Monday, June 27, 2011

Hope Abundant Received an Award

About two and a half years ago I met Susan Perry of Orbis Books at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I told Sue that the book With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology, one of the first anthologies on Third World women’s theology, was out of date. Since the book’s publication by Orbis Books in 1988, the world has changed so much.

Sue said that she had thought of bringing out a sequel. Unfortunately the original editors Virginia Fabella and Mercy Amba Oduyoye were not able to do so.

I told Sue that I have been teaching a course on Third World feminist theology regularly, and we needed a newer text. Sue asked me if I would be willing to bring out a new volume. I was happy to edit a volume to showcase the works of a newer generation of women theologians from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania.

I also wanted to include indigenous women’s voices, since their contributions to the global chorus of feminist theology have often been neglected.

With Passion and Compassion was based on the first intercontinental conference of the women theologians of the Third World in the city of Oaxtepec, Mexico, in 1986. I was away in the United States doing graduate studies and did not attend the meeting. María Pilar Aquino was kind enough to send me some of the photos she took at the meeting, while I was working on Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women's Theology. Pilar, Mercy, Virginia, and the other participants looked much younger then.

Third World and indigenous women theologians have published a lot since their initial meeting in Mexico. Mercy Amba Oduyoye was instrumental in forming the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians in 1989. The Circle became the primary forum for African women theologians to exchange ideas. One of the aims of the Circle was to encourage the publication of theological works by African women.

In 1988, the Asian Women’s Resource Centre for Culture and Theology was formed in Hong Kong. The late Rev. Sun Ai Lee Park from South Korea played a leadership role in the early years of the Centre. The Centre published the journal In God’s Image and many other books on Asian women’s theology. It is now located in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

The Con-spirando Collective in Santiago, Chile, formed in 1991, provided an avenue for Latin American women to work together and they have devoted their energy to ecofeminist issues. The Collective published a journal Con-spirando.

During my travels in Asia and in the ecumenical circles, I have gathered a lot of materials from Third World women. It was more demanding to find materials from Latin America since the works needed to have been translated. I was fortunate to be able to rely on colleagues such as María Pilar Aquino and Nancy Bedford for suggestions.

I gathered indigenous and tribal women’s theology from India, Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, Palestine, and the United States, though not all pieces went into the book because of limited space. I hope that more work from indigenous women will be available in the future.

Earlier today I was so happy to receive the news that Hope Abundant was awarded second place in the category of Gender Issues by the Catholic Press Association. These awards are presented each year at the Association’s annual convention.

The citation reads: “This is an important book that gathers a new generation of women theologians from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America into the global theological conversation. Filled with powerful, moving insights from both Protestant and Catholic perspectives, the eighteen contributors explore everything from why the exodus story is a story of liberation for some and a story that justifies occupation and genocide for others to how Catholic women in the Philippines are using women’s mystical tradition and new liturgies and symbols to sustain their work for justice. These are faith-filled theological reflections that offer abundant hope in the midst of poverty, violence, oppression, and war.”

I am very grateful for the recognition and I hope that the award will bring wider publicity for the volume. Proceeds from the book will be used to support the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture at Trinity Theological College in Accra, Ghana, founded by Mercy for training African women leaders. I urge you to support their work by buying a copy of this very exciting volume and please visit the Web site for the book at

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Song of Songs in Three Languages

The Song of Songs is considered one of the most beautiful love poems of all time. For centuries, it has inspired painters, composers, singers, and writers because of its expansive imageries and its dramatic glorification of carnal love. Yet, in Christian worship, we have seldom been exposed to the love poetry of the Bible.

In the past several days, I have had very moving and captivating experience with the Song of Songs. Last week, in my course on Eros, Sexuality, and the Spirit, I introduced the Song of Songs and talked about the interlace between sacred and carnal desire and longing.

The word "poetry" comes from Greek term poiesis, which means forming or making. It is an art form in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities.

For love is as strong as death,
jealousy is cruel as hell;
the lights thereof are lights of fire and flames (8:6)

The sound and cadence of a poem are as important as the meaning of it. To help students appreciate the Song of Songs in Hebrew, I asked the students to listen to Roy White’s recitation of the Song in Sephardic Cantillation manner on YouTube.

Then I asked a male and a female student to recite part of the Song from Marcia Falk’s translation. A poet and a painter, Falk has worked on the Song for many years and her translation combines rigorous scholarship with poetic sensibilities. She tries to capture the full force of female eroticism in this only book in the Bible in which women speak more than half the lines.

“The song expresses mutuality and balances between the sexes, along with an absence of stereotyped notions of masculine and feminine behavior and characteristics,” Falk writes.

Last Saturday, some of my students and I attended the Boston Pride Interfaith Service. The reading from Tanach was taken from Song of Songs 8:1-7. It was first read in Hebrew and then in English. The Rev. Liz Walker, an award-winning television journalist and anchor, spoke of the excessiveness of love in her sermon.

My feast of the Song of Songs continued on, when I went to the Jordan Hall in Boston to listen to Les Voix Baroques from Montreal singing Canticum Canticorum (The Song of Songs) in Latin. I have almost missed this if not for a student telling me that the Boston Early Music Festival is taking place this week.

The program included songs by Roland de Lassus (ca 1532-1594), Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), and Marin Marais (1656-1728). The music captured the different kinds of voices in the Song: female, male, and a group. Director Stephen Stubbs played the lute and it was wonderful to see his body expand and contract as he played the instrument. I had the feeling that his body was a part of the music. Anyone who has watched Yo-Yo Ma play understands what this feeling is like.

The Jewish people began to interpret Song as a symbolic text describing the love between Yahweh and the people of Israel from the first centuries of our era. Around 400, when St. Jerome translated the text into Latin, Christians had taken the Song to mean the love between Christ and the Church, following the allegorical method.

In “Dialogo della cantica” by Domenico Mazzocchi (1592-1665), Song 1:13 was rendered as

Fasciculus myrrhae dilectus meus Christus est,
Inter ubera mea commorabitum.

(A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved Christ unto me,
He shall lie betwixt my breasts.)

The Hebrew Song does not mention God or religion, and of course nowhere does it refer to Christ!

The evening concluded with an English song, “My beloved spake,” by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), a baroque composer, considered to be one of the greatest English composers.

My beloved spake, and said unto me,
Rise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear upon the earth;
And the time of the singing of birds is come,
Alleluia. (2:10-12)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stand Up for Transgender Youths

This morning at the Boston Pride Interfaith Service, Ken and Marcia Garber received the 2011 Pride Interfaith Award. As David Houle of Dignity Boston read the award citation, Ken Garber would not hold back his tears.

CJ, the child of Ken and Marcia, wanted to be a boy since four years old. Ken, a firefighter, believes that parents should love and affirm their child, no matter the gender identity of the child. Marcia and Ken found that the Catholic Church to which they belonged could not quite accept that they had a transgender son. They were tired of hearing that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people would go to hell.

They became involved in Dignity Boston and turned to the transgender community for support and help when CJ began his gender affirmation process. They have been active in the Massachusetts Commission for GLBT Youth, Mass Equality, and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Sadly, CJ died of a drug dose at 20 years old, after suffering from years of bullying in school and struggling to find a job.

People around me at the Interfaith Service and I cried as we listened to Ken and Marcia telling their story. As a parent, I could relate to their deep felt pain. We all want to see our children grow up strong and enjoy life. Yet, our society has made it so difficult for CJ and others like him to survive and flourish. I could imagine the teases, snares, and belittlement. . .

Many years ago, after I taught at the Episcopal Divinity School for about two years, the students organized a weeklong evening services for GLBT people. A student Ann told the story of what happened after she had come out to her family as a lesbian. She was only about 13 or so, and her family wouldn’t accept who she was. The next day, her parents put all her belongings on the porch and asked her to leave.

My daughter was around 13 at the time, and I could not imagine doing this to my own child. Why was it so unacceptable to hear that your daughter loved a person of her gender?

Ann’s story opened a window for me to understand the pain and anguish of gay and lesbian youth. Discrimination against GLBT people was no longer something abstract, because one of my students was thrown out of her family simply because of who she was.

I was so moved by Ann’s story and I pledged to do whatever I could to stand in solidarity with GLBT people, so that fewer children would need to go through what Ann had gone through.

Transgender people are particularly at risk in our society. They face widespread discrimination and violence. Currently the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition is pushing for the passage of a bill that will add Massachusetts to the 15 other states that protect transgender people. The bill will include gender identity and expression in the state’s non-discrimination statute and will amend existing hate crime laws to explicitly protect people targeted for violence and harassment.

Ken has spoken at rallies and testified at the State House. Ken and Marcia have not gone back to live quietly in their suburban town. They have turned their pain into courage to stand up for others. We must do our part to stop hate and intolerance and make sure that it gets better for our transgender youths.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Mentors in My Life

When I told people that I had a woman priest in my teenage years in Hong Kong, they were very surprised. That was back in the 1960s!

Deacon Hwang Hsien-yuin was the vicar of my church even before she became one of two women officially ordained in the Anglican Communion in November 1971. Rev. Hwang was an educator and a priest, and she was the principal of a primary school, while serving as the head of my church. Born into a privileged family, Deacon Hwang received her college education in China and obtained a Master’s degree at Columbia University. This was rare for women of her generation.

I was a youth leader of my church and sang in the choir for our 8 a.m. morning service. After the service and before choir practice, Deacon Hwang would come to lead a short devotion. It was during these short devotions that I first heard a feminist interpretation of the Bible. As she struggled to be ordained as a woman priest, she discussed with us the meaning of ministry and God’s calling to both women and men to serve.

I had a desire to know more about Christian faith while serving in the church. I fondly remember it was Dr. Philip Shen’s three lectures on theology that opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition. Dr. Shen was a professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He taught courses on Christian classics and philosophy of religion, and was a keen promoter of general education in higher education. In addition, he was a well-known creator of origami.

As a graduate of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, he had received a broad-based theological training. When I left Hong Kong to begin my doctoral studies at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Shen told me not to hurry back and to take my time. He knew more than I did at the time that education of a person is a very long process.

I had the fortune of meeting Professor Letty Russell in Korea the year before I went to the United States for doctoral work. She was invited to deliver a series of lectures on feminist theology in Seoul and I was invited as her respondent. Letty became a mentor, colleague, and friend. Letty, Katie Geneva Cannon, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, and I co-edited the volume Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens.

Letty was a keenest supporter and promoter of generations of Third World and racial and ethnic minority women theologians. Many scholars can recount stories of how Letty has helped them in their personal and professional journeys.

It was at Letty and her partner Shannon Clarkson’s home that a small gathering of Asian and Asian American women in theology and ministry was held in the fall of 1984. Letty and Shannon called together several Asian women students studying theology on the East coast and ministers. The network that later became Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM) was born.

For 12 years, Letty and Shannon served as the network’s advisors, raising and managing funds for us. In 1997 when the Asian and Asian American advisors took over the responsibilities, we had a farewell party for them. I told Letty that it was from her that I learned how to become a mentor, modeling after her example.

During my graduate studies, I had the privilege of studying with Professors Mary Daly and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. I took a course with Mary Daly soon after her book Pure Lust was published and she used the book as a primary text. The class was small and Daly was famous for “not allowing” men in her classes. From her I learned that women had to learn to think independently outside the “sacred canopy”—the male church hierarchy, androcentric regimes of knowledge, and the male reward system.

Daly’s image of life “on the boundary” became a constant reminder of never submitting to the temptation of “fitting in.” Later when I became interested in postcolonial studies, Daly’s teaching has prepared me to think in the “in-between” spaces. Although I have criticized Daly’s work, my respect for her as a pioneer, trail-blazer, and a fierce fighter for truth is enormous. She also taught me that scholarship can be done with a lot of passion and humor.

Elisabeth was teaching at the Episcopal Divinity School when I took her course on Gospel Stories of Women. Her book In Memory of Her was published a few years ago and quickly became a must-read for women in divinity schools. As women were fighting against male systems of knowing and scholarship, some had misgivings about Elisabeth’s book as it is so dense and with so many footnotes. When I discussed this with Elisabeth, she said that she had worries about who would read her book. The male establishment would not take it seriously and the women would find it too hard. But she said, liberating scholarship is liberating. Women have not been encouraged to develop ourselves to be scholars, and we have to claim back the power to become theological subjects.

I went to Elisabeth’s office for my first appointment with her. She listened to the theological project I was interested in pursuing. Some 25 years after, I still remember the advice she has given me. She told me my work would need three paradigm shifts: from male to female, from West to Asia, and from privileged women to poor women. I did not fully anticipate the process of decolonizing of mind that these paradigm shifts would require and that this would be a life-long work.

I am a faculty member of the Asian Theological Summer Institute, held this week at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This Institute provides mentoring and support for Asian and Asian American doctoral students in the United States and Canada. Yesterday during a seminar, I heard myself telling the students that they had to go through multiple paradigm shifts in their work. And I remember I first heard this from Elisabeth.

Learning takes place in a matrix of relationships, as my former student Alan Hesse has said. I am very privileged and fortunate to have many mentors who have accompanied me in my long journey to become a scholar. I came from a family of modest means and my parents were farmers from China. Without the help of others who have recognized that I might have something to contribute, I would never have been able to dream of who and what I can become. I am full of gratitude to my mentors and teachers and I hope to pass on the wisdom I have learned to others.