RICHMOND, Va. — There's a scene from the Oscar-winning film Precious — the story of a black teenager sexually abused by her father but trying to change her life by going to school — where she tells her class that she also has contracted AIDS from him.
“Write!” her teacher urges. In tears, a plaintive “Why me?” written on an otherwise blank notebook page, her teacher says again, “Write!”
About 50 women at the annual gathering of Virginia Baptist Women in Ministry sat in near tearful silence after hearing that scene described before Baptist minister Lynda Weaver-Williams asked, “What would happen if one woman would tell the truth about her life?”
In a converted gymnasium that is now the sanctuary at Northminster Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., the ministers, seminary students and laypersons gathered April 16 to share bread and stories, recipes, art, music, dance and worship in what co-organizer Suzanne Vinson called a “feast of word, table and image as worship.”
“This is a very rich, dense event,” said Vinson, and women in ministry needed “an opportunity to come together, share their voice and become one voice.”
The theme of the meeting was very much about “voice” as there was singing, responsive reading, performed music and a lovely ballet piece by the Radiant Light Ballet company — a small, but eager to grow, Christian ballet company based in Richmond.
Women spoke their stories and shared experiences.
“Let's hear it for women!” said Patti Christmas of Colonial Heights. “We're here to get some feeding, a different perspective and some joy.”
The centerpiece, however, was a powerful sermon by Weaver-Williams, instructor in religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, about the need for women to “speak up with a loud voice for the right thing.”
Weaver-Williams focused on the story of Susannah — a beautiful and devout Jewish wife in Babylon who refused the advances of two Jewish elders who found her in the garden. She was wrongly accused of adultery and put on trial, but Susannah did not remain silent and cried out to God.
“It's her cry, her voice that changes the story,” said Weaver-Williams who said Susannah changed from silent victim of rape to empowerment and salvation.
“Silence and shame,” she said, “is what they [the elders] had hoped she would do,” and silence and shame is what abusers continue to hope for in their victims. Today, said Weaver-Williams, women across the world continue to suffer, offering grim statistics: “Ten million women and girls in China forced into prostitution; women in Congo who are the victims of war rape; Afghan women and girls who are disfigured for going to school; and here in the U.S., one in four college women who are the victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.”
Weaver-Williams is a co-founder of VBWIM, which marks its 22nd year this year. At VCU, her courses include women and religion, women in the Bible, women and social justice and religion and film.
“What would happen if women spoke the truth about their lives?” she again asked: “The world would split open and be reformed by divine love.”
The women at the festival were as varied as the event, from those in jeans and clogs to the more traditionally professionally-attired professors and students. There were a few men sprinkled in the crowd (including this reporter), and although the message was at times stark and blunt, the event was about women and those who would support them.
Judy Bailey — also a founding member of VBWIM — described its mission this way: “This is about creating community, creating awareness of the institutions and structures that shape us; it is about professional development with different approaches to different events.”
“Last year,” she said, “was the first year we focused on women preaching. … A lot of people had never heard a woman preach before.”
In her concluding remarks, Weaver-Williams quoted Audre Lorde, a child of Caribbean immigrant parents, poet and writer who wrote these words while dying of cancer: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” And, returning to the pivotal scene from the movie Precious, Weaver-Williams quoted the teacher’s remarks: “You must not be silent, you must cry out. … It will keep you alive.”
Although Susannah was saved in the biblical story, the implication against her — that she was enticing, erotic, even vain — persisted through the centuries from a male perspective, said Weaver-Williams. Several Renaissance painters – all men — consistently depicted the scene as erotic, as something contrived by Susannah.
It was not until a woman painted it in the 17th century — Artemesia Gentileschi, a woman who herself was to be the victim of rape — that the story changed. “Sexual persecution — does it take a woman to figure this out?” asked Weaver-Williams plainly.
You won't hear this message on a typical Sunday in a Baptist church. These women are determined to change that.
The event was co-sponsored by Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia, Baptist Women in Ministry, The Resource Center, Woman's Missionary Union of Virginia and the Religious Herald. Information about VBWIM can be found at www.womeninminstry.org.
Stephen Dareing is a contributing writer for the Religious Herald. He is a staff writer for the Rappahannock News in Washington, Va., and a student at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.