Monday, 31 March 2014

Growing, as a woman of faith

It’s taking a lot of courage for me to write this post. But it’s something that I feel I have to do, to at least get my thoughts and feelings out of my head.

I have spent the last two weeks in New York at the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This is, essentially, the United Nations gender equality conference. However, I have also spent the last three weeks grappling with some of the biggest issues I have ever had to deal with. I want to tell my story as I believe it will set the scene for future posts, but it has also hugely affected the way I have experienced this year’s CSW and my feelings about being a woman. Please bear with me, and I promise this will be related to gender equality eventually, I just need to set the scene first.

At the end of 2013 I came up with lots of New Year’s resolutions, many of which I shared with those around me. However there was one I didn’t share, and that was my determination to start going back to church.
I grew up in a Christian family and was confirmed when I was 13, but somewhere in my teens I lost my way. Trying to deal with my increasing levels of self-hatred and desperate desire to have a boyfriend – to be accepted – I guess I didn’t understand how Christianity fitted into my life. I didn’t want to have to tell people I was a Christian as I could imagine the scorn on their faces and I didn’t see a God who loved me, let alone feel His presence.

As I grew up I met more and more amazing Christians but I ignored the placement of every single one of them in my life. Occasionally I would pray (and lie in bed at night panicking that if the world ended tomorrow I would go to Hell) but it wasn’t enough to sustain any sort of real change.

Then I hit a turning point.

I don’t want to go into too much detail here as it’s very private and you don’t have all day to read about me, but I did something that forced me to re-evaluate the self-hatred and destructiveness that was still engrained in me, and look at the sort of person I was being. I destroyed one of the most precious parts of my life.

At that time I prayed to God more than I ever had before. I promised him that if He gave me back that precious part of my life then, in return, I would follow Him. Not really a smart move, as you should never test the Lord, but it created a shift in me. I didn’t start following God as I should have been, but I suddenly knew that I wanted to be a better person.
And gradually, I became one. I became kinder, more loving, I developed an enormous passion for the empowerment of girls and women and I suddenly desperately wanted a job which did some good in the world. In hindsight, if God wasn’t making those changes then I honestly don’t know who was, because it wasn’t me alone!

Moving forward to 2014 then, I’m not completely sure what made me decide to start going back to Church. I had never particularly enjoyed the Church we went to in Hastings for a variety of reasons so it wasn’t like I had fond memories that I missed.

However a few months previously I had attended one of my best friend’s baptisms and I fell in love with his Church. It was the most welcoming, relaxed and accepting Church I had ever been in. It had a huge youth presence that I actually felt I could relate to and, for the first time, the sermon meant something to me. I felt God’s presence around me. Unfortunately that was a visit back to Hastings, and not an option for somewhere I could start attending permanently.

Anyway… so I found a Church, took a deep breath, and went. All the while my boyfriend assured me I had his full support, even if he didn’t quite understand what I was going through. I liked it, but it left me feeling guilty. Mainly guilty about the way I was playing out my relationship, but also defensive. I couldn’t deal with everyone’s friendliness and bombardment of questions about me. I wanted to quietly reflect and go through the process alone, not feel I had to answer questions and reveal bits about myself. I was also (and still am) terrified of their judgment.

So I didn’t go for a couple of weeks and tried to suppress the feeling that kept pulling at the back of my mind. But finally, I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

I sat my boyfriend down and for the first time in my whole life I explained to someone, through tears, what I felt and what I believed. I explained that God had created the world and He loved every single one of us more than we’d ever understand or imagine. I explained that we’d turned away from Him but instead of Him cutting us off, He sent His only son, Jesus Christ, down to earth to pay for our sins through a horrific and agonizing death. I explained that through a personal relationship with Jesus, and by putting our trust in Him, we could reach God and live our life without the burden of worry or fear, instead knowing that with Him we never walked alone.

So the hard part was over, right? No, not quite…
It had been so long since I’d ever really thought about any of what it meant to be a Christian that I have spent the last few weeks utterly confused.
Thankfully I have some incredible friends who have really supported me with the best advice I could have wished for, and I also have an amazing Dad (not God this time, but my earthly Dad) whose understanding of the Bible, its complexity and context has really helped me. I look back to my earlier acknowledgement of the people who God had placed in my life and am incredibly thankful that they are here now, when I need them the most.

Growing, as a woman of faith
Illustration by Gary Hunt -

But that’s probably enough about me right now. What’s most important for this space is how this links in to gender equality and being a woman. What does God say and feel about women?

To say I’d been dropped in the deep end is an understatement really. I wasn’t only dealing with questions about my personal life; suddenly I was also having to deal with HUGE global issues on an international stage.
I was surrounded by everyone from the Holy See (the Vatican’s representation in the UN) who was telling me that a woman’s true calling is in the home, raising a family, to women (and men) of faith holding events on how it is the responsibility of faith leaders in communities to stop the instances of gendered-based violence that are so often carried out under the guise of ‘religion’ and to stand up for women’s human rights.
On one hand I had a Bible with the words “the wife is the weaker vessel” written in it and on the other hand I was reading posts from one of my most inspirational Facebook friends, who does a great deal of work for the empowerment of girls and young women, about how thankful she is to God for her life and how much she trusts in Him.
I’ve spent over two weeks stuck between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ pickets, feeling inferior because I don’t think it’s as simple as that, and not really having anyone to talk to.

So I don’t know a lot at the moment, as you can probably tell, but I do know this…

God loves us all equally and wants the best for us all. I’m not supposed to know all the answers – my job is to love and never judge. Today, women of faith lead worship and Churches, go to work and some choose not to get married or have children. Religion should never be used as an excuse to justify the patriarchal society we live in; which often leads to child and forced marriage, widow inheritance, female genital mutilation/cutting, rape outside and inside of marriage and other horrific discrimination. While the Bible continues to intrigue, confuse and upset me, I trust that God would not have created us if we were meant to be an inferior sex.
Religion should also never be used to discriminate against anyone or take away anyone’s human rights. We, as humans, do not have the right to do this. But at the same time, society must be willing to let go of their assumptions about people of faith and be willing to work together for a fairer and more just world where everyone is equal. As we advocate for freedom of speech, we must also remember freedom of faith.

A long time ago, one of my friends said something to me which has stuck with me every day since:
“Religion means to be bound, and in Christ you are set free.”

This is not an excuse to live your life however you want but more to highlight that Christianity is about having a faith and relationship with Jesus, not about following a set of rules in the hope it will make you a good enough person for heaven. It is our job to trust in Him and to consult Him in all our decisions.

I am a woman. And now I am growing into a woman of faith. I am a human being and I deserve to live in a world where men and women have equal opportunities and support each other with love and understanding. I deserve to live in a world where men are allowed to cry and look after the children and where women can lead a debate in a board room.
And I believe that a world of equality, love and kindness is what God wants.

I will leave you with my favourite Bible verse:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
Proverbs 3:5

P.S. I would love any support or advice anyone has to offer. If you have criticisms, please be gentle!