Audacious grace

I WAS GRACED FROM BIRTH BY THE LOVE, nurturing, and example of many in my extended family but most especially by the love and companionship, as I got older, of four exceptional women: my godmother, Ollie Cook; my maternal aunt, Mildred Jackson; my "other" mother, Lucretia Diggs; and my birth mother, Helen Hayes. None of these women had the opportunity, as I have had, to live fully the lives they dreamed about. All except one, Lucretia, were born and raised in the South where they were hemmed in by Jim Crow segregation with its callous disregard for black life. Yet somehow they made it through, in spite of and despite it all.

They were women then
My momma's generation
Husky of voice—stout of
With fists as well as
How they battered down
And ironed
Starched white
How they led
Head-ragged Generals
Across mined
Booby-trapped kitchens
To discover books
A place for us
How they knew what we
Must know
Without knowing a page
Of it
—Alice Walker

Father Mark Brummel presents Diana Hayes with the U.S. Catholic Award.

I would not be who I am today if it had not been for these women who saw something in me that I was unable to see for myself. I was an extremely shy, introverted bookworm, whose only outlet, strangely enough, was that of a tomboy. If my head wasn't stuck in a book, it was stuck in the crook of a friend's arm as we wrestled together, played baseball, and roamed the streets of Buffalo by foot and on bike. Buffalo was a beautiful city to grow up in then. There were areas where we knew we weren't welcome, but there were many others where we rambled in blackberry brambles, went swimming, and explored to our heart's content.

I was the "odd" one in my family. My three sisters said I talked "funny" because I used the words I discovered in the books I devoured. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had read every book in the children's section of our public library. To my joy, my mother let me use her card so I could discover the books in the adult section. I was always seeking something more than what was present to me. I dreamed dreams.

Some of the dreams were so deeply embedded within my very soul that even I was unaware of them until much later in life, when they awakened me to new and startling possibilities.

I became a civil attorney because of Robert Kennedy. Intrigued by his deep commitment to the "less fortunate," I arrived to volunteer at his presidental campaign headquarters in Washington on June 5, 1968, one day before his assassination. I returned to Buffalo late that summer, determined to make a difference in the world. At law school I specialized in urban and poverty law. I ended up in legislative law working first for the federal government in Washington and then for New York State in Albany.

It was in Albany that my entire life was turned upside down. I became a Catholic theologian because of God. Not knowing any Catholics or having any experience of the Catholic Church, I found myself being called out of myself to move in an entirely new and at first seemingly unthinkable direction. The call was direct, an urging to find out more about the church. After doing so, admittedly with a great deal of reluctance because I had stopped going to my A.M.E. Zion church when I was 16, I was confirmed on Dec. 23, 1979. Six months later, I found myself entering the Catholic University of America's pontifical program in sacred theology, not knowing that I was the first African-American and the first laywoman to be accepted into that program. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.

Somehow, with the grace of God I survived and along the way came to realize that this vocation of Catholic theologian enabled me to combine my love of learning with my love of languages and writing. There were difficulties, frustrations, financial problems—the list is endless. However, there was also an awakening and harmonization of my spirit and intellect, my faith and reason, that made all the challenges mere incidents rather than the obstacles they could have been.

What is womanist theology?

In awarding the 2001 U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church, the editors chose Diana Hayes, the leading Catholic proponent of womanist theology. Never heard of womanist theology? You're not alone. Hayes admits it's a well-kept secret in the Catholic Church.

"It was because the black woman was absent from both feminist theology and black theology," says Hayes, "that black women began to say, 'We have our own story to tell. We have our own perspective on who Jesus is for us and who God is for us.' " Thus, womanist theology was born.

The term womanist was coined by author Alice Walker, who used it to mean a black feminist, but in the hands of womanist theologians like Hayes, Shawn Copeland, and Jamie Phelps, OP, it has taken on a broader meaning. Womanists focus their energies both within the church and the public sphere.

Through it all, my mothers, all four of them, nurtured and sustained me, encouraged and strengthened me, walked with me through the obstacles, carried me when I grew weary, gave me hope when I first was told I would never walk again and then developed rheumatoid arthritis and all of its accompanying ills as I was finishing my dissertation, and prayed for me each in her own way. They were a source of life, ever renewed, for me. Now that three of them have gone home to God, I know they continue to be God's agents and angels for me and are watching over me still.

I don't mean to slight the men in my life: my father, Leonard Hayes; my teacher, Lowell Shaw; my "other" father, Father Nellis Tremblay; my teacher and friend, Donald Hilliard; and, most importantly, my mentor and friend, Howard Hubbard, the bishop of Albany. They too saw more in me than I was able to and pushed me further than I thought I was capable of going.

I have truly been blessed by the friends and family God has provided. As a vowed celibate laywoman, I have had the joy of sharing in the raising of my nieces and nephews, hopefully opening new opportunities for them as they were opened for me, thereby passing on the gifts I was given.

Truly, I have been blessed. I look at our young women today and am proud of them for what they have been able to accomplish. Yet I also fear for them. I thought it was difficult growing up in the 1950s and '60s, but the challenges facing me as a young black woman then are nothing compared to what they go through today. They are required to mature too quickly. They are children in the bodies of adults, bombarded by messages on radio, TV, films, videos, and in the stores that tell them to dress and act like temptresses. They are being treated shamelessly by adults who should know better. They're confused by the conflicting messages they are receiving and too often find little comfort or understanding from teachers too overwhelmed to even listen to them, let alone guide them. Their parents, if present, are often themselves immature and self-centered.

Many of them have never been inside a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple except perhaps on major holidays. All they know of religion is the caricatures they have seen on TV or in the movies, or the horrors blasted across our screens and newspapers today of religious faith turned wrong, perverted into a fanaticism that rejoices in death, not life, and inflicting pain rather than instilling love of one another.

But there is hope. while some doors may seem to be closed, others have opened. I envy young women athletes of today who are forging a new path that was barred to me in my youth. I admire the intelligence and assertiveness of young women in medical and law schools and business programs who are unconcerned about whether they, as women, will be able to succeed. They know they will.

In our church, young women are forging new paths as well, active in movements and ministries that demand that church leaders not only listen to them but also respond to them, respectful of their calling as the People of God. These young women, and the young men with them, have come a long way. They are filling the seminaries and divinity schools. They are teaching, preaching, and prophesying, using those gifts that God has given them to make a difference in both church and world.

Our church is a difficult place to be in right now if you believe that you are capable of thinking and acting for yourself, of discerning God's will in your life with the faculties that God graced you with, of interpreting sacred scripture with a critically suspicious eye for your time, of stepping out on a faith that does not falter despite edicts and demands that attempt to lock-step you into silence and submissiveness.

Let me recall for you two women widely recognized in our church throughout its history, albeit in different ways. They modeled the courage that all people of faith need. The first is Mary, the mother of God, who was not a passive, submissive nonentity but a passionate and compassionate young woman who courageously stood up in the midst of her people to say a "yes" to God that shattered all of time and history. The second is Mary Magdalene, not simply a repentant sinner, but Jesus' chosen "apostle to the apostles," who was the first to see the risen Christ and to be given his message of love, hope, and challenge to relate to those cowering in the Upper Room.

Looking back in time, these two women can be named womanists—bold, daring, audacious women who refused to stay in their allotted place as women and by so doing helped to bring a new world of possibilities into being. As a womanist, an African-American Christian theologian, I take pride in my sisters in the past while hoping to influence those of the future to stand on their faith and speak a word of hope into life, a life that will challenge us but will also bring us ever closer to God our creator.

It is women like these, my four mothers, the two Marys, and countless others who serve as role models for all of us of what is possible if only one has faith in a God who hates injustice and despises the self-righteous. I am who I am because of them. I thank God for them and the path that they, with God's blessing, prepared for me.

am a Black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
defying place
and time
and circumstance
On me and be
—Mari Evans

Diana L. Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington. This article appeared in the January 2002 (Volume 67, Number 1) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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