Rev. Rosalyn R. Nichols: The church, women’s rights and the #MeToo movement — Where do we go from here?

Rev. Rosalyn R. Nichols

by Rev. Rosalyn Regina Nichols, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

As an African-American woman, I find myself pondering a question that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked 50-plus years ago: “Where do we go from here?”

I do so in the shadow of the #MeToo movement and a White House administration whose leader, despite the alleged experiences of 19 women and his expressed and assumed privilege to assault women without repercussions as a wealthy white Anglo-Saxon man, was still elected president

When the dust settles, what will we have to show for the exposure of our deepest, darkest, most painful revelations? Once the shock wears off what will be different? That question stirs within my soul?

Ten years after #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke first raised her courageous voice against sexual assault, it was New York Times reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and seemingly mostly white women in Hollywood, who have kept the conversation alive. Has Burke’s outcry been overshadowed, rendering the voices of many black and brown women, girls, men and boys once again to the margins? 

Have we, in the black community, been willing to have the conversations among ourselves, about where we go from here?  What will we do differently?  What will we say and do on behalf of those women who bear the scars of sex trafficking? What will we do on behalf of the girl or boy who is being sexually abused at home.

I shared on Facebook the very personal and difficult story of my mother’s violation as an adult at the hands of a trustee in her church. Has the church universally made any changes in how we preach, teach or examine sacred text in ways that protect one another from predators who come in all shapes and sizes.

In 1998, my friend since childhood Rosmari Elaine Celeste Pleasure lost her life to domestic violence. Her death was not an isolated incident. In 2014, our state voted against the reproductive rights of women. That too was not a decision made in isolation.

What does this have to do with today’s #MeToo movement and the issues of sexual assault and abuse?

  For me it speaks to how women and girls are valued.  It speaks to the subtle yet intentional ways that womanhood is defined by us as a nation and within the context of the African-American community.

From Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” to the suffrage movement for the right to vote; from the sexual revolution to the burning of bras; from the evolution of feminism to womanism, we are challenged, in our community, throughout history to reclaim womanhood as Imago Dei (image of God). We are compelled by the stories of women to revisit Eve in the Garden, Achsah’s shrewd ability to ask for more, Queen Vashti’s right to say no.

We are asked, namely as people of faith, to question David’s quest for Bathsheba and his neglect of his raped daughter Tamar.  We are asked to stand with the unnamed woman at the well and question what were the demons Mary of Magdala wrestled in her lifetime.

The silenced majority demands that we stop ignoring and do something different, personally and as a community.

What will we do differently?

In 1998 when my friend Rose was killed, the conversation at the time centered around domestic violence as a women’s issue. I was invited to speak to women about women for women.  I was often invited by well-intentioned pastors and community leaders to speak to girls about how to be girls in a world of boys. 

It was a rare event when we held an All Men’s Worship Service Against Domestic Violence and two prominent Memphis pastors shared their own stories of witnessing abuse as children and experiencing it as young men.  It was a divine glimpse into what I understood about these issues that seemed to revolve around women and girls.

I am of the belief that #MeToo – like the fight to end domestic violence, reproductive justice and income equality – all drive us to focus our attention on ourselves. On what we teach boys, and girls, about love of neighbor as themselves.

We must also recognize that in every level of a hierarchical-based society there are degrees of power and privilege and we must resist the inclination to lean into our own privilege when it serves us and push back when it does not.

Recently I heard a therapist acknowledge a change in the practice of telling young people, mostly teen girls, not to send sexually explicit pictures over the Internet to instead challenging those who ask for the pictures in the first place. This is a shift in power and privilege. I am also thankful to hear my colleagues hosting Bible-study sessions for men and boys that address the issue of sexual assault that challenge gender norms.

I know that I will continue to hear disturbing comments like “Why did it take so long for her to speak up,” “Well, the women I know wouldn’t take that.” I know that #MeToo will not correct all the sexual violence in our world.  Still I celebrate today’s movement with the hope of tomorrow’s victory.

I encourage us to not give up in well doing and to keep moving forward with the words of Dr. King in “Where Do We Go From Here?”

A final victory is an accumulation of many short term encounters.  To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of full victory.

(The Rev. Rosalyn Regina Nichols, pastor of Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church, is executive director of the Starks Institute for Faith, Race & Social Justice at Memphis Theological Seminary, where she also is advancement director for Special Programs.)