THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz
“It was in the Catholic movement in the Catholic church that I began to learn about gender oppression.”
Religion and the Feminist Movement Conference, Harvard Divinity School, November 2002
I was born a feminist, Thanksgiving weekend, 1975, at the first Women’s Ordination Conference, WOC. A friend in charge of religious education for the diocese of Rochester, New York knew about the conference and insisted I should go. After working for nine months as a salesperson at Sears, I had recently started to work part time in an inner-city parish while beginning my studies on a masters in medieval history. I had no money to go to Detroit, stay in a hotel, and pay the conference registration fee.
“Several of us are going by car, so you can just come with us,” answered Denise Mac, “and you can stay in our hotel. Don’t worry about it.” Friday after Thanksgiving, hours before the sun rose, my brother-in-law drove me to the group’s gathering point. We started the long drive to Detroit. Little did I know, as I sat on the back seat behind the driver on that cold November morning, that the conference I was going to would influence radically my worldview and give direction to my life for the rest of my days.
The sense of excitement and possibility that filled the hallways of the hotel where the conference was held was incredible. The process that had been designed for the conference remains one of the best I have worked with. The small groups after the plenary sessions were geared to allow the people to discuss the issues presented and to begin to decide what they wanted to do. Little by little, those small groups were dissolved as people moved to the different caucuses that were being formed according to what interested the conference participants.
I was a small group facilitator, and I did my job well. After the second plenary, I was jobless, but not for long. We wore tags that identified us as facilitators. As I stood in one of the hallways drinking a cup of coffee, this tall woman asked me, in quite an abrupt manner, “Where’s your group?”
Learning my group had already dissolved, she thrusted paper and markers into my arms and said, while rushing on, “Then come and helped me.” Marjorie Tuite was facilitating the caucus that had formed to consider establishing an ongoing organization, and she needed someone to take notes. I followed her without saying a word, fascinated by the energy she exuded.
During the next hour, I had the most intense lesson of my life in group dynamics. Never losing sight of the task at hand, Marjorie allowed everyone to speak. Her no-nonsense attitude invited people to think before they spoke. The meeting moved along at an incredible pace.
She was constantly summing up where we were, and I did all I could to write down each and every step we took. Later, at one of the plenary sessions, they asked the assembly to consider the resolution. The assembly really didn’t take resolutions, Nadine Foley sitting over there, so I don’t want her to think that I didn’t know that. They simply read it for affirmation.
I was taken back as I heard the words I had read from the platform. My birth as a feminist took place at the ending ritual of the conference. When those who believed themselves called to ordination were asked to stand, I knew I had to be honest and stand. Most probably, however, I was the last one to stand. A battle raged within me, caught between a sense of vocation, of what makes sense for me, what I want to do with my life, and the fact that in a flash, I was totally aware of the struggle that lay ahead.
I turned to Mary Walden, a friend whom I had met three days after I arrived in this country, back in 1960, and choking on tears, I said, “Mary, I don’t want to stand. I am tired of battles.” She smiled at me reassuringly.
Almost forced by the belief that I was called to be ordained, I stood up. I was towards the front of the room, and I turned around to find that I was standing with a cloud of witnesses. In this battle, at least, I would not be alone. After a few seconds, I sat down, thinking, “Well, I have been born, baptized, and confirmed in this new life all in one.”
As I left the assembly room, I signed the paper indicating I was interested in working on setting up an ongoing organization to work on making reality the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church. Back home, working in an inner-city parish, and my studies kept me very busy. A few months went by.
One day, the phone rang, and it was Rosalie Muschal-Reinhardt. She had been a member of the task force that had organized that first Women’s Ordination Conference. “You signed the list of those interested in forming an ongoing organization, and I’m calling because we’re doing just that.” That first meeting was at Rosary College, now Dominican College outside Chicago.
Again, I simply did not have the money to buy an airline ticket. “We have vowed,” said Rosalie with her characteristic passion. “We will not meet again without women of color participating. I was to save the day,” she insisted, and she somehow would find the money to pay for the ticket.
And she did, and I became involved as a volunteer for several years, and eventually worked as a paid staff for three years. It was in the Catholic movement in the Catholic church that I began to learn about gender oppression.
In the 1960s, I had been a missionary in Lima, Peru, and there the poor had taught me the real meaning of religion. They had taught me that if beliefs are not the basis for the struggle for liberation, they are not worthwhile. They had taught me that God stands with the poor and that liberation and salvation are inseparable, that poverty is a slap on God’s face.
I came back to live in the United States in 1970. Every week, I would read the National Catholic Reporter, looking for clues of how I could get involved. As I read about what was going on in the church in the USA, nothing resonated with me.
Then I saw a small announcement that ran every week. It talked about the Deaconess movement and said to write, and they would send a newsletter. Soon I received a homemade newsletter written by Mary B Lynch, a Roman Catholic lay woman. Eventually, I learned that she was the one who called together the group of women in Chicago who organized the first Women’s Ordination Conference.
I found what the newsletter said interesting, but it did not move me to action. It did not touch what was then at the heart of my personal struggle, looking for ways to get involved in stopping poverty and the exploitation by the United States of Latin America.
During 1976, the first year of my life as a feminist, I worked hard at educating myself about feminism. Though I knew next to nothing about feminism, and my gender analysis was very immature, I understood early on that I could apply the same process I had used to learn about poverty and the relationship of the gospel message to poverty to the oppression of women. There was not much available to me to read, but then I have always learned most from lived experiences.
I began to wear my newfound gender analysis lens all the time. Soon a group of us started to meet locally to see what we could do to move the church in Rochester to deal with the issue of women’s ordination. Local and national involvement provided me with a community of women with whom I could learn. Group reflection and reading began to provide for me the categories and the frame of reference I needed to see the connections between poverty and sexism.
My vision became clear, but my world became more complicated as the days went on. Soon I could sing with full conviction two songs. One, “I wish my eyes had never been open.” The other one, “I ain’t no ways tired. I’ve come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me the road would be easy.”
I have never known how to proceed in life without seeing what I do as either a way of surviving, like washing dishes or working at Sears as a salesperson, when I could find all jobs, or as part of my vocation in life. I was not surprised, therefore, that I began to find the work on the issue of women’s ordination, which I soon saw as but one way of working against sexism as part of my vocation.
The experience of one of the women involved in the organization we had started helped me realize this. She called one day and said that she needed a break. She felt burned out. What she said impacted me greatly. The fact is that it scared me out of my wits.
For weeks, I chided myself for perhaps not taking the issue seriously enough, or I certainly did not feel anywhere near exhaustion. On the other hand, I did not want to become so psychologically drained that I had to step away from my commitment to the women’s movement. I had gotten involved thinking that we would get ordained within a decade or so, and then I could once again concentrate on working with the poor.
But what if the involvement in the issue left me psychologically spent? I thought long and hard about the situation. Then one day while driving home from work in the middle of a snowstorm, three things became clear to me. First of all, I realized that sexism is a category of oppression, and that it does not exist apart from poverty, but that it compounds poverty and vice versa.
In those early years of WOC, together with Rosalie Muschal-Reinhardt and Marjorie Tuite, we designed a visual to explain the interconnections of sexism, racism, ethnic prejudice, and classism. Years later, reading Rosemary Radford Ruether, I learned what words to use when talking about what I had then realized.
Second, as I slowly inched ahead on slippery roads, I could hear my mother saying the words with which she almost always ended her letters to me, “As long as God gives us strength, the energy we need for the struggle, we will be all right.” Mama has always insisted that we should not ask God to free us from struggling, but rather, we should be happy to have something to struggle for. What we need to do is to ask God to give us [foreign language 00:10:59], “strength for the struggle.”
Years later, I would work on developing La Lucha as a category of analysis and as a theo-ethical category. The snow-covered windshield of my car became like a movie scream, where I could see my next-door neighbor in Lima, a woman who lived in extreme poverty, yet never lost her sense of dignity and purposefulness of life.
I remember the steadiness of her struggle. Day after day, she dealt with the reality of the present day and survived today in order to be able to face tomorrow. That reflection has led me to develop the category of [foreign language 00:11:39] as the main site for the struggle, as the site that makes obvious oppression, and at the same time, it lumens the preferred future for which we struggle.
What I realized that day, I came to understand more and more as I shared and discussed with my women friends in Rochester. From that day forward, I have never been scared of burning out. As far as burning up, isn’t that what life is all about? For me, life is about being passionate for justice. That is what fulfills me. That is what gives me energy and creativity.
Our work at Call to Action, the National Conference called by the US Catholic bishops in 1976, was the first public action of WOC. For me, personally, called to action, was important for there I met Yolanda Tarango, a Chicana nun from El Paso, Texas.
After the Catholic Bishops Call to Action Conference, I asked her repeatedly to join WOC. She did not seem willing to do so. Little by little, I began to link her reticence with what had happened at the end of the WOC conference a year before.
Maria Iglesias, then national coordinator of Las Hermanas, a Hispania-Latina women’s organization; and Shawn Copeland, representing the Black Sisters’ Conference, had made a brief statement to the largely White women’s assembly. Shawn had warned conference participants not to rebuild the walls of Jericho to keep Black and Latinas out after they had made it into the priesthood.
Now with Yolanda’s help, I began to analyze and study the issue of racism, ethnic prejudice in the women’s movement. I began to understand the complexities of the ethnic prejudice against Hispanics in the USA, its connection with racism, how ethnic prejudice is present in the women’s movement, and the role it places in oppressive structures. I realized that, given that the vast majority of Hispanic-Latinas in the United States are poor women, to work for justice for women in the church could be an effective way of working for justice for women in society.
I soon was firmly convinced of two things. First, I needed to listen to the grassroots Hispania’s-Latinas, just as I had learned to listen to the poor in Lima. Years later, Yolanda and I developed a method for doing Mujerista Theology that starts with the voices of grassroot Latinas.
Several key theological ethical claims have arisen from this conviction. First, Mujerista Theology is all liberative praxis. Second, grassroots Hispanias-Latinas are organic theologians for their admirably capable of explaining their religious understandings and their role religion plays in their daily struggles. And third, the lived experience of grassroot Latinas is the source of Mujerista Theology.
The second conviction was that I needed to bring to the table of WOC and other organizations in which I was participating, the voices I was listening to. I needed to voice the perspectives and issues of Hispanias-Latinas. Many of the women I worked with in WOC, almost exclusively White women, were committed to the struggle against racism. I believe many of them came to understand the particulars of the struggle of Hispanias-Latinas in this society.
However, as I began to speak more and more as a Latina from the perspective of Hispanias-Latinas, and as I attempted to link sexism to racial ethnic prejudice, I began to become invisible in the movement, which Jamie Phelps had told me would happen. Interesting that a few years later, the first theo-ethical article I wrote is entitled Invisible Invisibility.
After five years of being at home in the women’s movement, struggling for justice in the church, I began to feel alienated. Disagreements regarding styles of leadership, struggles for control of WOC, and my own personal shortcomings created a most difficult situation, and I was asked to resign from my position in the national office of the organization. Extremely distraught by what had happened, I spent time analyzing the reasons for it and trying to learn from it.
Undoubtedly, it seems to me that though we had struggle and continue to struggle to understand powered and yielded in a non-oppressive way, when difficulties arise, we fall back into what we have learned and the way we have been treated all of our lives. We turn this agreement into confrontation, and we wield power to control and dominate, instead of to enable and facilitate.
However, though I was wounded and dissolution, I was not about to turn my back on the struggle for justice for women. That had become part of my vocation in life of who I am. I simply needed to find a new avenue for involvement.
Religion has always been central part of my life. Religion, in particular Roman Catholicism, is a key element of Latino and Latina culture. It is not at all exceptional for me, therefore, to become aware of gender discrimination through my involvement in the church, and that it was a church issue, the ordination of women to a renewed priestly ministry, which provided for me the opportunity to struggle for justice for women.
My awareness of how sexism operates in the Catholic church, how it influences our religious understandings and practices, has never created for me a crisis of faith. My religious beliefs, on the contrary, seem to grow stronger to give me a deeper sense of myself and my vocation in life, regardless of the many pitfalls they themselves harbor.
Since I was young, I have distanced the divine and my relationship with the divine enough from the church and now from theology, that what the church teaches and does is not a source of scandal or disappointment for me. At the same time, as a young missionary in Lima, I learned the power and influence the church does have in society.
Though in the USA, the role of the church in society is different, and though today that role is not what it has been, even as recently as the 1980s, I believe that the churches have a certain moral power in society. I believe that the churches have an obligation always, always to take a prophetic stance in society. They always have to be on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited, the marginalized, the vulnerable.
Furthermore, I believe that justice is a constitute development of the gospel message. The gospel message is intrinsic to my worldview. It is an ongoing source of understanding. It is, most of the time, the backdrop against which I make judgments. It motivates me and sustains me.
While working at WOC, I had begun to take courses in the Master of Divinity program at the seminary in Rochester. As I tried to sort out what to do next with my life, I knew that it would have to be related to the struggle for justice for women from the perspective of religion. I decided I would finish my theological degree and then return to what even to today gives me the greatest joy—working with grassroots Hispanias-Latinas.
I knew I had to look beyond Rochester at that point in my life. Through a whole series of events and the sisterly care of Beverly Harrison and Ardith Hayes, I was able to go to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Yolanda and I had started to work on gathering the voices of grassroot Latinas. I knew that while I studied, I could finish our book, Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church. Mujerista Theology was born in the many conversations Yolanda, and I had with groups of las Hermanas all around the country. It was born in the many struggles we had as Hispanias-Latinas with those who controlled church structures, so we could have our voices heard and taken into consideration. It was born out of the conviction that we had to speak for ourselves, or we would continue to be invisible, or at best, Hispanic Latino men would speak for us.
But the elaboration of Mujerista Theology, putting Hispanias-Latinas theological understandings in writing and getting them noticed by others, that never would have happened without the community of which I was a part at Union Theological Seminary in the in the 1980s.
Angela Bauer, Elizabeth Bounds, Pamela Brubaker, Katie Geneva Cannon, Hyon Kyung Chung, Marilyn Legge, Margie Maiman, how much I learned from them as we took courses together, as we spent time reading each other’s work and commenting on it, as we cried and laughed together.
Then there are the women who had some contacts, and some influenced and used it to open roads for me personally and to insist on including Mujerista Theology as one of the theological voices of women that needs to be present. Among these women, and there are many, I have to mention, Rosemary Radford Ruether, who referred us to her editor at Harper and Row, helping us to get our first book published. It had been turned down by six publishers by then.
etty Russell, who made sure time and again at the American Academy of Religion and elsewhere, that Mujerista Theology was included. I owe my job at Drew University, in part to Marcia Riggs and Carrie McCarthy-Brown. For years, I could not find any other Hispania-Latina women at the AAR. It was with Katie Cannon and Joan Martin and other womanist theologians that I felt at home. Their struggle to have their own accessions at the AAR were the blueprint I followed to establish a Hispanic Latino session in that assembly.
Together with the struggle for justice, community, friendship, and relationships have been central in my life. As a Mujerista, I have come to understand how these two themes are intrinsically linked. Very important to me is the belief that we cannot sustain the struggle for justice for women without a deep sense of commitment to each other as women. There is no possibility of creating just structures in the academy, in the churches, and in society at large if relationships and solidarity do not inform our lives on a daily basis.
At least I can bear witness to how much we can accomplish when we come together as community. I can also bear witness to how destructive we are when we forget about each other or use each other and the movement for our own self-aggrandizement.
For me, the struggle for justice for women is part of who I am. It is, therefore, for me, a religious issue. My most profound religious experiences have happened in the midst of La Lucha. As Betty Bone Schiess always says, “I pray best with a picket sign in my hand.”
A la Lucha is what gives meaning and joy to my life. In la Lucha, I find God time and again. Yes, for me, [foreign language 00:22:58]. We must struggle to create community if we are to contribute to making justice for women a reality in our lives and our world.
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