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Presbyterian women discuss leadership during UN event

Leaders including moderators of Presbyterian Women and the General Assembly see both progress and room for improvement

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. JyungIn Lee preaches at Church of the Covenant in New York City in 2019 prior to the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations nearby. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Rev. Jyungin Lee, moderator of Presbyterian Women,  was recently asked by a woman who is white if she still experienced racism in her work with the church.

“A woman of color would never ask me that question, because she would know what it is like for a woman of color, wherever she is,” said Lee, a teaching elder who is Korean-American. “I think people have this notion that when you rise to a position, somehow, magically, you’re not subjected to bias, ignorance or what have you. But it is not true. It is still there.”

Lee was on a panel of three women of color who are leaders in the PC(USA) presented by the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations as a complementary event to the 65th UN Commission on the Status of Women Tuesday afternoon. Joining her were Elona Street-Stewart, co-moderator of the 224th General Assembly of the PC(USA), and The Rev. Dr. SanDawna Gaulman Ashley, transitional leader for the Synod of the Northeast.

Courtney Hoekstra (Screenshot)

Moderated by Courtney Hoekstra, associate for advocacy committee support in Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, the conversation ranged from challenges the women have faced in the church to how the PC(USA) stacks up in the grand scheme of equity and inclusion in the United States and around the world.

Click here to see the entire panel discussion

“When I get the opportunity to talk with seminarians, which I did in my work with the Office of the General Assembly, one of the things that I would tell people is, do not accept your gender as an obstacle,” Gaulman Ashley said. “Now, there are people who see it as an obstacle. But don’t you fall into that understanding. And so my conversation in wanting to create space was for people to see that individuals needed to deal with their own issues related to my gender and my race. That was not my issue. I have been called by God to do this work.

the Rev. Dr. SanDawna Gaulman Ashley

“And I was going to do the work and allow the work to speak for me, and to create space,” she added, acknowledging that was a privilege many of her predecessors did not enjoy.

Fielding a question about the importance of having diverse groups of women at decision-making tables, Street-Stewart reflected on matriarchal cultures in Indigenous communities.

“All of the discussions and all of the engagement and the commitments and the resources that we bring to those tables in the church are around protecting our cultures, protecting our land, thinking about our futures and the next generation,” she said. “We’re planting seeds all the time. That’s what I’ve seen when you get women at the table. This cross pollination of women across cultures is just phenomenal. And if somebody was to put like a stick out there and measure how all of that’s changing the atmosphere, they will be able to recognize that because I think women will be supporting one another.”

Lee said having women of color in decision making can help point out things in the status quo that are problematic but have not been critiqued in the majority culture. She pointed to “Minari,” a film by Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung that was recently nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture. The film is about a family of Korean immigrants that moves to Arkansas in the 1980s. In one scene, the family goes to an American church because the nearest Korean Church is too far away.

One of the boys who goes to the church asks the six-year-old boy in the Korean family, “Why is your face flat.” Lee said the boy replied, “No, it is not flat,” and the scene moved on, and the boys actually became friends.

“The way Isaac Chung brought that scene without displaying any anger or hate, but it’s just pure ignorance was very powerful to me,” Lee said. “He showed how absurd and ignorant that is, by not doing anything with it, but by just showing it as it is. So I think that women of color can reveal, bring light to the status quo that we have not been able to see, but to the people who are open to see it.”

Asked about violence against women, one of the major issues the CSW is addressing, panelists cited myriad issues, from microaggressions, such as a female job candidate being asked if she cries often, to physical violence in society and even perpetuated by or at best tolerated by the church. Street-Stewart in particular pointed to violence against Indigenous women from the first settlers in North America to the present day.

Elona Street-Stewart is Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020).

“We have a history to reconcile, a history of repentance, a history of repair of what’s been broken,” Street-Stewart said. “And that’s why women at the table, I think, are the ones that will help us through that, in we will be like doulas, for the future of justice around these issues of how families and children and women have been victimized by Christendom.”

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), panelists said they could see progress. Gaulman Ashley pointed to statistics that show that 70 out of 167 presbyteries in the PC(USA) are led by women.

“If we were to take that number, and to look at how many of them are women of color, of course that number is less,” she said. “But we’re working towards something. And I really hope that as women have had the opportunity now to lead in various positions, that people will see the gifts that we bring, and these gifts are equal to what others may have.

“Our male partners, they have gifts to bring, but we have gifts to bring. It is the season in our country, and it’s the season for our church to continue to say yes to women’s leadership.”

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to continue the ministry’s valuable work.

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