Where faith and mamahood meet

Friday, May 03, 2013

By Darcy Baxter

Dark. Cold. In the desert.

This is where she finds herself—a pregnant woman. A soon-to-be mama. Whether it’s mothers and families risking perilous journey through a literal desert or WASPY suburban housewives trying to survive the metaphorical desert of hermetic isolation, perfectionism, and despair, too many of our mamas find themselves in the desert. Just like Hagar—dark, cold, and alone.

According to Genesis 16, Hagar was an Egyptian girl enslaved to Abraham’s wife Sarah. Sarah, unable to bear a child, gives Hagar to Abraham as a wife in hopes that Hagar will bear a son that Sarah can raise as her own. Once pregnant, Hagar acts a little “uppity” and Sarah treats her harshly. Rather than submit to harsh treatment, Hagar runs away into the desert.

When we are in a dark, cold place, many of us can yearn for the thing that some call G-d more than ever. We imagine that G-d’s presence would be comforting.

But G-d does not always work that way. Life is just not that easy.

Hagar knows this better than most. Alone and pregnant in the dark, cold desert, G-d visits Hagar here and tells Hagar to return and submit to Sarah’s abuses—for Hagar will bear a son who will be the ancestor of great nations.

Somehow, I don’t think that was the advice or help Hagar was hoping for.

Many (often white) feminists have used this passage to reveal the inherent patriarchy and oppression of Abrahamic traditions. They are not wrong.

And they are not entirely right. It is true that G-d did not liberate Hagar. But G-d did point Hagar in the direction of survival.

In this story, G-d sees Hagar. G-d sees the reality of her predicament. G-d sees her suffering, sees her alone in the dark, cold desert. Alone and pregnant. G-d does not liberate Hagar from her predicament, but G-d does point to what Delores Williams calls “a way out of no way.” And perhaps, G-d’s pointing in this direction to “a way out of no way” is as much power as G-d has.

Because in order to reach liberation, one must first survive.

I imagine some of you may be feeling tense with the 13 mentions of the word G-d so far. Whenever my progressive brother and sisters react negatively to anything that smacks of “religion,” I recognize the pain, suffering, and trauma from which such responses come. I also know that no social justice movement in the United States, if not the world, has thrived without attending to the spiritual needs of the people. Without a capacity for faith, without offering people opportunities to exercise that mental muscle in believing what is not yet real, social movements wither. I speak not of faith in a transcendent being—I speak of the faith of abolitionists, suffrage activists, and civil rights activists. The faith that made Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.

Too often, we make assumptions about how something like G-d’s power should work. We assume that something like what we call G-d would have the kind of power to offer immediate and absolute freedom. We assume that G-d could have offered absolute and ultimate liberation to Hagar. Not coincidentally, I meet many advocates and activists who are frustrated, if not despairing, by their relative lack of this kind of power as well. Williams’ “a way out of no way” can reveal a certain hubris and presumption weaving together many liberals’ framework for living and activism.

Life is messy. Mamahood is complicated. Mother’s Day is too simplified and sugary-sweet. Power is too narrowly understood.

This is why I need a Mama’s Day. This is why I am co-creating the “All Mama’s Matter” service. Because in our struggles for justice, I need a space where we can tell the realness of our lives and our mamahoods and not try to reduce it all day to a singular story or experience. Because I think in our movement for reproductive and family justice, we need some time to just experience the fullness of the pain, joy, sorrow, and promise of living and working for justice, compassion, and dignity. I need Mama’s Day because too many of us find ourselves alone in a desert, working too hard just to survive. And in the middle of this desert we need a sanctuary, we need an oasis. May this upcoming Mama’s Day be such an oasis.

Darcy Baxter is a minister and family/reproductive justice activist, currently serving a congregation in Hayward, CA. Darcy also serves as a Regional Organizer for the CA Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and is a member of the Center for American Progress' Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. Throughout her time as a religious leader, Darcy has continually focused her theological and ministry work on pregnant women and mothers and the community of professionals, advocates, and activists who serve them. You can read more about her work at www.darcybaxter.com

This blog post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

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