we know who Roberta Bondi is? Or can we give her a biography, too? And yeah, what about Carter Heyward — as in the Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward — a heavy hitter in the field of feminist theology?

We can infer something by learning that Heyward is coming, along with William Everrett to “speak about feminism from a theological point of view.” But without significant information about the ministry, the women who ran it, or what they did, it’s a lot more tempting just to make up our own story — fueled by our own assumptions.

Hat tip to commenter Lee for bringing this one to the attention of GetReligion.

If you want to see holy ground outside of Swannanoa, that’s a picture of Mount Sinai from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Martha

    The article does give some clue to the denominational background in the closing sentences:

    “The ministry’s library will be preserved at First Congregational United Church of Christ, and its papers will go to Candler School of Theology at Emory University, in Atlanta.”

    And Sherrill is ordained in the United Church of Christ, according to the website.

    I wonder did the article avoid making any identifications because this place is independent? It sounds like a project between these two women, and it’s interfaith (meaning everything and nothing), so perhaps it’s not formally linked up with any particular denomination? The brief little bios of the four staff on the website are all “interfaith, interfaith, interfaith”, with Sherrill being the only one to have an actual denominational identification. And the newsletter explains it as “Though grounded in Christian traditions, Holy Ground appreciates and draws from the wisdom of other faiths, and welcomes conversation with and participation by people of all faith perspectives and experiences.”

    I think, on reflection, that this is less an oversight and more a deliberate choice not to connect it up with anyone, even the United Church of Christ, since it doesn’t seem to actually be a ministry of the UCC.

  • Sarah Webber

    Perhaps this is even a little blasphemous, but what came to mind instantly after reading this is a quote from The Incredibles:
    Mr. Incredible: You mean you killed off real heroes so that you could *pretend* to be one?
    Syndrome: Oh, I’m real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I’ll give them heroics. I’ll give them the most spectacular heroics the world has ever seen! And when I’m old and I’ve had my fun, I’ll sell my inventions so that *everyone* can have powers. *Everyone* can be super! And when everyone’s super–
    [chuckles evilly]
    Syndrome: –no one will be.

  • Julia

    Except for the feminist part, it sounds like the Taize ecumenical community in France. Hard to tell if it’s Protestant or Catholic.


  • Julia

    Whoops. Forgot to mention that the Taize community draws from Orthodox as well as Protestant and Catholic tradition.
    The place gets 100,000 + pilgrims a year from all over the world – mostly young adults.

  • Martha

    The centre or ministry or retreat house or whatever you call it does seem like a mish-mash of ‘faith traditions’.

    Maybe the article didn’t give any definite “This is a (name of denomination) group” because the people running it didn’t want to tie it down to “This is specific denomination/specifically Christian/specifically religious (as in the famous ‘I’m spiritual, not religious’ line)”, which is kind of the impression I’m getting.

    So for once, maybe the fuzziness is not the fault of the reporter! ;-)

  • Jay

    place where people of all faiths could feel welcome,

    Did they make “people” or “women”? The entire orientation of the place seems as though its by, for and about women. So when visiting the center, if the reporter saw all women, or the reporter saw a mixture of men and women, either would be interesting additional data on what support this community attracted.

  • Bern

    This reads less like an article than a press release used to fill space. It’s not a story.