Life at the All Boy’s School: One Woman’s Journey at the Seminary
By Jaci Cress Perrin
I walked in, expecting to find a line or a group of women gathered in front of the mirror checking their hair. What I found was a vacant bathroom. No women anywhere! I thought I heard the haunting sound of the Twilight Zone theme song ringing in my ears. Rarely in my life have I ever entered a women’s restroom and found it completely void of women!
I began to notice a trend as I went to my 8:30am class. I was one of only. Not three women. Not horrible odds, but when the teacher told us to get into groups and pray with each other, the two other women quickly paired up, and when I looked beside me to select a partner, I realized that there were empty chairs on both sides of me. I quickly scanned my nose in the reflection of my laptop to look for things that might make me a less desirable partner when I saw the teacher headed my way. By this time it had become evident that I was the only person who did not have a partner. The professor graciously offered to be my prayer partner, and for many weeks after that he volunteered to pray with me. This is when I began to feel like I didn’t belong.
I tried to rationalize my feelings of isolation. It was not as if I was not used to a mostly male environment. I had done my undergrad in Theology and had often been the only one in my classes. Admittedly I got along better with men than I did women. So why was it so difficult here? Most of my heroes up to this point had been male, my mentors were mostly male, many of my closest friends were male. At one time I had felt quite comfortable and accepted in a mostly male environment. Now things just seemed so different.
Once the initial culture shock had worn off, I acclimated pretty well to my surroundings. I began to make good friends and enjoy classes with both my male and female colleagues. The overall atmosphere was one of acceptance and equality, but it was often the small minority of those who did not care for women in ministry who got to me. Almost daily something would be said in class or chapel by students or faculty that communicated a subtle message that I didn’t belong at the Seminary—that I was not there at all.
It was a chapel experience that helped me put into words my journey thus far at the Seminary. A male Seminarian led us in a responsive reading. He asked the men to read one part and the ladies to read another. The booming voices of the males echoed off the walls of the chapel and our female voices seemed to be muted amongst the Seminary chatter. It occurred to me that this symbolized in a small way how I had felt so many times in my classes—unheard and unnoticed.
Sexual harassment and other forms of inappropriate behavior became all too familiar. I got hugged and patted on the head frequently. Once a man actually hugged my breast! There were several other reports of males kissing female seminarians, and not as a cultural greeting either. References to our sexuality or our dress were often made in and out of classes.
Almost daily professors would talk about how we should treat our wives with respect and, often times, would forget to use inclusive language when talking about ministers. My initial reaction was anger! “I don’t have a wife!” I thought, but then mentally scolded myself for being overly sensitive. But those subtle messages continued to surface from professors, staff, students, and even female colleagues. Our textbooks did not do much better at including us and when referring to a pastor, the books always spoke in masculine terms. I felt excluded in many ways but did not speak too openly about it, for fear of more rejection, exclusion, and labeling.
When we began reading some of the Early Church fathers and studying their views on women, the whole subject only became more depressing. During this time, I began to read a book called Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd that really helped me make sense of the things I was experiencing. She had gone through a similar experience and quoted a Catholic Theologian by the name of Elizabeth A. Johnson who talks about the way women have been perceived throughout the history of Christianity and the baggage we carry today because of it:
“For most of [the church’s] history women have been subordinated in theological theory and ecclesial practice at ever turn. Until very recently they have been consistently defined as mentally, morally and physically inferior to men, created only partially in the image of God, even a degrading symbol of evil. Women’s sexuality has been derided as unclean and its use governed by norms laid down by men. Conversely, they have been depersonalized as a romantic, unsexed ideal whose fulfillment lies mainly in motherhood. . . They are called to honor a male savior sent by a male God whose legitimate representatives can only be male, all of which places their persons precisely as female in a peripheral role. Their femaleness is judged to be not suitable as a metaphor for speech about God. In a word, women occupy a marginal place in the official life of the church.”
Some days at the Seminary were worse than others, and many days confirmed that people still believed what Early Christianity believed about women. I remember one history class where we were studying about slavery and women’s suffrage. One classmate raised his hand in a class discussion and bluntly stated, “I don’t see any Biblical basis for the oppression or the liberation of women . . . but I am totally for women’s ordination.” This comment came on the heels of another comment he had made about slavery that was overtly racist in nature and most of the class could not believe the guy had spoken up again. I was just curious what “Bible” he had been reading.
It seemed that I was constantly being bombarded from every side by issues of gender. Ironically, around the time that all of these issues surfaced for, I was nominated as president of Andrews University Women’s Clergy Network—an association at the Seminary that seeks to support women seminarians and connect them with other women on a similar journey. I remember thinking that God must be playing a cruel joke on me because I had always steered clear of any women’s groups that were going to get me labeled as a “feminist lunatic” or a “man hater.” So when I was asked to be the president of Women’s Clergy Network, I was a bit reluctant at first. And yet God knew that I needed these women and their support perhaps more than they needed my leadership.
I think it was God’s way of launching me into a new journey of life—a journey that would help me embrace who I was as a woman and build a support system of women around me. I cannot tell you how meaningful and incredible this journey has been so far.
During this journey, I found myself becoming more and more aware of how ingrained these ideas about women are, both in society and Christianity, and how those ideas affect our identity as women. A secretary in one of the Seminary offices called me over one time to watch a video on Facebook. The video had been posted by a male seminarian and was entitled, “Idiot She Drivers.”
Normally something of this nature would not have even fazed me, but while we were watching the secretary began making comments such as “Can you believe this broad?” and “Who are these chicks?” I was devastated, yet I knew that if I were honest with myself, I could think of times where I had made similar comments and assumptions. As women we are subtly given messages that we are crazy broads who can’t drive, can’t do math, and certainly can’t be ministers. And the craziest thing is that we believe what we hear and often we become our own worst enemies.
I learned and continue to learn many lessons at the “The All Boys School.” I have learned to embrace who I am as a woman called by God. I have learned to embrace or at least attempt to understand those who do not think or believe like me. I have built a support system of women and men from all over the world who will be lifelong friends. I have paid my dues, but if I had not come here I would have not had the chance to interact with wonderful professors, staff, and students. The strange thing about God’s will is that, often times, I find that I am smack dab in the middle of it, even in the most awkward places.
One of my favorite song writer Sara Groves writes a song with a line that runs through my head constantly. She writes: “Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces, calling out the best of who we are.” Wow! That’s it. This all boys school, as human as it is, as strange as it seems at times is part of my story—part of my story of redemption. And as painful as it has been at times, God has been growing me in the process and has been challenging me “to do justly.” Not merely justice for women, but for all those who find themselves marginalized in one way or another. God continues to challenge me “to love mercy.”
To extend grace to those who are not gracious—myself included. And he has been mostly challenging me “to walk humbly.” To remember that we are all sinful humans in need of grace. We are all on our own journey to wholeness and redemption. So I find myself thankful for my time at the Seminary, in spite of the challenges. I am Thankful for the growth, for the grace, and lastly that I never have to stand in line in the women’s restroom!