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Women of the Way: witnessing the call of all at dinner church

March 27, 2024

Recently, we celebrated our oldest child’s birthday. She is of the age of magic and wonder. She believes in the validity of unicorns as much as she does the possum we’ve named Jolene, who lives under our back porch. Disney princesses hold her attention, along with Indiana Jones and friendship bracelet kits procured from Five Below. She is the embodiment of a free spirit, and while I know the law of Moses tells me not to covet, her nature to let all matters of circumstances slide away is a disposition I openly envy.

With another trip for her around the sun, I, like most parents, recall her beginning. I can still feel the moment when my spouse, Lauren, told me, “I’m pregnant.”

Lots of things go through your mind when you hear those words. Expressions like, “Thank you, God,” followed by “Oh my God, I hope we can afford this baby.”

My head and heart went through the gamut those first few weeks. We remained silent in church. So much can happen in those first few months. We said nothing, waiting to tell our families when we knew the pregnancy was viable.

And so it came to pass on the 19th week; Lauren and I went into the doctor’s office, and there we witnessed a human-like shape move around on a computer screen. This shape had a heartbeat attached to it, beating as strong as a hare who’d been chased.

The sonographer asked us, “Do y’all wanna know the baby’s sex?”

“Yes,” we said in unison.

“You’re having a little girl,” she said.

Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

And that is how one’s world changes.

Months later, I remember discussing with someone the possibility of dedicating our daughter. Lauren and I come from traditions where dedications are common instead of infant baptism, and we entertained the idea of holding an ecumenical blessing with other leaders from different denominations and expressions of faith. During the discussion, the person mentioned their tradition and how only men could perform a baptism/blessing. Immediately, I saw the issue. I had to ask myself, was I willing to allow someone from a faith community to bless my daughter, knowing that if she grew up in that faith community, she, because of her sex, couldn’t one day do the same for someone else?

No freaking way.

I have to make a fair number of hard decisions as a parent.

Saying no to this is one of the easiest.

Now, I could say I came to this conclusion because I have a biblical interpretation that defends my perspective. I could pull out Scripture, a handful of verses, displaying why I believe the Bible displays egalitarianism over complementarianism. I could try to dazzle you, dear reader, with some historical analysis while pointing to the shifting contexts of ancient cultures. I might even try and remind you of the long and ever-present masculine hand of patriarchal-centered societies and those groups who actively worked to oppress or erase women’s roles within the early church – but I don’t need to do that.

Not when I have so many examples, so many names, of women who have shown me by their presence God can call anyone into the role of pastor.

I know this because I sat beside too many divine image-bearing women in seminary to think differently.

I read the stories of people like Ann Hasseltine Judson, Alice and Annie Armstrong, and Martha Stearns Marshall. I highlighted too many sentences in books by Pamela R. Lightsey, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Emilie M. Townes. Like saints and angels of the highest order, these are the names I call on when I want to invoke the mothers of my faith.

And as of last month, I’ve added two more to a constantly growing list: Pastor Sarah and Pastor Anna. Two women, a pair of priests, who coordinate a dinner church in Northampton, Massachusetts.

I have so many examples, so many names, of women who have shown me by their presence God can call anyone into the role of pastor. Recently, I’ve added two more to a constantly growing list: Pastor Sarah and Pastor Anna, a pair of priests who coordinate a dinner church in Northampton, Massachusetts.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a dinner church is a gathering where shared meals are seen as worship. I’m keen on such communities. The breaking down of the formal doings of the church for informal place settings around an eclectic table of dishes and people suits me just fine.

My family and I arrive early for the service. I mixed up the time, so the space was empty and quiet except for a few sounds we trace back to the kitchen. Pastor Sarah is there, her hand raised not in praise but in hopes of stopping the blood coming from the knife nick on her finger. I didn’t know church cutlery could be so sharp. We exchange pleasantries and stories of how we ended up there.

“Could I give you a hand with those onions?” I ask.

She graciously accepts my offer, seeing as she is out of commission. Over the next hour, she chats it up with Lauren, taking her on a small church tour and down to an area where the girls can find art supplies, run around, and play.

Our oldest moves like a butterfly with a caffeine addiction, never in one space long; she abandons the craft room and darts back upstairs to find me in the kitchen. Pastor Sarah joins us a few minutes later and puts her to work. My daughter takes the bread, made and donated by a local baker, and distributes it to the half-dozen set tables filling the room.

“Now, can you help me fill these water pitchers?” she asks.

Our daughter, whose legs stubbornly refuse to work in our home, leaps at the chance. She’s an infamous spiller of any and all liquids, so I’m expecting an impromptu baptism by affusion. I try to offer to help her, but she pushes my hands away.

“I got it, Daddy,” she says without giving me a second look.

I dumbfoundedly stare, unsure if this is my child who struggles to put on her shoes before school in the morning.

“You’ve got a servant’s heart,” Pastor Sarah says to her.

I know she’s right. And while I know my children love to make a liar out of me, I’m confident that what I’m witnessing is genuine. My parent-hardened skepticism cracks. It will shatter before we leave.

Not long after, the service starts. Music is played from an instrument I want to call a squeezebox. A candle is lit, and the flame is shared. Offered to any who holds wax and wick, these candles will be placed as the centerpiece at each table. Prayers are said by Pastor Anna, and black bean soup with fresh lime juice is served. Pastor Anna’s homily holds the attention of those gathered. There’s discussion at the tables, more divine dialogue than pious proclamation. While the talking never subsides, the evening draws to a close with Communion followed by a blessing.

The two pastors make their way around the loose circle of souls. Pastor Anna makes the sign of the cross on my head, then Lauren’s, and finally on our youngest. Our oldest is still sitting at the table. Pastor Sarah approaches her, asks her if she can bless her, and does. And then, in a fragment of time where the veil of this world and what lies beyond is brought into focus, she asks my daughter, my child of chaos, if she will take the oil and bless her. Truly, we are priests to each other.

As a preacher, I have moments in what some might call ministry that burn a little brighter than others. The illuminance coming from my daughter’s actions will light my faith for years to come.

I have a woman pastor to thank for that.

We will soon depart. Walking back to the vehicle, we see several groups of college students searching for an evening bite at one of the several take-out spots running up and down Main Street. I wish they would have joined us.

As she’s getting buckled in, my oldest tells me, “I wanna go back to that church.”

Count on it, kid. Count on it.

Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Opinions and reflections are his own.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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