by Heather Thiessen
“The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and for the building of community locally, nationally and globally.”
What does it mean to work for the building of community locally, nationally and globally, and why would this task of building community be important — so important that it is one of the missions of the Women’s Center? How would we even begin to go about that mission?
“Community” is a word with many and contested meanings; sociologists, who presumably know something about what communities are, reportedly have over 90 different uses of the term. The difficulty seems to arise around what dimensions are critical for identifying “community.” Everyone knows it has something to do with a group of people, but does that group of people need to (1) occupy a shared space, like a village, a city, or a country; (2) share interests and ideas; (3) work and live together, in specific ways – for instance, cooperate on projects, with or without a specific “communal” quality of interaction; (4) have a sense of “belonging” to one another, a shared identity? Those are some of the more common identifiers of community. They may combine in various ways in real live groupings of people, giving rise to the question of whether any particular group constitutes a community.
Without being too doctrinaire, or identifying ourselves too closely with one or another sociological school, we might note that most of the activities of the Women’s Center have a community-building component, almost by definition, and usually by design. It has something to do with the fact that the programs and activities of the Women’s Center are built around assembling, gathering, communicating, often involving concerted action, or sharing food. Those are all fundamental community-creating activities, as we understand it.
So, the Women’s Center as a space provides a focal point for the building of a community that can identify itself by its relationship to that space: Friends of the Women’s Center, the people who have come to know themselves and one another in and through gathering, interacting, and working in that space, in the direction of a mission that we have come to understand better in the course of working for it.
As an educational space and program, the Women’s Center articulates and disseminates ideas, and identifies and cultivates interests — both in the sense of what people come to care about, and in the sense of what is beneficial or necessary for people. That is, we understand that it is in seminarians’ best interest to become more interested in gender issues, and to have opportunities to explore that developing interest. So building a community of interest focused on gender issues grows out of the other elements of the Women’s Center’s mission. And as an educational space and program focused on gender, it almost goes without saying, those gender-focused efforts tend to cultivate the community of interest, in both senses, that builds on shared experiences of gendered embodiment in our shared social contexts. We hope they also cultivate the wider community of interest that can build on shared awareness of and care for those experiences, however different our gendered embodiments.
As a collaborative organization, which accomplishes its activities by organizing planning groups and mobilizing wider participation in the execution of its activities and programs, the Women’s Center’s work tends towards the development of a community in the sense of a group of people who work together. Over time, the growing group of people drawn together by the experiences of having once worked on such projects, at different times, with different goals, becomes an inter-generational community as well. Members of that community may not have worked on the same project in the same year, but can recognize themselves as collaborators in a larger effort that reaches across the years.
The greater goal of all of this community-building activity is precisely the formation of a community in the sense of mutual belonging, of shared identification — with the mission, the purposes, of the Women’s Center, which is to say, with the mission, the purpose, of justice for all people, and an understanding of justice as a project that requires attention to gender and the elimination of injustices based on gender. And while we believe that one day this community ought to be co-terminous with the Christian community, which ought to be fully committed to the promotion of social righteousness and the exhibition of the reign of heaven to the world, and then with the inter-faith community, which ought to be fully committed to global justice and peace, we recognize that the building of a community that shares this belief about what justice entails — respect for and celebration of women’s divinely-created humanity and a divinely-created humanity’s gendered diversity — is an indispensable step in that direction.
All of which helps to indicate why this mission is important. Community is that embodied form of life together that cultivates the goods of human life, and the recognition and appreciation of those goods, specifically in their location in one another and our relationships one to another. Community, then, is something more than expedient relations of exchange, or co-existence in space, such as might characterize anonymous transactional relations in our society. Community involves recognition of ourselves and one another as people, with individuated gifts and strengths, challenges and vulnerabilities, stories and aspirations. For us, community involves recognition of ourselves and one another as people whose lives are equally the work of a God who is always already community in the depths of the divine being, and who has created us to be, become, and display the image of that community in our own lives.
So as we walk across the 2nd Street bridge in the Louisville AIDS Walk, as we communicate with friends in Wisconsin or Odessa, as we raise money and contribute to the healing of victims of violence in Kinshasa, as we gather to share conversation around a shared lunch or breakfast table in the shared space that is the Women’s Center, and come to share one another’s concerns, questions, stories, triumphs and dreams in the process, we are building community, and living towards the encompassing community for whose arrival we long, which is the real missio Dei.We hope members of the extended community cultivated in and by the Women’s Center will contribute to the community-building work of the Women’s Center during our Summer Donation Days!
You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.