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#1692: Women Religious Leaders, Part One | 51%

On this week’s 51%, we kick off our series speaking to women religious leaders and celebrate the different ways that women worship. Sister Danielle Bonetti teaches the importance of worship through service, and the women behind the Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church share their hopes for the future of the UMC.

Guests: Sister Danielle Bonetti, Providence Coordinator of the Justice Ministry for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet; Kathleen Ryan, priest with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests; Heather Williams (pastor) and Alison Klock (associate pastor) of the Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church

51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s produced by Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.

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You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and experiences. Thanks for joining us, I’m Jesse King. For many of us, the topic of religion plays a considerable role in our lives, whether you’re born and raised in your beliefs, “newly reformed,” devout, agnostic, or even atheistic. Our feelings on the afterlife have a way of guiding our life paths – but many of today’s mainstream religions are, at least traditionally, male-led. So, with the holiday season in full swing, consider this part one of a series speaking to women religious leaders about why they worship, how they worship, and the issues they care about most in their respective faiths. Because increasingly so, women are finding ways to take part and lead.

Today we’ll start in Latham, New York, at the provincial house of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a Roman Catholic group of women religious that traces back to the mid-1600s in France. The Latham headquarters serves primarily as a home for retired sisters, but it also houses its administrative offices, including the office of Sister Danielle Bonetti, the group’s Province Coordinator of the Justice Ministry. 

“The Sisters of St. Joseph were founded in 1650. In those days, in the 1600s, if a woman entered a religious life, there was only one form of religious life, and that was cloistered convents. And so they have to spend their whole time praying and just living behind a cloister,” Bonetti explains. “What Father Medaille wanted to do was have little cells of women dedicated to serving others, who he called ‘the dear neighbor.’ There was a strong Jesuit influence, and what they call ‘ignatian spirituality,’ so that attracted me a great deal. Because I’ve always been attracted to the ignatian way of praying and imaging God.” 

Bonetti says the Roman Catholic faith was always a major part of her life. She went to join the Sisters of St. Joseph at just 18 years old, with hopes of serving in one of several ministries. The Sisters of St. Joseph notably started Albany College of Saint Rose in 1920, and played a role in the development of St. Mary’s Hospital (now St. Mary’s Healthcare) in Amsterdam. 

“But I was always wanting to do pastoral work, to be out with people,” says Bonetti. “So I was lucky, I got to do the very beginnings of parish work, of Sisters being in parish work. I was a religious ed director. I was always in the Albany diocese, and I was out in Oneonta for five years, and then in Troy. So I organized all the religious ed for the children who didn’t go to Catholic school.

What did that work look like? 

In those days I mainly worked to train the lay people who were gonna be what we would call the ‘catechist,’ or the religion teacher. And in Oneonta, it was kind of exciting. It was a very rural parish, in the city of Oneonta we had the mother parish, and then we had these little missions. And so every day I was in a different little town, and I had a group of, usually, mothers who were (at that time) home during the day, and they would be the teachers. These children would be released from school, and we’d walk them to — it was a rural area, so we would use whatever building we could. One time, we even rented a grange hall and we had the classes there. One time there was an undertaker who let us use the basement of his establishment — which wasn’t the best place to have class, but we did it. And being with the young mothers was wonderful, because it was a chance to get to know them, and for many of them it was their entry back into the workplace. Many of those women went on and stayed in that field, became religious ed directors themselves, youth ministers. So it was a chance to work with adults as well as the children. 

Later on, like the 1980s, late 1980s, I was like the assistant to the pastor, and I did hospital visiting. I had time to visit the parishioners who were homebound. [The pastor] would do the funeral, and I would do the wake service. It was what they called a “pastoral associate” role. 

What kind of work do you do now? 

I organize things to help the Sisters grow in their understanding of justice issues, which is a tremendous commitment on our part as a community. We see ourselves as advocating for those on the margin of our society, doing legislative actions, [advocating for the passage] bills and laws that will lead to a more just society. I work with a group called Capital District Border Watch, and these are people very committed to work for immigrant rights, especially the people that are being detained at the border. So I just did a project yesterday with our senior Sisters here, where we made Christmas cards for the people who are now being held in detention. And I translated phrases into Spanish, so they wrote the phrases in Spanish to tell people that we’re thinking of them and praying for them. But then I also work with the Capital District Council of Churches, and also the New York State Council of Churches, where we’ll visit with legislators to look at New York legislation. Now that we can get out more, I’m starting to meet with groups. I’ve tried to get in touch with what’s happening with the Afghan refugees who are coming into the area. 

What other kinds of leadership positions do you see women taking in the Church? 

I think this is a crucial time for the Church right now. We’ve had some real soul-searching moments that still are very difficult. And I think the Church has the opportunity, especially with Pope Francis, to reach out to women — and he is doing that, he’s starting to include women in leadership roles at the Vatican. And here in this diocese, we had many Sisters in leadership roles. When I worked for the diocese, almost every diocesean department was led by a woman, lay woman or a Sister, and that was a wonderful time in the Church. We’re in a different time now, we don’t have as many Sisters. But I think the Church has the opportunity of using the gifts of women — lay women, married women — and integrating that into the very life of the Church. I think women are studying theology and becoming very experienced in areas like teaching theology and spiritual direction. We have many Sisters, including myself, who do spiritual direction. We help men and women talk about and get in touch with how God is leading them in their life. 

So it sounds like the acts of service are almost a way of worshiping. 

They are. They’re very much tied into the way we envision God among us. Emmanuel means “God among us,” and we have a rich, rich tradition of spirituality. Of how we pray and how we approach God, and how we reach out to others. We see that as all connected. You know, we don’t say, “Here you pray, here you serve others, and here you study scripture.” We’re very strong about relationships. We really believe that our God is a God of relationships. Jesus didn’t send a program, he came himself and was among us, and formed relationships. And so we feel that the best way to serve people is to be in a relationship with them. And we’re enriched, you know, it’s not a one-sided thing. I can’t think of one experience in my life as a Sister that hasn’t enriched me as much as I’ve given. 

My favorite, very favorite scripture story is “The Visitation,” where Mary, when she realized she was pregnant, she heard the angel speak to her — and she heard that her cousin was pregnant — went out right away to visit her cousin, and to be with her. You can just visualize, she was an older woman, and here’s this very young woman. Both of them were pregnant, and they were both there to help each other and to, probably, try to understand what was happening. Because both were pregnancies that weren’t expected. That’s my very favorite, because I think women have always done that for each other, and you want to encourage that. And that doesn’t exclude men, because I think men are called to the same kind of reaching out to others. Rather than top-down, it’s much more one-to-one to each other. 

While Sister Danielle points out that there are many ways women lead within the Roman Catholic Church, the Church currently does not allow women to become priests. Our next guest, Kathleen Ryan, was ordained in 2015 by an organization that hopes to change that. The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests says it is technically excommunicated by the Vatican, but it still sees itself as loyal members of the Church, and it has ministers in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and elsewhere around the world. Ryan is one of multiple priests at The Upper Room, a non-hierarchical, Inclusive Catholic Community in Albany, New York. Like Sister Danielle, Ryan says her faith was an important part of her life from a young age. 

What made you want to become a priest? 

I wanted to be very active [in the Church]. I was baptized Roman Catholic, and I grew up in the Catholic Church. But from the very beginning, I always felt like an outsider. The men — and the boys, my brothers — were able to do things in the Church that I wasn’t able. So I always participated in every way I could as a young person, and then also as an adult. I was parish president, you know, I did all the things that the Church would allow women to do. But we were never really a full participant. And then in 2002 this movement began — and I didn’t hear about it until 2013 — and one of the bishops, her name is Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan, she was coming to Albany to do “A Conversation with a Woman Bishop.” I went to hear her speak, and when I got home, I said to my husband, “We just found our church.” 

This was so inclusive, including men. And it’s a theology of blessing. The Catholic Church, we grew up with the theology of “original sin,” and we no longer accept that any more than we accept that canon law says that women cannot be priests.

So for you, what was the process of becoming a priest? 

Well, there’s a police background check, psychological background check. But a lot of new theology. It’s progressive theology, the kind of theology that you cannot get in the typical seminary nowadays. And so we’ve created, through a program called People’s Catholic Seminary, which is open to the public, a very progressive study of Christianity. We don’t believe that everybody has to be baptized. I mean, it’s nice — we do baptisms if you request it — but you’re baptized into the church, into the community, and not to get that sin off your soul, so to speak. We’re pro-immigrant, we are very socially justice minded. We’re not for war. And yet we’re a continuum, so if you talk to 200 women priests, you’ll probably get differences of where we are on the continuum. But in general, we are an inclusive community who accepts anybody who feels they have the call, and are willing to study.

Do you see this becoming more prevalent in the future of the Church? 

Well, we hope so. For a while we were hoping that the Catholic Church, the Vatican, would see us and say, “Hey, women should be part of us, too.” Well, it’s not happening. If anything, many of our women priests have gotten letters of excommunication. They won’t excommunicate a male priest who has abused, but they’ll excommunicate me, who decided I wanted to be a woman priest. So their level of why they excommunicate — they’re saying it’s traditional, they say that Jesus did not have women priests. But he didn’t have priests, for one. But he also did have many women who followed him and formed communities at his time. There was 12 disciples, but there was a lot women, and some are named, but more are not named because at the time women were not named in writings. It was just uncommon. 

There was a woman who walked with Paul, her name was Thecla. She worked with Paul in getting the message out of Jesus — and Jesus’ message always was, “God loves you, and you need to love everybody else.” He didn’t have all these canon laws. You know, he was Jewish, and he obeyed the Jewish traditions, but he did it with great love. And that’s what Paul was saying. His words got kind of turned sometimes, but Thecla was right with him. She herself became a bishop. During the persecutions, they tried to kill her in the coliseums, and the legend is that she went in with the lions, and the lions just laid down. They didn’t kill her. So she is as famous as Paul was at the time, but the Church kind of let that disappear. There’s actually writings called, “The Book of Paul and Thecla.” Well, they left out the “Thecla.” 

Women have disappeared. Mary Magdalene is often considered to be a prostitute. Well, she wasn’t. She was a follower of Jesus, and she was the first one to see Jesus resurrected. He came to her first. Why, because women weren’t important? Women were very important. 

Do you have a favorite biblical message or story you’d like to share? 

My favorite is “The Road to Emmaus.” So it’s after Jesus was crucified, and the word was that he was resurrected, but not everybody saw it. And a disciple of his called Cleopas and his “companion” were walking to Emmaus. Well, the companion, we suspect strongly, was a woman, and most likely his wife, because women in those days would not walk alone. And the two of them were walking on the road to Emmaus, and talking about what they’d heard about Jesus being resurrected after the crucifixion, and they were all upset. And Jesus appears to them, but they don’t recognize him. The way I look at it, Jesus followed them and chased after them to catch up to them. And he explained to them what happened in Jerusalem, why the crucifixion, why it had to happen, and what it means for now. And they still didn’t recognize him until he sat with him and broke the bread. Cleopas and his wife ran back to Jerusalem — it’s about seven miles away — to tell the disciples what they witnessed. And by that time Jesus had been appearing in different places, including to the other disciples. 

What I love about it is, first of all, [Jesus] chased after them to let them know what was really happening. He followed them, he pursued them. And I think God always pursues us. We’re always on some path going in some direction, and somehow God pursues us. 

Our last guests today are the leaders of the Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church in Saratoga Springs, New York. The UMC is one of the largest Protestant churches in the U.S., behind the Southern Baptist Convention, but a long-held stalemate over its stance on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy is prompting threats of a split by some of its more conservative churches. 

Pastor Heather Williams has been at the front of her congregation for the past eight years. Her associate pastor, Alison Klock, could be considered its next generation: she graduated from Drew Theological School this past spring, is working toward becoming ordained, and splits her time as a program director for a Christian summer camp at Sky Lake, a retreat center in Windsor, New York. The pair shared with me their love for their congregation, their views on women in the Bible, and their hopes for the future of the UMC. 

Pastor Heather Williams (left) and Associate Pastor Alison Klock (right).

What made you want to become a pastor? 

Klock: I would say, for me, it was definitely a process that began because I had so many mentors in my life who sort of ushered me forward in this process. Because I would say I was maybe 11/12-years-old when I started to sense a call on my life toward ordained ministry, but I didn’t know how to identify that. But other people who had been through this process were able to identify that in me, and they said, “Had you considered this?” or “Maybe we’ll get you signed up for this.” And before you knew it, I was a 12-year-old girl who was reading scriptures on a Sunday, and going to summer programs where you learn about leadership in the church, and all these sorts of opportunities were thrown my way because people saw something in me. 

Williams: And for me, in ministry over the last 20-ish years…at first, I just thought my pastor had a cool job. To be honest, I always wanted to do what he did. But now, after 20 years, my real passion has grown into mentoring and uplifting and nurturing women in leadership. 

Tell me more about the community you have at the Saratoga Springs UMC. 

Williams: We have this incredible group of generous and kind people, and yesterday, a member donated land for us to start a Habitat build across from the high school in Saratoga Springs. 

So, like a Habitat for Humanity kind of build? 

Williams: Yes. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. We’re a reconciling congregation, and in the United Methodist Church, that means that we are open and affirming of people from the LGBTQ community. That decision was made in 1995. And they embody the position of welcoming everyone. It is one of the healthiest churches I’ve ever seen, and they do welcome children, and love them, and make space for them to be them. We created a “little kid nook” in the back, with rocking chairs for parents and soft toys for children to play, in the sanctuary itself. This Sunday we had a baby cry, and it just took everyone’s breath away, because it’s been so long that we’ve heard a baby cry in the sanctuary, because of COVID and everything. 

You said that a big part of your passion now is inspiring leadership, and working with women. Can you tell me a bit more about that? 

Williams: Sure. I am currently working on my Doctor of Ministry degree at Drew University, “Women in Religious Leadership.” And now I think I’m more formally thinking that that is my call. How exactly that will take shape, I’m not exactly sure. It’s still a rough environment. It’s still an environment where people assume my husband is the pastor being appointed to the church. It’s still a place where people touch you unwarranted. It’s still a place where you feel your voice is not seen as…and I think the political environment that we had for the last four years nurtured that type of ability to disempower, disengage, or push aside the voices of women. 

One thing I’ve been asking my guests is — either in the UMC or in the church in general — what do you see as some of the biggest obstacles facing the church? And what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities? 

Williams: I think, for me, one of the obstacles is the rigidity around doing church differently. I read this book, Another Way, for my class in seminary, and it had this acronym, C.A.R.E., about leadership and creating a safe place, and hearing the voices [of everyone]. And that’s one style of leadership that we won’t embody, because church growth looks like, and I’m just gonna be real, a young, white man in skinny jeans and a large church. And the numbers are growing and growing and growing. That’s what is seen as valuable or successful leadership in the church. And women don’t lead that way. Women lead in teams. Women lead in community. Women lead in relationship. We don’t lead in a top-down way where numbers are the most important thing. 

But the greatest hope is our denomination is in the middle of upheaval. So my hope is that, out of this upheaval, will come a brand new thing that the spirit of the living God will breathe into. That’s my hope.

Klock: Yeah, I was gonna speak on that a little bit, too. Our denomination, as it stands now, is the product of several, several years of denominations coming together and splitting for different political/social reasons. So yeah, where we are now is a product of that, and we are in the process of moving forward, too. And there’s talks of splits, and that’s very anxiety-provoking, because when something splits we don’t know what will stand, but as Heather said, we’re confident that the Spirit will burst something beautiful out of this new creation, whatever it is. 

Williams: One of the things we are planning: we are having an old-fashioned tent revival. “Resurgence: This is What Holiness Looks Like.” May 6 and 7 at our church, we’re bringing in a renowned musician, Mark Miller. And the point of our gathering is to build hope. To build hope and for people to see the voice in the denomination, the things you’ve been hearing in the news, that’s not what we are all. This is what holiness looks like. Being engaged in social justice, and showing up, and being present with one another no matter what. And we will not go back to a denomination that says you cannot recognize the full humanity of all people and provide full pastoral care. We won’t go back. Our congregation refuses to adhere to that. 

Lastly, do you have a favorite message or character from the Bible that you’d like to share? 

Klock: One of my favorite women in the Bible is actually “The Woman at the Well.” And the reason I like this story is because it’s oftentimes a story that conservative folks will use to villainize women. It’s a story where Jesus recognizes a woman who is living with a man who is not her husband, and she’s been married several other times. She goes out in the middle of the day to get water from the well, and Jesus is there, and he says, “I know who you are,” and he references that. And so people will use that as a way to talk about, you know, “Jesus is calling you away from your sinful life.” But what I really like about that story is that Jesus is sitting there — it’s noon on a really hot, summer’s day — and he says, “Do you have water?” And she offers him water. And I don’t think people recognize the significance of that. That Jesus asked this woman for something that is life-saving. Something that is life-giving. And that she is able to give this to him. She is the only one that’s able to give this to him. So I think by people using this story as solely an opportunity to talk about sexual morality — they’re missing the point, of the way that Jesus asks each of us, of all genders, of all walks of life, for our life-giving resources, to offer to him, to create something beautiful. 

Williams: Allison preached a beautiful sermon on Sunday about Mary and Elizabeth. In her sermon, she made me realize the need, for my own life and my own heart, to claim the beauty and the light that God has planted in me. And you can recognize that when you’re in the presence of your Elizabeth. 

You’re the second person who’s brought up that story. I think that’s cool. I was speaking with Sister Danielle, and she mentioned that that was one of her favorite stories, too. Because Mary was so young, and she made the trip to go and see [Elizabeth], and [Sister Danielle mentioned] it being a story of women supporting each other. 

Williams: Yeah, she literally ran for the hills, that’s what the scripture says. To go see Elizabeth. But yeah, there are so many other stories of women in the scripture, some of them fraught with racism and classism. We see too many times the ability of one woman, because of their status, to be able to subjugate, or abuse, or mistreat another woman because of their status. And so I guess that’s why it’s so important to me. 

That’s a wrap on this week’s 51%. 51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s hosted by me, Jesse King, our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and that theme underneath me right now? That’s “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue. A big thanks to all of the women who took part in this episode: Sister Danielle Bonetti, Kathleen Ryan, Pastor Heather Williams and Associate Pastor Alison Klock. We’ll continue our celebration of women religious leaders next week. Until then, I’m Jesse King for 51%.