Claiming our voice

May 21, 2014

The news reports of the kidnapped schoolgirls from Nigeria have captured the world’s attention. As my heart breaks for these families and girls, I recognize the privilege I have living where I live in during the time I’m living in.

I was raised in a home where education was valued. I remember that my parents did not ask, “Are you going to college?” The question was, “Where are you going to college?” When my mom was a young adult, she knew her career choices were nurse, teacher, or secretary. When I went off to college, I had no limits as to what I could or couldn’t do because of my gender. That is not to say there weren’t challenges on the path I chose: For many people, I was their first experience of a woman pastor, and yes, there were perceptions and prejudices to overcome. And in our world, men’s voices are still valued more. Ask any woman, and she can recount a story of a male colleague saying something she just said, and his words being heard and valued, and her feeling like she is not even in the room.

I know what it is to be overlooked and discounted, but even my worst experiences can’t begin to compare with what is happening in Nigeria because of the sheer gift of the location and time of my birth.

I don’t know how to bring those girls back home or change the environment in a country halfway around the world that would cause such an act to happen in the first place. But I do know this: I should not take for granted the privilege of voice and agency I do have. I have the ability to act. To speak my truth. However, I admit that I don’t always exercise it. I think: Does my voice really matter? Should I speak up about this? Will it make any difference? Or I get tired of trying to get heard, so I just give up and go along.

In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer says there are five habits that any community or nation needs to cultivate for their health and vitality. The fourth is generating a sense of personal voice and agency. He acknowledges that this is a challenge because we grow up in religious and educational institutions that treat us as members of an audience rather than actors in a drama—and as a result, we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport. We know the danger . . . it is in the old adage: “All it takes for evil to thrive is for good men (and women) to do nothing.”

We live in a place and a time where we can’t believe that what is happening to the children in Nigeria would happen here. And perhaps it wouldn’t, but even if we’re not facing such evil, being silent does not help us be our best. We are less than who we could be.

Over the years, I have been given some guideposts that I try to live by. One comes from a United Methodist clergy and seminary professor, Heather Murray Elkins. I heard her say in a workshop: God has entrusted to each of us a piece of the God story, and if we do not tell our story, that piece of God goes untold. That hit home with me. I have something unique and important to share that the world needs to hear. No one else has exactly my perspective, and as a community, we are less when I withhold my voice. And in fact, fully discerning the heart of God requires that I share my story and that I listen to the stories of others.

One of my other guideposts is an idea from the book Crucial Conversations: We need to create safe space where all can share their voice so that we create the largest pool of shared meaning possible, as that is what allows us to build relationships, strengthen community, and gather information for making good decisions.

And last, I try to live by this word from Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world. If I want a different world, instead of complaining about it, or wringing my hands over it, I need to act, speak, engage. It starts with me.

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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