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Celebrating diversity of Catholic women.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Exhilaration and pain, humor and hope marked the Women-Church Convergence Weavers of Change conference here, a three-day gathering that many participants portrayed as part of a birthing process.

Many women said they were giving life to greater religious and cultural diversity in the Women-Church movement and to move varied expressions of acting as church.

Indeed, the meeting was characterized by such things as welcomes in Spanish and English, Native American drum and pipe ceremonies, an Isleta Pueblo Indian buffalo dance and prayers invoking Our Lady of Guadalupe as well as various gods and goddesses.

Divinity and diversity

Despite its Catholic roots, the conference, in its exhibits, seemed to point to a broader, still emerging feminist religious culture. Goddesses imagery, ethnic crafts, medicinal herbs and books about women's spirituality abounded.

Christian artifacts were decidedly nontraditional and included such things as a hand-carved necklace with a female figure on a cross and paintings of an African-American Eden. Politics stood side by side with religion; booths included literature about Catholics For a Free Choice, refugee rights and other issues.

Workshops were also varied. Clustered into categories of Hispanic, African-American, Native American, Asian-American, Euro-American and lesbian/bisexual concerns, workshop topics ranged from balancing work and family to battling breast cancer.

Major plenary sessions focused on education and violence, keynoted by Muslim, Filipina and Native American women.

But while the almost 2,500 participants strived for inclusiveness, many noted that Women-Church is still comprised mostly of middle-income, white women who often referred to themselves as "Euro-Americans."

Trickle-down tourism

Noting that most of the women in the Convention Center auditorium did not look like her, Maria Antoinetta Berriozabal said in a keynote speech that the way to build bridges across cultures is to work for economic justice.

"It is not our people who enjoy the benefits found here," said Berriozabal of minorities in the Southwest. A community activist, she served on the San Antonio City Council for 10 years.

Citing San Antonio as an example, Berriozabal said minimum-wage jobs produced by tourism have created a new class of working poor. Meanwhile, public investment has focused on such things as theme parks and resort hotels on the edges of the cities, far from where jobs are most needed.

Berriozabal said that Hispanics, who form 56 percent of San Antonio's population, have no role in planning the city's economic future. "Yet our culture is used to sell the city" as a mecca for tourists, she said.

Culture and spirituality was the theme of a panel moderated by Catholic theologian Mary Hunt, who provoked laughter when she described herself as the "Euro-American lesbian feminist version of Oprah Winfrey." (Later that morning, a group of lesbians came to the stage to demonstrate their solidarity with other lesbians in the audience who, they said, might fear losing the jobs or children were they to reveal their identity.)

In response to a question by Hunt about how women experience spirituality, Korean theologian Chung Hyun-Kyung described a ritual she said she witnessed in Sri Lanka. At a temple where the Goddess Kali is worshiped, women whose children had been "disappeared" by government authorities expressed their anger by smashing coconuts.

Anger and a desire for divine retribution are appropriate expressions of poor people's spirituality, she said. The spirituality of the rich, she said, focuses on "talk about reconciliation."

Asked by Hunt about how to understand the problem of suffering, Kathleen Sands, a religious-studies professor at the University of Massachusetts, said Euro-American women feel remorse "because we're the beneficiaries of so much suffering."

She added that it is important for white women to explore their own spiritual traditions and not look to the spiritualities of oppressed people "to save us," and thus engage in another form of exploitation.

Frances Wood, an African-American writer and activist, said the way her people had to approach the problem of suffering was by "naming the evil" to which they have been subjected as an enslaved people. "Because for so long African-Americans were not allowed to do so," she said.

Said Teresita Basso, a specialist in Mexican-American ministry: "Our reality hasn't been a resurrection spirituality." Citing the farm worker's movement as an example, she said Hispanic spirituality has been strongly rooted in political activism.

Spiritual rights

Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether also spoke to the link between suffering and struggles for justice.

Ruether, who recently traveled to Central America, described Nicaraguan women's efforts -- such as reviving herbal medicine traditions -- to rebuild a devastated health care system.

Sister Marie Therese Archambault, a community activist of the Hunkpapa Tribe in North Dakota, said: "Many of our people are just now rediscovering and reviving their rituals that deal with suffering."

But this process, she said, is often exploited by whites who are "making money" by turning native rituals into spectator events. Archambault also spoke of the pain impoverished Native Americans feel at having to be dependent upon whites to purchase their crafts.

Raising a concern that laced the conference, Hunt asked how women could learn from the spiritual traditions of other cultures without "ripping them off."

"I don't care if you use my God," responded Hyun-Kyung, "as long as you're fighting for us." She spoke of the exploitation of Asian women as prostitutes and urged women to help put an end to it.

According to Basso, those interested in other traditions first must "learn to be uncomfortable" by placing themselves in contexts where they may be the minority, a discomfort minorities always experience, she said. "Be present" to the realities suffered by minorities and "the answers will come," she said.

Hispanic what?

Related issues emerged at a workshop on prejudice where sociologist Silvia Cancio, one of the conference organizers, spoke about problems inherent in classifying as "Hispanic" people with roots in about 20 nations. The U.S. government coined the term for official usage in 1980, and it is now being reconsidered in Senate hearings, she said.

Cancio explained that questioning of the classification arose after it was learned that on the 1990 census, half of all California Hispanics marked "other" rather than "Hispanic" to described their ethnicity.

As opposed to being clumped together, Cancio said, many Hispanic prefer a specific description of ethnicity. She cited as an example her use of Cuban-American to described herself.

Cancio, who noted that Hispanics are of all races, said feminists and other progressives still operate from a "black and white" vision of the world -- a model that obscures the reality and numbers of other groups.

Her comments were echoed by African-American and Native American workshop respondents. Beneath the monolithic "Native American" classification are about 450 tribes whose customs differ considerably, said Elvira Blackman, a Navaho.

Cancio also urged her audience to examine the issue of class. "Most of the poor people in this country are white," she said. "There are many white women in this country for whom whiteness has done nothing."

Women and ecclesia

Diversity of religion also emerged as a conference theme. On the final day, participants chose from among 20 worship services. These included Buddhist, Protestant and Sufi observances as well as a Native American pipe ceremony, a Holocaust remembrance service and Catholic-rooted feminist Eucharist.

By exploring other spiritualities, Catholic women are helping shape their own traditions while the church institution is bankrupt morally, financially and theologically, Mary Hunt told NCR.

During an evaluation session before the conference's closing ritual, several women challenged efforts by organizers to achieve true diversity. Women from several ethnic groups complained of feeling invisible. Others said planners had not done enough in the way of outreach or to make it financially feasible for minority women to come to the gathering.

A Native American woman challenged conference participants who were planning to use drums during the closing ritual to "put them down" -- if the drums were not part of their particular spiritual heritage.

Although painful, such comments are precisely what white progressives need to listen to in order to grow, said Ruth Fitzpatrick of the Women's Ordination Conference, who was one of the gathering planners.

She said she continually "turned down white women" for positions on planning committees in order to make room for new, diverse leadership.

The conference also struggled to provide scholarships and money for at-home day care to women, said Fitzpatrick. But the deeper problem, she added, is the "systemic violence" of U.S. society that keeps women in poverty.

Feminist scholars who spoke with NCR compared the 1993 Women-Church Conference to the 1983 Chicago and 1987 Cincinnati conferences.

"Enormous evolution," said Humility of Mary Sister Madonna Kolbenschlag, an author and psychologist. "This event is an incredible sign that women are able to do what the institutional church is called to but which it has failed to accomplish: Create ways for people of diverse customs, beliefs and cultures to become a people -- ecclesia."

Said Elisabeth-Schussler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School, "Feminist theology is under worldwide attack by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, fundamentalist preachers and Protestant churches. In this climate, Women-Church is defining theology and claiming the power of naming. We celebrate that."
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Title Annotation:Women-Church Convergence conference
Author:Martinez, Demetria
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 30, 1993
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