09 October 2010

I survived a "Ladies Tea"

"cakes baked by men" silent auction at First Assembly in Des Moines

One of the things I've struggled with during my life is saying no. I'm not always very good at it, although I'm getting much better as time goes on. Recently a friendly neighbor of mine invited me to a "Ladies Tea" at her church--where, she explained, she would personalize her table for her guests and "ladies" would enjoy a morning of conversation and tea. I said yes. She frequently invites to me to other church functions, such as bible study, and I've always declined. Anyway, I went. It was two hours long.

One of the things I learned a few days ago was that the church, First Assembly of God in Des Moines, is a fundamental and evangelical Christian church. Both fundamentalism and evangelism are repugnant to me, so I wasn't very happy when I realized what I was stepping into. But on the advice of my dear sociologist friend I decided to approach the event from an ethnographic perspective. So I went and took my place at the table.

One of the first things I noticed upon entering the very large room, which used to be the sanctuary, was the two giant (prominently displayed and lit for the occasion) photos of children on the wall. One was a little Asian girl, the other a black girl. This was a marked contrast to all the white women in the room.

The tea consisted of about 30 tables with eight women at each table and a raised dais with four women seated at a table. We had coffee, fruit cup, and quiche. The quiche had bacon in it (what would Jesus think!) which I managed to mostly pick out. The tea was hosted by the pastor's wife, who never said a word without identifying herself as the "pastor's wife." She introduced herself and a few other contributors to the event and everyone applauded politely. When she asked the cooks to come out of the kitchen, they reluctantly stuck their heads out to rousing and very enthusiastic applause. The cooks were men.

I won't bore you with the laborious details of each speaker, but the highlights should be sufficient to give an accurate picture of the tea. The speakers were all missionaries who talked about their experiences in various places such as Indonesia and South Africa, converting Muslims from the "dark side" (they actually used those words) to the light of life walking with Jesus Christ. The most reprehensible one has lived as a missionary in Indonesia many times, and kept referring to how many Muslims there were in that country, and how there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in all of the Middle East. Of course, she gushed, these lucky heathens (upon finally reading the bible) just had to become Christian because the bible told the truth and the Koran did not. I tried to keep my expression neutral during this talk.

The other thing I kept noticing about these women was how very steeped in paternalism and patriarchy their whole worldview is and how exceedingly oblivious they are to their own lack of agency. I can't even count how many times I heard one of them say "He takes care of me," and "When I didn't know what to do, God told me," and God called me to do this" along with "God told me to . . . "

This turning of self over to some benevolent and paternal God bothers me, of course, since there is literally no room for self or agency or THOUGHT. But what really troubles me about this "God told me to" is that there is no responsibility or community or thinking involved. God tells you to be a missionary, so you do it. God tells you to move to Iowa, you do it. What if God tells you to kill your self? Or your neighbor? I sense the comfort these women get from feeling and believing that their lives are working towards some greater good--I understand that. But their world view is so limited that they believe that Islam, one of the world's great religions, is a product of the devil. That kind of belief system makes me sad and very worried.

I was happy that no one tried to recruit me. But I was also a bit sad that people have such limited perspectives on the world that they truly believe that their way is the only way.