The Muslim, the Christian, the Zen Buddhist and the priestess of a goddess community could not have been more different religiously and racially. But last Sunday, the four women met on the common ground of feminist spirituality as they shared their faith journeys in a religious world still largely dominated by men.
At the inaugural colloquium of a new feminist spirituality center in Long Beach, the four speakers discussed their struggles and revelations with more than two dozen women. There was Catherine Wright, a former Roman Catholic nun who left the vocation--and denomination--amid a growing gap between the church's dogma and her inner spiritual life awakened by reading such female mystics as Julian of Norwich. Now she is a priestess with the Temple of Isis, a goddess community.
There was Wendy Egyoku Nakao, who last year was installed as abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.
Tiffany Horton grew up as an American Baptist, was initially drawn to the Nation of Islam's creed of black empowerment and eventually converted to mainstream Islam six years ago.
Grace Jones Moore rejected her fundamentalist Christian upbringing--and her parents' belief that women should not teach men--to become a minister, now retired, with the progressive United Church of Christ. Today, she honors not only Jesus but also Sophia, the female divine manifestation of wisdom.
"I identify myself as a Christian feminist crone--in other words, I am a wise old woman," Moore declared to the group.
The lively discussion was the first of the monthly colloquia planned by FEASST, the new center dedicated to exploring and supporting social justice and feminist spirituality among all faiths and backgrounds. The FEASST name is an acronym of the center's areas of focus--feminism, education, action, spirituality, support, thealogy (deliberately spelled in the feminine form)--and connotes the bounty of Mother Earth that women have traditionally represented, Wright said.
The center also, in a sense, represents the circle of life, death and rebirth that feminist spiritual rituals often emphasize. FEASST is being started to fill the vacuum created by the demise of the acclaimed master's program in feminist spirituality at Immaculate Heart College Center in Los Angeles. The program, the first of its kind in the nation when it began in 1984, will close this June after a long struggle with shaky finances and declining enrollment.
Immaculate Heart graduates say the program revolutionized their religious thinking by presenting the exciting and then-new work of feminist theologians who were challenging such teachings as Eve causing humankind's downfall. Women began questioning religious symbols that reflected male values: the divine as warrior or king, rather than as nurturing mother. They began creating new rituals, prayers, litanies and songs.
"It was awesome. It shifted all my paradigms," said Josephine Kirkpatrick, co-president of the Immaculate Heart College Alumnae Assn., who audited 20 classes, including the first one offered.
The life-changing impact, however, hasn't been enough to sustain the program. "While women who have been through this program say it has been a transformative experience, this isn't something that puts money in the coffers," said Mary Kirchen, Immaculate Heart board chairwoman. "Closing the program is something that deeply saddens us."
Lynn Lakers, one of FEASST's founders, said the new center would seek to broaden its base from Immaculate Heart's largely Christian feminist focus. Each colloquium, for instance, will be balanced between Christian and non-Christian religions, and adherents of goddess faiths will be fully embraced.
When it launches its academic program, the center will aim to offset the high cost of maintaining a campus by offering courses over the Internet and through affiliations with existing institutions, Lakers added.
But the center will still face many of the challenges that bedeviled Immaculate Heart. For that Roman Catholic community, the challenge of marketing a feminist spirituality program began with its very name.
"A lot of people think of feminism as bra-burning and hating men rather than being something positive for women, while 'spirituality' bothers a lot of other people who think of forced religion, rules and regulations," Kirkpatrick said. "Putting them together threatened a lot of people."
The Immaculate Heart community had already lost the support of several wealthy donors after some of its nuns clashed with the Catholic hierarchy over the order's change to modern dress and other issues and transformed themselves into an independent lay sisterhood in 1970. The small college center could not afford a full-time development officer or marketing director.