What could be more appropriate this time of year than to give thanks to the endless number of women serving our Orthodox parishes across the US? And thanks to Axia’s Women of the Week series, I am delighted to spend some time reporting on what we have learned.
Patricia Bouteneff, who founded and edits Axia’s WOW series, had the privilege of interviewing 61 women across 14 Oriental and Eastern jurisdictions who vary in age, race, cultures, and careers. We know that they by no means constitute a representative sample of women in Orthodoxy. But given that almost no studies exist about Orthodox women in the West, these WOWs offer a start towards documenting, understanding and--most importantly--celebrating a kind of Orthodox woman who all too often flies under the radar, rarely recognized for her many contributions.
Since the women interviewed were all asked the same questions, I could see patterns and commonalities in the interviews. And, the criteria for nomination was consistent: people could nominate a woman they admired. So for each of our WOWs someone went out of their way to contact Axia about a woman doing “amazing work.” (We purposefully left the criteria vague so we could learn how Orthodox people viewed someone noteworthy.) And, after 61 interviews, we learned people defined ‘amazing’ as women who actively serve BOTH their Church and their community (either professional or neighborhood). There is a plurality to the amazing women of the WOW; they hold gravity in both their spiritual and secular worlds, seamlessly (although maybe it didn’t feel that way to them!) contributing to both their Church and their community.
And these women bring their united selves to each arena. Take Jasmina Boulanger, a lawyer and an economist who serves as the Chairperson of the IOCC board. Her skills in managing this prestigious board were honed in the private sector. Pediatrician Sherry Shenoda’s work with children resulted in The LightKeeper, a novel published by Ancient Faith Radio about battling danger, loneliness, uncertainty, and despair.
Much the same holds for our monastics. Emahoy (Abbess) of Kidane Mehret Kidane Selam (Covenant of Mercy Covenant of Peace) describes herself as an active solitary who lives a life of prayer. She accompanies the elderly and those who are dying, and works at her archdiocese. In another example, when Sister Theonymphi Kallis wrote her WOW, she had helped her tiny monastery launch a business, White Field Farm, an all-natural home and body company that offered employment and support to women survivors of abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking and addiction.
WOW women bring their Orthodoxy to work and their work skills to the Church. This integration allows women to be fully present, authentic and effective. Susanna Toolan, a disabilities right advocate and counselor, was a founder of her parish, its long-serving previous council president, and the chair of its Charity Committee chair. She summarizes what many of our WOWs suggest: “I have never distinguished between service in the community and service in and through the church. It all blends into one whole.”
The second point I’d like to make speaks more about how Orthodox women leaders perceive themselves. Surprisingly, these accomplished women did not consider themselves worthy of admiration. They were often uncomfortable being seen as such. As Patricia notes, “Even though people around them might think of them as amazing, these Orthodox workers don’t tend to see themselves that way. Mostly they seem to focus on where they have fallen short.” If they are on Facebook or Instagram, and see the likes and comments that their pieces attract, they can be surprised, sometimes even a little embarrassed. (Take Lijin Thomas [pictured here], social worker, priest’s wife, and seminary graduate, whose posts reached 8,482 people on Facebook. She was wow’ed!) Being seen as a leader by their Church community on such a wide scale across so many Orthodox jurisdictions, is a testament to their servant leadership and efforts, but also raises issues of how women are perceived and valued by us, the Church community.
It was Axia’s hope that the Woman of the Week series would expand the narrative landscape about how women serve the Church. What you tend to hear--if you ask most Orthodox about women’s roles in the Church--is that there are lots of opportunities to clean, and provide coffee hour, and be mothers, and (in some jurisdictions) sing in the choir. Many of our WOWs do these things. Everybody can easily see them doing those things. But it tends to be much harder for people to register that they are filling the other service roles that they have taken on. As a result, they rarely received open recognition for those activities. This is unfortunate, and not life-giving.
Being appreciated, affirmed, valued and validated is energizing and uplifting. It puts wind in the sails of people doing the hard work. It lets them see that their efforts are visible. And by publicly acknowledging the gifts and talents that women--and other volunteers--bring, we create a culture of gratitude. Which is good for us as much as it is for them.
So, we thank our WOWs for all their love, energy, talent, and accomplishments. Perhaps you, too, might find a few moments to openly thank a woman in your parish that you think is doing amazing work. She might not think anyone has noticed.
Jennifer Nahas is a program evaluation expert and Axia's secretary-treasurer.