In an effort to make sense out of race in my childish pre-school mind, I asked my Mother if all Negro people were Republicans, since we were white and Democrats. There was something incongruent about my Christian education and my experience of observing and hearing about race. I was trying to put things in either/or boxes to help me understand my sense of justice in the world. In my small world there were several Protestant churches where I attended many Bible Schools. There was a single Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family.
In college the boundaries of my world began to expand. I was gaining new knowledge from Religious Emphasis Weeks, my Bible as Literature courses and new experiences in Student YWCA projects on citizenship and urban life. The Student YWCA statement of purpose was mine i.e. “to lead a full and creative life through a growing knowledge of God. In this task we seek to understand Jesus and to follow him.”
To pursue my goal, I headed off to YDS in the fall of 1959 with a fairly static worldview, a faith that focused on individual/personal salvation and an ethic that easily categorized behaviors as right or wrong. My letters home reflect my excitement about the dynamic worldview I was discovering, especially in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Ethic course. His contextual ethics provided me a flexible framework with which to understand my world, one anchored in the person of Jesus Christ who I follow “from a far”, as H. Richard Niebuhr said. Writing a paper on the Old Testament concept of shalom enlarged my view of salvation to include a yearning for wholeness in community — in the whole inhabited world.
When I received my M.A.R. degree, I still had little awareness of the contemporary and historical experiences of African Americans. I was just beginning to develop a critical consciousness of women’s role and knew little of women’s history. My view of “the rest of the world” was extremely limited. My idealized image of my country, its institutions and how they operated with respect to justice, was just beginning to be challenged, especially by the civil rights movement.
My YWCA career offered many opportunities to learn about “ the other” and to become a more “responsible self.” I encountered Native American culture when our students wanted to do a project with them Nebraska. I had the privilege of participating in the Student YWCA and World University Service sponsored Asian Seminar. We traveled to India with several brief stops in Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand where I learned about other religions and cultures. I took college students on voter registration projects in the south during spring breaks and got a glimpse of life from the Black perspective. When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago, we had students from all around the country involved in that movement. I learned much from Dorothy Height and other African American colleagues as we worked on the YWCA’s one imperative, “ to eliminate racism…” One of the issues that we struggled to understand was whether racism or sexism was the primary oppression, only to discover how racism and sexism were inter-related.
As the decade of the 60’s drew to a close with all the new movements and my encounter with urban living, my thinking was being much influenced by my friend and colleague George W. Pickering who helped me understand the relationship between these political movements and theology. George and Alan B. Anderson, students at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, were working on their book, later published under the title Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago.
I had an opportunity to re-read some theology and to integrate and reflect on the decade of the 60’s during a year at Pendle Hill, Quaker Study Center. Then in Letty Russell’s first class at YDS (1972), I realized that some of the late 60’s mimeographed papers that were circulating in the growing Feminist Movement, challenging patriarchal language and control, had grown into books. I remember being struck by a published article by Valerie Saving Goldstein stating the idea that sin for women was better understood as diffuseness and lack of self-confidence rather than as pride. Letty made it clear we were considering these ideas in order to do theology from a feminist perspective.
My perspective continued to expand, thanks to Mary Daly and such feminist theologians as Nell Morton, Rosemary Radford Ruther, Phyllis Trible, and Emilie Townes who encouraged women to speak our own truth and understanding. My friend Mary Ann Lundy and I continued the exploration of these concerns through a “women theologizing group” at the University of Illinois where we read many of these authors. When Mary Ann was with the PCUSA working on the Ecumenical Decade for Women, she initiated a conference, Re-imagining God, Church and Community that elicited a surprising reaction from the churches. As a result I discovered Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker who stressed the danger in the church’s emphasis on submission. I also read Teilhard de Chardin and Liberation theologians, such as James Cone, and Gustavo Gutierrez who also expanded my awareness.
All these experiences enabled me to help young women students, many from third world countries, put on a conference at the University of Illinois about Third World Women and Feminist Perspectives. During my last year at the University of Illinois YWCA, we were looking back at our history that included the beginnings of campus ministry. We produced a centennial history of the first Student YWCA still in existence, noting activities such as Bible study from a critical perspective, community service, and public forums on controversial public issues. Individual students were involved in early civil rights activities and some went as missionaries to China and India.
I returned home to Kentucky in the mid 80’s, and in 2000 I retired from the University of Kentucky (Continuing Education for Women, Academic Advising, UK Women Writers Conference). Once again my attention was drawn to history. I was fortunate to be able to work on an oral history project that produced a website and a film entitled, “Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky.” My interest in history keeps me working at the Lexington History Museum.
My energy and enthusiasm have been channeled into partisan politics in recent years. And even though I get very discouraged, my continuing and changing worldview tells me it is important to work for social justice and to have faith that God will use our efforts for God’s purpose. I am thankful for a perspective that enables me to love my friends, family and country, even when we have profoundly different views.
YDS provided me with a richer sense of the Christian faith and an ethical foundation beyond the narrow either/or worldview I brought with me to YDS. Thus I have been able to incorporate many new experiences and views from other cultures that have enriched rather than challenged my foundation.
Betty Dean Gabehart,
Yale Divinity School, Class of 1961