Persevering Past The #hashtag
By: Beth Olker, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)
Last week, at the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women, I had the opportunity to sit in on presentations made by women and men from across the world. I learned about the ever-changing struggle for equality for all people in basically all aspects of the world (education, vocation, church, and politics) where being any other demographic than a cis-gendered male can serve as an obstacle or a disability-as one speaker named it. I heard from female heads of state, athletes, engineers, teachers, artists, clergy, entrepreneurs and journalists and was consistently amazed by the power of perseverance weaving these stories together.
I also sat in rooms where women were speaking, not about accomplishments in work or school, but about their fight just to survive in our world, and their efforts to make life a little safer for other women and girls. I listened as Tehiliah Eisenhart, a spiritual educator at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, spoke about how one morning, three years ago, she read in the news about the girls kidnapped in Nigeria and decided to keep a blog counting the days that go by until the girls are found. I heard from R. Evon Benson-Idahosa, a lawyer who quit her job as a partner in a firm to work for the rescue of these kidnapped Nigerian girls. Again, their stories rang of perseverance.
Perseverance can be summed up, I think, as the work that goes beyond the hashtag moment-how willing you are to stick around when life shows up and the arc of justice refuses to bend on your schedule. In our society, there is no lack of tragedies and injustices to confront, and no short supply of hashtags, but how are the moments after the hashtag? Are the rooms still filled with interested volunteers and activists a month later? A year later? Once the next tragedy strikes? How long do we stand with our neighbors with our feet on the ground?
And then, if we really want to stick around, what is our next step? As a young, white, Christian female, I sometimes leave the story because of my fear of becoming the story-of my presence or voice overtaking the work of more traditionally marginalized justice-seekers. I stand so far back (telling myself it is because I don’t want to become the voice for someone else’s movement) that I back myself out of community, and in doing so my silence becomes my consent of “the way it has always been”. In these situations, my inaction becomes my action. My solidarity weakens as I feel less useful and like change isn’t happening quickly enough. I place myself in a pattern of disconnect. As a member of a privileged community, I have never been forced to persevere when I want to give up. It seems that there will always be a voice for my rights, my life, and my humanity whether it is my voice or not.
To break this pattern, I am having to teach myself perseverance-and let me tell you, I am failing just as often as I am showing glimmers of success! The quality of my life doesn’t depend on me showing up in most justice-seeking endeavors. And yet, if I adhere to the Christian faith I profess, my life does depend on me showing up because my life, my future, and my hope for better days to come are tied intricately with the lives of my sisters and brothers, who face daily dangers in a world that seems so safe for me. During the Commission on the Status of Women, we, members of Ecumenical Women, gathered for worship each morning one morning, the service ended with us singing I need you to survive-a gospel song by Hezekiah Walker. The first verse of this song says:
I need you, you need me
We’re all a part of God’s body
Stand with me, agree with me
We’re all a part of God’s body
It is God’s will that every need be supplied
You are important to me
I need you to survive
My faith that is built upon the narrative of a nomadic people constantly called to be hospitable and just to all people; it is based on stories of a radical teacher who came to the world to eat with those society held at arm’s length from any proper table, and who had the audacity to stand up for and with those marginalized and exploited to the point of his own unjust death on a cross. If I profess this faith, I must set my sights on solidarity with others that perseveres. If I truly believe that we are all part of God’s body, I must do more than show up and shut up. I must show up, stand beside, and speak in harmony with the fellowship of people with whom God has so richly blessed my life both those I know personally and those whose stories I come to hear as I open myself to listen for where I am being called.
For now, during Holy Week, this perseverance looks likes staying connected with and supporting the ministries I see my friends and neighbors engaged in to make this world a better, more just place. It means following blogs and reading more about issues I furiously scribbled into my journal as I sat through hours and hours of panel discussions during CSW. It means actually spending time in prayer, asking God to be with those fighting against the evils of this world, both those whom I love and those whose stories I may never hear. It means spending some time in the creative spaces, writing prayers and blog posts about justice work, where I feel my voice coming through more freely and more authentically than it ever seems to in the middle of a large group of people. It means getting on my social media and sharing the wisdom I gain from the brilliant people I know and subscribe to. It means staying in the difficult spaces even when I want to pretend that the world is as safe as I was able to grow up thinking it was-and it also means giving myself the grace to get back in and try again when I fail.
I cannot persevere alone. I cannot do the work of justice alone (and nobody is asking me to). I can practice sticking around after the hashtag; and even if I fail 99 times and succeed just once, I am growing as a member of God’s body and am one step closer to living what I believe: “I need you (all y’all) to survive.”