How important are the stories we carry in our hearts! They guide our lives and nurture our growth. Evelyn Fulton, a lifelong advocate for women and the first woman to graduate from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary in 1949, recalled: “My mother, and my father, too, always said ‘You can do anything you want in this world.'”
For the past two years–2005 and 2006–we women have been telling our stories. We have laughed, cried, and been amazed again at what God has called us to do. In our stories is the history of the Presbyterian Church opening its ministries to women.
On the DVD, “Women’s Ordination: Past, Present & Future,” thirteen of these wonderful women tell their stories. They all eventually became successful as pastors, executives, community leaders, moderators, and theologians, but it was not easy. The DVD was produced by the Women’s Ordination Mission Team of Chicago Presbytery to be sure these women’s stories can be an inspiration to a new generation of women and men.
The first disc of the DVD, “Women’s Ministry: Past, Present & Future” is designed as an educational resource. It tells the history of the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church, beginning with John Calvin, using the stories of the thirteen women interviewed. It is moving to hear their stories in their own words. They graciously share their hard times and their good times. Each of the three sessions ends with discussion questions.
On the second disc six women recall their journeys toward ordination. Pictures fill in the childhood, ordination services, and early ministry of the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Campbell, the Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon, the Rev. Evelyn Fulton, the Rev. Magdalena Garcia, Elder Ann Beran Jones, and Elder Mary Jane Patterson.
Before the1900’s, public leadership and ordination were for men. Evelyn Fulton noted, “Nobody ever said you could be a pastor.” Sexism was the norm. When Mary Jane Patterson applied for the position as director of the Washington Office, “I was not discriminated against because I was a Negro … I was discriminated against because I was a woman. … [They said] ‘We want a man in this job.'”
There were no suitable women models. Cynthia Campbell, who is now president of McCormick Theological Seminary, had never seen “a woman in leadership, from the front” in her home church in Pasadena, California. When Peggy Howland shared her experience of God’s call with her pastor, his reply was, “Well, I guess that means you can’t get married.” Joann Lee, a seminary student from a Korean congregation in Houston, Texas, reports she first saw women in leadership when she attended national Presbyterian youth conferences. Katie Cannon, who was the first African-American Presbyterian clergywoman, speaks of “the loneliness of the front runner because there was no one to check in with.”
But things changed. In 1952 when Margaret Towner went to seminary. She was advised by pastors in Syracuse Presbytery to take the full theological course because “ordination may happen.” It did and the same group of pastors engineered her ordination in October 1956.
Stories of anxiety, rejection, and hard work turn into stories of accomplishment. Carol Rose Ikeler starts an ecumenical urban ministry project in Philadelphia. Ann Beran Jones is elected an elder in the church her husband pastors. She enters into activities in presbytery and synod and is elected moderator of Chicago Presbytery in 2002. That same year the moderator of the 214th General Assembly, the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, appoints her vice-moderator of the General Assembly. Rhashell Hunter and Magdalena Garcia lead the new generation of pastors of racial-ethnic congregations. Martha Juillerat’s Shower of Stoles collection has grown to over a thousand stoles and are catalogued online. Mary Elva Smith heads the office of Women’s Ministries and provides leadership for a spectacular two years of Celebrations called “Tending the Flame: Women Called to Lead.”
Mary Jane Patterson tells the story of the day her mother found her in tears as she was reading about Jews in Germany. Her mother put her arms around Mary Jane and said, “Now, hon, you know you can do something about that.” Mary Jane Patterson went on to become a leader in the civil rights movement, a missionary in Kenya, and director of the Washington Office of the United Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA) “doing something about the ills of society.”
The call to “do something about the ills of society” has sent women into the world to partner with God in nurturing the peace and well-being of God’s children. In 2005 and 2006 we celebrate the removal of the church’s barriers to women’s ministries. This movement has been “A Flame in our hearts; a Fire in our bones!”1 We give thanks to God for the women who are lighting the way.
Eunice Blanchard Poethig is currently moderator of the Women’s Ordination Mission Team of Chicago Presbytery. She is a former Mission Co-worker in the Philippines, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Western New York, and director of the Congregational Ministries Division, GAC.
1 Woosley, Louisa, Shall Women Preach? 1891