On Monday I fasted. I fasted for the first time in years. It was completely different than I remember. I remember fasting being about food, about missing food, wanting food and taking a long Sunday nap until I could eat food again. Occasionally, we would fast for something: an illness, fire, job or tragedy. During these times I really did want to comfort the people in need. I thought about them while I fasted….for about 3 minutes before I broke my fast. This Monday’s fast was very different. It was a fast on National Equality Day for the purpose of religious gender equality around the world in collaboration with thousands of women and men of all faiths.
All day I thought about this issue. When my stomach growled in the morning I thought about all of those people around the world that go hungry and thought, “Maybe if women were in charge of religions that number would decrease.” Around noon, on my way to teaching my class, I was thirsty. I saw a water fountain and wanted a drink so badly. This made me think about how few people in the world have access to clean water. I reflected on how many millions of lives are lost because of this one simple issue. I realized that if women were in charge of all of the money, human capital and decision making power of religions around the world, would we solve the world’s largest problems: water, sanitation, education, war, poverty and inequality? By the time I broke my fast in the evening this was not just something I had thought about for a few minutes, it was something that overwhelmed my life. To me, religious gender equality is so much more than having female religious leaders or ordination for women. To me, it is a fundamental path to equality, peace and hope throughout the world.
These were the thoughts I had running through my mind as I entered the pews at the BuddhistTemple in Salt Lake City, Monday, August 26th, along with fifty other comrades. The meeting was conducted brilliantly by Margaret Toscano and we began with the song “Freedom’s Daughter,” sung to the tune of “Hope of Israel”—a song written by Lula Greene Richards during the late 18th Century when the LDS church stood for Women’s Suffrage! The first speaker was Debra Jensen, an LDS woman who shared her story of why she stood for religious gender equality. She started with the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Then she gave us her own answer. When she took fear out of the equation she realized she would absolutely stand for equality. Then she asked, “What are we missing out on because of fear?” Jensen concluded her talk by relating the hunger we all felt after fasting to the hunger women all over the world feel for equality and by urging us to recognize and utilize the privilege we have to stand up for our rights.
The next speaker was Pastor Monica Hall. In a rousing and inspiring display of humor, joy and enthusiasm, Pastor Hall described the journey that her own Presbyterian religion had to go through in order to obtain ordination for women. She, an ordained minister, asked if she was more qualified for her role than her LDS female counterparts? She asked if LDS male members were more qualified than LDS females? She argued that neither was the case. In fact, she argued via beautifully told stories from the scriptures, women were the first to see the resurrected Lord, women were the first appointed apostles, and, finally, women are not neglected by Jesus today either! Pastor Hall then quoted fellow Presbyterian feminist, activist and anthropologist Margaret Mead as saying “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Pastor Hall then explained that her own religion went through this process years ago and that we need to stand on the shoulders of the women that came before us just like our daughters and granddaughters will one day continue the process on our own shoulders. Pastor Hall went on to say that the way change happens is to “Show up! Over and over and over again until the men realize that we are NOT going away!” She cautioned that it is important to show up in a spirit of love and participation, with the intent to “bless those in power, even though they don’t bless you.” In an unforgettable moment of the night, Pastor Hall warned: “power doesn’t care how good we present equality—it only starts to shift when we embody it.” She concluded her sermon by expressing her love and support for the difficult and fraught journey her LDS sisters face and will continue to face in the near future. She said that we need to remember to show up in patience and persuasion and stay firm even though the people in power might kick us out. “Because,” she stated, “that is how power works—it silences those in disagreement, often those with the truth. But know that this is a worthy process of justice that God supports. I promise to stand firm for you and be the shoulders for you to stand on.”
The next speaker was Reverend Jerry Hirano, leader of the Buddhist temple. He shared story after story of his own religion’s journey to better include women in the ministry. Afterwards, he moved the audience with his impassioned plea “If it has to do with equality, the Buddhists will stand with you.” He then told a Muslim tale about Nassruddin, a man who was both foolish and wise or, Reverend Hirano explained, “He finds wisdom in the middle of his foolishness.” Nassruddin was in the middle of the town square on his hands and knees looking for something. A villager approached him and asked “what are you doing?” Nassruddin explained he was looking for his key. “Did you drop it here?” the villager asked. “No,” said Nassruddin, “this place has the best light.” Reverend Hirano went on to explain that he was told this story by a Zen master and afterwards asked him “What is the meaning?” The Zen master explained, “The search IS the key.” Reverend Hirano then went on to urge us to see the search as the key in our own journey and promised that he would do anything he can to support us.
After the speakers we sang, “The Law of Laws” (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) and Margaret Toscano explained that the Law of Laws refers to The Golden Rule. She said that The Golden Rule, of reciprocity and equality, is always right and that is why we are gathered here today. At this point in the program, Margaret opened up the meeting to anyone who wanted to say a few words. There were some poignant, moving, emotional and inspiring extemporaneous speakers. There were people from every gender, ethnicity, age group and sexuality. At one point we even broke into a rousing chant of “Hey, hey, What do you say? We stood for equality today!” led by Mormons for ERA president Chelsea Shields Strayer. Below are some of the highlights from the participants:
¨ One speaker argued that the church needs women’s gifts, talents, time, abilities and capacity to build relationships and trust and our kindness and compassion. She lamented the fact that we are missing half of our human capital by cutting off women from certain roles and that it is about time to see what LDS women are capable of.
¨ Another speaker was moved to tears by the very act of a female conducting the meeting. She said that it really brought to light how starved and hungry she was for female spiritual leaders. She said that it is one thing to hear in word, as a platitude, that women in the church are equal, but it is quite another thing to see it, in deed, in action.
¨ A woman got up and explained that she thought that Satan’s greatest accomplishment is the subjugation of women and urged all of us to “Not be silent, to own our stewardship and authority, to ask meaningful questions, to reclaim Eve’s story.” She said that her request throughout the fast was for the church to make their love for women manifest—not in words, not in talks, but manifest in the real world via changes and actions.
¨ Another woman said that she had had the desire for ordination for the last 30 years and that it is a fundamental part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. She argued that what we need is equality of all people, treated justly and given opportunities to develop and share their talents. She concluded the simple statement that “This is good, this is right, this is just.”
¨ The next speaker explained that we are holding this meeting 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She explained that his words changed the world. She then shared her own dream. “I have a dream that there will be a time when people will not be judged by their gender but via the content of the character.” She enthused that it was such a blessing to be a part of this at this time on the earth because it was only a hundred years ago that women could not read, go to school, speak in public, etc. “Look how far we have come!” she said “But we are not done yet!” She brought her words full circle by arguing that the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not make a difference until people started showing up. “It is up to us to show up!” She encouraged us all to bring 10-50 people with us October 5th to the Priesthood session.
¨ A Buddhist congregant got up next and expressed her deep sadness for those of us who feel unheard and invisible. She told a story of growing up Catholic in the Philippines and watching the alter boys week after week and wanting to be one of them. She remembers asking the priest and he said, “No. You can’t because you are a girl.” She said, “I felt like I fell from heaven at that moment and began my own spiritual journey.”
¨ The next speaker explained that he had left the church over a decade ago because he is a gay man but had recently started going back to church. He said that one of the first things that stood out to him was the severe lack of women: in leadership, speaking, etc. He came to the realization that in many ways gays and women are in this together and spoke of the refining power of rejection on our own spiritual journeys. He concluded by saying, “My faith is less vibrant without women. It is my loss. It is everyone’s loss.”
¨ A woman got up next who talked about feeling grateful for this opportunity to be able to sacrifice and struggle for such a just cause. She explained that religious gender equality is more than our myopic view of Mormon feminism. It really could change the world! Women are increasingly the solution to many of the world’s problems—from microcredit loans to education. Religion is the next step! She concluded by repeating the final line of the hymn “Praise to the Man” and said, “I have always felt a connection to the words: ‘’Mingling with Gods he can plan for our future,’ because I have always felt he was talking about you and me and right now in this moment standing for equality because no matter how far back in time or how widely across space, equality is always right!”
¨ The final speaker talked about all of the hunger in the room. She said there is not just hunger brought on by fasting, but we are all hungry to feel the gifts of women, to feel inclusion, to feel more compassion and love within the church. She said that she felt strongly that our Heavenly Mother and Father are moving us toward more equality, more compassion and more love toward all people; that everything we do will count toward this. She asked us all to think of someone and express gratitude for the people in our lives that promoted equality. She concluded saying, “I will never give up on this fight, as long as it takes, I will always be here!”
The meeting concluded with a melodious round of “Dona Nobis Aequalitatem (where the word Pacem, peace, was replaced with the word Aequalitatem or equality) and a moment of silence to meditate on and end our fast. Afterwards we all gathered in the lobby of the Buddhist temple, alongside our Presbyterian, Buddhist, atheist, nondenominational and Mormon brothers and sisters and expressed our gratitude for sustenance—both in body and spirit.
For me, this experience represented one of the first times I fasted and hungered for something real. In fact, I continue to hunger for it. My concluding thoughts as I drove away and said a silent prayer to my Heavenly Parents were those of gratitude, “Thank you for allowing me this opportunity. Please help me to always sacrifice, to always suffer whatever necessary, and to always show up for the cause of equality. This I pray. Amen”
Freedom’s Daughter (to the tune of “Hope of Israel”)
By Lula Greene Richards
“Freedom’s daughter, rouse form slumber;
See, the curtains are withdrawn,
Which so long thy mind hath shrouded,
Lo! Thy day begins to dawn.
Woman, ‘rise! Thy penance o’er,
Sit thou in the dust no more;
Seize the scepter, hold the van,
Equal with thy brother, man.”
The Law of Laws (to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne)
The golden rule of Galilee,
The law of laws sublime,
Must rule the world from sea to sea,
In every land and clime.
In every land and clime, today,
In every land and clime;
Must rule the world from sea to sea,
In every land and clime.”