Friday, April 26, 2013

Stuck at the Kids' Table

We are planning a family vacation to Virginia Beach. Patrick and I have gone twice before as a couple, and once on the Marymount Campus Ministry retreat. I remember two big houses up on stilts, the men in one with the priests, the women in the other: a giggling house full of unsupervised undergrads piled up on couches and spilling across the floor, doing each other's nails and yelling about sand in the bathtub.

The ministry leaders scheduled a full weekend of discussion. The sexes were split up so that they would have a safe forum-- so that they would feel like they could speak freely. The men's discussions were led by priests and the women's discussions were led by students. The women’s group talked about how hard it was not to gossip, and the men’s group talked about how hard it was not to masturbate. 

I didn't like being separated from my friends and being told that this topic was of deep concern to women. It wasn't of deep concern to me, so did that make me not so much a woman, or a woman who didn't understand herself? And why couldn't the men and women discuss important things together? Why did I have to miss out on the insights and experiences of my male friends, and why were my male friends okay with missing out on what I had to say?

As the Campus Ministry leadership changed from year to year, CMA became a Catholics-only group and I was pushed further and further out. At the same time, I was finding my home at Memorial. The Baptists embraced me literally; one of my boyfriends refused to go to church with me because, he said, "They keep hugging me!" They invited me to their homes for holidays when I had nowhere to go and nobody to celebrate with. The pastor picked me up from the side of the road one snowy morning when I missed the message that church had been cancelled; he brought me to his home and his wife fed me oatmeal. The Baptists challenged me to read the Scripture and to read it better than I had been, to ask questions, to not be afraid of being wrong but instead to be afraid of always believing that I'm right. 

I was shocked that my deacon was a woman, and I didn't know how to reconcile the fact that she was female with the fact that she was clearly cut out to be a deacon. Then I learned that Baptist tradition requires that everyone be free to follow God's calling, regardless of gender. I worried that if I hung around these people long enough, their influence would make me agree with their liberal views. 

That is totally what happened.

So this is my church family. And then there is my birth family. Grandaddy just sent a check to celebrate the successful sale of his house. In 2011 we spent Thanksgiving in Atlanta moving him into a condo, where he can live on one level. The Cochran cousins came, and we packed up boxes, decided which furniture he needed, tried to recreate in his new home the arrangement of decorative objects just as my grandmother had left them when she died seven years earlier. I sat on an antique sofa in the bare living room of the house I loved best, remembering how, 25 years earlier, two dozen relatives arranged themselves around this sofa in their Christmas finest for a photo. The children sat on the floor in front. I wore white tights and shiny black shoes and a deep red velvet dress, a dress that is now hanging in my daughter's closet. My cousin Chris was grinning with big new adult teeth.

The Cochran cousins were born after that photo was taken, and they grew up in that house. On Thanksgiving and Christmas the relatives would flood in, and the long dark dining table would be covered in lace and silver, crystal, fine porcelain, and dried flower bouquets. In the living room, I would sit at a card table with my little brother and our younger cousins. I was in charge of making sure that nobody got too wild and disturbed the grown-ups. How jealous I was! I saw the smiles and heard the laughter at the big table, and wondered when I would be judged old enough to join them.

Then came the year I moved up, and discovered that what the grown-ups were talking about was boring. They were swapping stories about relatives who had died before I was born. How could anybody want to waste an entire afternoon on that when cartoons were on?

Now, of course, I treasure the few quiet days I get to spend with the cousins, each story sparking another, all of us comparing memories and trying to reconstruct our shared past. It's the same feeling I get when my church family gets together and starts talking about God, each of us bringing our religious backgrounds, our societal histories, snippets of sermons and books that we remember, trying to piece together who God is and who we are as God's people.

And now there's the church family that I married into. The priest is well-educated and enthused and loves to spark theology debates. But the young adult group at the cathedral is being split into two: a men's group and a women's group. At the last scheduled meeting, the women were instructed to go upstairs to the sanctuary and pray the rosary. The priest took the men out to a brewery. I went home.

Here was that old feeling of jealousy, winding itself through my belly again. Now the boys would go out and play, and the girls would stay in and be dutiful. The men would go and talk theology, tossing around ideas and shaping them and shining them up, and the women would stay in and repeat words that had been written for them. Here was complementarian theology lived out, and it looked like ditching half the group in order to go bar hopping. And here was the message that being a woman in the Church is much like being a child, doing busy work while the big people talk about things I wouldn’t be interested in. But this time, it is a kids’ table that I won’t ever grow out of.

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