Danielle De Luna
The #MeToo movement. Surviving oppression. Social justice. The “Black Feminism and Sacred Text” workshop explores how faith informs black women’s lives and an understanding of important social movements like these.
The four-week-long faith and justice workshop, which began Oct. 18, challenged people to understand how faith and identity intersect in a world filled with suffering.
University Chaplain Zandra Wagoner and graduate student Jasmine Marchbanks-Owens co-facilitated the workshop to provide insight and perspective from their areas of expertise.
Marchbanks-Owens’ knowledge of social justice praxis and Wagoner’s knowledge of Jewish traditions encouraged a womanist interpretation of spirituality and the Jewish practice of midrash.
The first session explored the story of Sarah and Hagar in the book of Genesis.
The details of their abuse, suffering and chosen methods of survival generated a somber discussion about sexual violence and God’s existence amid adversity.
“The beauty of the Bible is that it has the good, bad and ugly and we have to confront that,” Wagoner said.
Sarah and Hagar’s methods of survival demonstrated how women manage to survive in unsafe environments, and sometimes abuse each other in the process.
“We’re talking so much about sexual violence these days, and this impulse and energy to liberate oneself,” Wagoner said. “But the answer is that we can liberate ourselves through solidarity.”
Jasmine Marchbanks-Owens’ mother, Wanda Marchbanks-Owens, shared her own experience and interpretation of faith and suffering.
“I was born in a town in Alabama where there were a lot of lynchings,” Wanda Marchbanks-Owens said. “We know a lot about the suffering and because of that we have an appreciation for the people that suffered. It is what pushed me forward, and I am always appreciative of the people that came before.”
Professor of English Cathy Irwin said she was intrigued by the idea of womanism and bought the workshop’s companion text “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne” by Wilda C. Gafney.
“I was so excited when I heard about this, I bought the book immediately,” Irwin said. “What I love about [womanism] is that it’s an intellectual approach but it’s non-hierarchical.”
Wagoner defines womanism as black feminism that is often used in a spiritual context.
“It is woman loving and woman centered, but never at anyone else’s expense,” Wagoner said. “It’s not just for women, but men and families.”
Midrash, the practice of interpreting sacred text and arguing with its contents, offers an opportunity to understand faith from this black, female point of view, Wagoner said.
“Midrash is like jazz, it’s a riff on the Holy Bible, and its seen as holy as well,” Wagoner said. “This is a womanist riff on these texts, where we can explore how women fit into the divine narrative.”
The second session held on Oct. 25 detailed the story of Miriam, Moses’s sister, and addressed the act of passing as white in the black community.
“Moses, like many light skinned black people years ago, went to live with another family because his sister understood there was a privilege in being Egyptian,” Jasmine Marchbanks-Owens said.
Though Miriam is spoken of little in her youth, her role in propelling Moses to safety was integral to his survival. Her story was analogized to the stories of the women of the civil rights movement.
“In the civil rights movement it has been women of color leading,” Jasmine Marchbanks-Owens said. “Women were the key figures calling the shots behind the scenes.”
If you would like to learn more about the midrash and womanism, the last session of the workshop will be held Thursday in the Interfaith Chapel seminar room.
Danielle De Luna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.