Sunday, August 07, 2005

Communities without Christ?

I spent yesterday in a beauty parlor. I rarely get an opportunity to do this, and so I relished every moment of the experience. The women that work in this particular salon are vibrant, bold, and free thinkers.

While I was getting my hair shampooed, the stylist starting telling me about how her step-daughter had been drawn into a "born-again" Christian community, which was difficult for her and her husband, who are both non-observant Jews. Being blessed (or cursed?) with my inquisitive mind, I asked her more questions about why her step-daughter was drawn into this sort of community.

The story is she was abandoned by her mother at a young age, and she has consequently grown up feeling wounded and vulnerable (who can blame her?). She has spent a great deal of time trying to find a place where she belonged, where she felt loved and buoyed up by a community. Then, in her early thirties, she got pregnant and her step-mother (my stylist for the day) encouraged her to get an abortion. She (the step-mother) was deeply concerned that she was not mentally capable of taking care of a child because she was so consumed by her own demons. Her step-daughter agreed with her and then had the abortion.

Soon after her decision to have an abortion, she became a "born again." This is, unfortunately, a common occurrence. According to my stylist, she was overwrought with guilt for a host of what she considered to be irresponsible decisions made. The guilt only added to her already profound sense of alientation and she longed to be "forgiven." And here is where the evangelical Christian communities can step in.

It seems that a great deal of "lost souls"--people broken and bruised by life--find themselves drawn to evagelicalism (the good news). One of my friends once explained to me that the reason evangelicals so relentlessly do missionary work is because they believe that they have a powerful cure, a healing balm, for the downtrodded. He made the analogy that it was like advertising a cure for cancer, if you had it.

When I was first in graduate school, I regularly bumped into these "missionaries" as I would leave campus. They would walk up to students who were walking alone, perhaps looking sad, shy or awkward and invite them to a bible study. I now see regular "recruiters" on the campus where I teach. There are two groups: the Campus Crusade for Christ and Intervarsity. When I go to grab coffee, I often see the "disciple makers" (yep, that's what they're called) sitting with students and praying, going over what sins or weaknesses the students experienced during the week (envy, lust, uncertainty of God, etc.).

The students that are drawn into these groups often seem to me to be outsiders, those who are perhaps really bright but a bit socially awkward. The social scence at my college can be quite brutal, and easily alienates the not-quite-cool student who then finds a loving, accepting community among fellow Christians.

I asked my stylist what made her step-dauther feel guilty? Had she deeply felt a wrong, that she had broken a moral law? Did she feel guilty because she had been irresponsible sexually? Did she feel guilty because she had grown up in a society that teaches women to see themselves as "guilty"? The stylist sort of thought about it and didn't really have an answer, which seems right to me.

I think that as feminists we need to seriously confront the lack of supportive communities available to women and men broken and bruised by life. We are excellent at pointing out the harms, rooting out sexism, and fighting for rights and legislation. But, we aren't always great at offering alternative communities for the women who find themselves defeated by life. While I think the activist women whom I hang out with are a great community, I don't know that many women out there know we are here. They might find us in the battered women's shelters, or other social service agencies. But, we aren't always easy to find. And, we don't go seeking them out, like the evangelical community does (which is probably a good thing).

What I think many of us yearn for, especially the many women I have met who have grown up thinking they deserved less from life, is a strong community that supports them. And, we should be able to offer up a community that doesn't demand the insane "social contract" with evangelical communities: anti-homosexuality, anti-women's rights, pro-patriarchy, etc. We too should be having "pot-lucks," sharing childcare responsibilities, visiting our the sick in hospitals, etc. And, don't get me wrong, many many feminist communities do.

But, when I think about what the mainstream world offers as solutions to the deep sense of alienation felt by a great many of us I am not surprised that the evangelicals can be so attractive. We offer therapy, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, sleeping pills or, for the more adventurous, there are yoga classes, crystal healings, etc. We are all looking for a place to belong, a place that buoys us up.

I think that feminists need to tend to wounded souls--to the broken spirits of women victims of abuse or drug addiction. If we don't do this, if we don't empathize with the anguish of women, like my stylist's step-daughter, who feels guilty, then we do risk losing these women to a movement that promises order, moral rectititude, and absolutes.