EDITOR’S NOTE: This article by Rev. Susan Chorley is part of the Radvent series, a daily devotional for radicals and would-be radicals.
“I wonder if there is a time in every woman’s life when she feels like swallowing stones. Perhaps she wonders why her period is late or wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, or comes across a list of her body parts divided into numbers. Does it make her want to swallow stones? Large, smooth ones, gulping them down. I imagine them settling into my stomach, a pile, then waking into a pond, not to die, but to sink the body, while only my spirit emerges from the water. Much cleaner, I could start over, unencumbered.” — Chanel Miller, Know My Name
There comes a time in most young women’s lives when we are taught that the best thing we can do is to remain silent about our truth. We know what happens to us when we don’t shut up. Just look at the experience of Christine Blasey Ford or Anita Hill, Sandra Bland or Rev. Amy Butler, and long before any of these examples, Tamar or Hagar. Early on, we learn that our bodies are not our own and our voices are often not believed. We watch closely how our mothers, our sisters, our teachers, and our politicians are treated when they speak out against injustice, harassment and abuse. As young girls, we learn intimately what it is like to be punished; we hear the stories of public shaming of women for generations. Many of us decide the best thing to do is to stay quiet, to push down our trauma, to hide our reality. And, who can blame us?
My ministerial career is about creating sacred space for women to share their stories. It is a space that I desperately needed, and a place the church is often not completely capable of being. These circles of women across generations have offered me a space to listen, to learn, to sing, to pray, to weep, to share and to discover over and over again that I am not alone. I have heard women share stories of failed marriages, parenting challenges, experiencing sexual abuse by family members, and decisions to end a pregnancy. And all too often, these are stories they have never shared. They have swallowed them down like Chanel Miller’s stones.
Something beautiful happens when women share their stories. There is a lightness that comes upon us, an experience of healing, an opportunity to see our connection with one another — however painful — and to know this story is not our only story.
This Advent season I have been thinking a lot about Mary, who when visited by the angel who spoke of her chosen-ness, did not remain silent. Mary opened her mouth to sing, reminiscent of the words of Maya Angelou in “Caged Bird” :
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
This 15 year old, unmarried Jewish girl boldly dares to open her mouth and sing. And in her singing she tells her truth and God’s truth with a boldness and a clarity that leaves us in awe. She was not silent. She was bold. And in her singing she proclaims the message of a Gospel filled with love and justice and care for the least of these, including and certainly not limited to her own self.
In Know My Name, Chanel Miller writes a painfully personal memoir of a young woman faced with staying silent in the face of sexual assault. Many of us know this story all too well. Miller’s narrative shows us her way in and through the experience of understanding what happened to her, and then deciding it was worth speaking her truth out loud. She shares about the deluge of emails, cards, and letters she received following the release of her victim impact statement. Her story matters because in her telling it, her story becomes ours.
This Advent season, what is your message to the little girls in your community? What are the stories you want them to know? How can we be vehicles of hope moving toward joy in a world that is broken on the backs of women and girls over and over and over again? How will you open your mouth and bravely let your community know, as Mary did, that our God is a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” In fact, God will always side with the oppressed. Sing that truth out loud for future generations who are desperately seeking a way out of this silence that was never meant to be our inheritance.