Another Way to Look at It

Willie Green was driving as we headed toward the truck-stop for dinner after church. It was my first Sunday back at my Student Pastorate in rural Kentucky after being away for my wedding and honeymoon in 1983. Seeing a political poster stapled to a telephone pole, I asked Willie,

“who won the election for Governor while I was away?”

In her tobacco-thickened bluegrass drawl she grumbled, “Oh, that Martha Layne Collins, did.”

“You don’t sound happy about it.” I replied.

“I just don’t think it’s right, her being a woman and all.”

It was quiet in the car for a little while. Then Willie said,

“But then, I didn’t think it was right having you be our pastor, either.”

A little nervous, I asked, “So how’s that working out?” She laughed and said,

“It’s working out great! I guess maybe that Martha Layne won’t be too bad a Governor after all.” 

Five years or so later, I was sitting at the kitchen table back home in Omaha visiting my parents. My Dad, who had always been my champion, encouraging me every step along the way in my education and preparation for ministry was reading the World Herald and said something about “that’s the problem with the economy these days, all these women going to work.”

“Um. Dad,” I ventured. “I thought you are really proud of me and the work I do.”

Dad put down the paper. I could see the cogs turning in his brain.

“Maybe the problem,” I said, “isn’t that women are working, maybe the problem is that the economy isn’t.”

“Well, that is another way to look at it.” Said Dad.

Last week I was at the county jail where I meet with some of the women for Bible study and discussion a couple times each week. “Any results yet on the election?” someone asked. It was Friday afternoon. I told them it was still not called for either candidate, but it looked like Biden and Harris were pulling ahead. The reaction among the women was mixed. What surprised me was two of the women, one young, one older, both said they didn’t want Biden and Harris because Harris is a woman, and “women shouldn’t be doing jobs like that.” I checked my watch, hoping it would tell me what year it is.  When it didn’t, I told the women the story of me and Willie Green and the election of Martha Layne Collins in Kentucky thirty-five years ago.

It turns out the women had discussed it with a man who did some other ministry in the jail, and decided they agreed with him that women aren’t fit for leadership, that women need to know their place and stay in it. Why? Maybe because they, like so many of the women I meet at the jail, have known nothing but abuse from men for most of their lives. Instead of having the gift of parents, teachers, pastors and professors, male and female alike, who cheered them on and encouraged them to aim higher, these women have been put down and pushed around and told they don’t count. But they do. I told them they do. I told them being a woman in no way makes them less than a man, and, in my opinion, Senator Harris being a woman in no way disqualifies her from office.

Women, like men, can and should do all that God has given them the gifts to do. God created all of us in God’s image, and God said, “that’s good.”

The day after I was at the jail, on Saturday, the election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I wasn’t particularly a Harris fan through the primaries, but when she spoke on Saturday as the Vice-President elect of our nation I broke down and sobbed great big, racking unexpected sobs. I think it’s right. I think it’s just right, her being a woman and all. And I suspect on Saturday afternoon God said something like, “it’s about time!” before saying, “now that’s really, really good.”

Snow Angels and other prayers

They shuffle in, the first two with hair disheveled and bad dye-jobs, locks matted from too much time in their bunks. Faded florescent pink sweats hang baggy on their tattooed frames. Younger than my boys, I guess. Twenty-two, twenty-three perhaps. Another, older, rounder, with a short-auburn bob finds her place at the end of the table, quietly pulling out her chair. The fourth carries a thick red-leather, red-letter Bible in her willowy hands and wears her hair piled on top of her head. Her granny-glasses have lenses so thick her eyes precede her into the room, reminding me of a grasshopper–a very pregnant pink grasshopper. Her stomach swells taut against her sweatshirt, revealing her inside-out belly button below. She talks without stopping to breathe. At the end of this short parade comes a slim, tall woman with curly dark hair cropped like Peter Pan’s, slouching. There’s an energy of anger pulsing just beneath the surface of her skin. A thin blue vein beneath her eye twitches in time to her heart beat. Intelligent eyes silently claim, “I don’t belong here” as she curls, like a fetus onto the rolling chair.

The women of the county jail are a motley crew.

I carry with me, on my coat and in my hair, the crisp, fresh smell of snow.

“We have snow!” I say, with the delight of the first blanketing of a season, when the crisp, cold freshness is still novel and exciting, and driving on ice and through snirt (snow mixed with dirt) hasn’t yet grown wearisome and disgusting. “It’s so pretty out there.”

Without windows, the women were unaware of the hushed beauty pillowing the landscape on the other side of the cinder blocks surrounding them.

“I love snow!”

“I wish I could see it!”

“The men may get to go outside to shovel it.”

“I’d love to see it falling from the sky.”

“I’d make a snow angel if I could.”

Five of the six of us laugh.

It is my first visit to the jail to share Bible study with the women. I didn’t know they couldn’t see the snow.

Around an oval conference table in a nondescript interior room, they tell me their stories. Meth and Crack and a parole violation. Dealing in several counties, and jail time awaiting in each one.

Grasshopper starts talking. Five babies taken away, but this one, this one, she is determined, this one, her sixth, (is she even twenty-five?) this one will be born drug-free. She’s going to give this baby the life he deserves. She knows God is with her always has been always will be she just needs to trust in Jesus and get back to church and doing what the Gospels teach and not listen to the people who are always trying to lead her astray and she may have had the other kiddos taken from her because of drugs but not this one because this time she’s getting into the Word and following the Way and she’s not messing up again no way and if the baby daddy doesn’t want to support her and wants her to get messed up again she’ll just leave this time that’s all there is to it because she knows she’s God’s precious child and so is this baby and this time it’s all going to be alright so she’s actually happy to be in jail because it means less time to be tempted to backslide and turn her back on God which she isn’t going to do this time. No way.

Bonnie weeps. When she finds her voice she says she misses her fourteen-year-old boy. She feels so guilty. She really messed up and he’s the one who’s paying the price. “A boy needs his mother. Mine really loves me.” She says. “I really messed up this time” and again she weeps.

Five of the six of us weep.

Stoney silence from Peter Pan.

We feast on stories shared from our lives and from God’s good book. Grasshopper sings, “Jesus Loves me.”

Five of the six of us sing.

Our hour draws to a close. Teeth are starting to chatter and blue goose bumps have risen on the bare thighs of the bleached blonde girl wearing prison issue pink shorts instead of sweats.

I ask how we can pray for each other. “For my boy.” “For this baby” “For my boyfriend” “For me and my court date on Wednesday.”  I ask them to pray for me and my churches and for my six kids.

Peter Pan unfolds her long limbs and uncurls her lips and for the first time speaks very quietly saying, “Pray for my daughters, they’re 16 and 17 and live in Detroit where I am a social worker with a Master’s degree. Oxycontin got me here and I want out.”

Six of the six of us pray.

I step into the blinding brightness of sunlight bouncing off freshly fallen snow.

A holy dance of longing and liberty moving me.