Encircling Our World’s Gender Pain: Reflections of a Donor Activist

Donor Activist Emily Nielsen Jones, right, holds hands with Michele Breene, Philbert Karisa, and Mangesh Pol of her home group, during the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat held in May of 2018 at the Warren Conference Center and Inn in Framingham, MA.

While #MeToo revelations continue to roil the globe, what can we all do in our own sandboxes to say #TimesUp? How can we do work in our own lives that gets at not only the more egregious forms of relational abuse, but also at all the layers of harmful gender dynamics—psychological, social, relational, institutional, and yes spiritual—which create the conditions where abuse happens?

These are questions that gripped my mind and heart, and led me to help organize and participate in two “gender reconciliation” retreats, one in Seattle and one in Boston. The retreats were led by an incredible set of facilitators who are part of a global movement called Gender Equity and Reconciliation International (GERI) that aims to heal the deeper roots of our world’s gender wounds, one circle at a time.

I don’t know how many #MeToo stories you have read, but it is in the heartbreaking details that we find evidence of the “damaging relational dynamic” (to quote speaker Beth Moore in A Letter To My Brothers) of patriarchy. The details of #MeToo stories often reveal more subtle psychological, social, and even spiritual layers of male presumption which create a harmful consolidation of power and honor around a few “great men.”  These men are granted excessive sexual and social latitude, making it hard for women to be equally honored and valued.

My gender story is not one that contains abuse, so I went into these gender equity retreats thinking I was there mostly to listen and hold other people’s stories. But just as happened in the Seattle retreat, at the Framingham retreat, I was again able to see how my own gender journey resonated with and became part of a larger tapestry of gender wound stories. 

There were tears shed over the course of the three days, but there was much laughter too, like when I shared a story in my home group that involved a ski boat, and which captured vividly one of my early life gender wounds. After I shared my ski boat story, my Rwandan brother shared about some of the gender issues he encountered growing up for 18 years in a refugee camp in Burundi.  Then my Indian brother shared about growing up as an untouchable.  We all let out a howl of laughter after they shared, noticing that if I had not gone first, I probably would not have shared a story about a ski boat! 

So how do we deal with all of the gender pain that exists in the many layers that created all the heartbreaking #MeToo stories? And how do we move forward and become better humans together?

There are many answers to this question, but one very basic way forward is to do what our human ancestors used to do when they didn’t have so many diversions: sit together in a circle. It’s almost like we have to go back to “rug time” where we sat in circles in kindergarten and nursery school. In these circles, we learned the basics of the give and take of how to be in social settings together. Sitting in a circle gives a social gathering a sacred quality that connotes we are all interconnected; we are part of a larger whole.

Sitting in a circle at the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat.

When we first gathered at the beginning of the three-day retreat in Framingham, the circle of 48 felt a bit stilted and formal since it was so big. What an interesting variety we had around this circle—a potpourri of evangelical pastors from the Boston area, some earthy crunchy types from Western MA, a few Buddhists, a Muslim, a few non-religious, lots of gender equality activists, men and women of all ages and stages, two openly gay men, one openly gay woman, two people from India, and one man from Rwanda who is leading a post-genocide reconciliation ministry there. All of this human diversity in one large circle gathered to hear and feel and in some way heal one another’s gender wounds — a tall task, but one we took on with open hearts. Over the course of three days as we broke into smaller circles and shared our stories, it felt like my own heart opened as I watched other hearts opening, forming a collective heart.

“You gotta feel it to heal it.” I don’t know who said it first, but it is so true. If we don’t tend to our pain, it doesn’t vanish — it just goes underground. To heal a relational wound, you need to allow yourself to feel it. And you can’t short-circuit this healing process. It happens in its own time and in different ways. There is a role for doing this alone in a therapeutic setting, but the wisdom of the GERI approach is to feel and to heal collectively through a carefully facilitated process involving a liturgy of silence, guided meditations, small group conversations, dance, song, and games.  The retreat is also comprised of rituals choreographed to open the heart bit by bit, not to tell all of the gory details, but simply to be heard and understood. Together, we grow to understand how gender dynamics create emotional wounds, and find ways to turn our own thoughts and behaviors toward healing.

All this is done sitting in circles of deep listening and trust. Throughout our three days, our circle of 48 was subdivided into a mix and match of smaller circles to get everyone talking, moving, sharing and listening together.

Over the course of those three days, it felt like something very sacred happened. In many settings where gender issues come up, conversation quickly turns to debate, but there was not one debate or argument in these circles — only listening to understand one another’s stories. 

Women encircle men during a closing ceremony at the Gender Equity and Reconciliation Initiative retreat in Framingham, MA.

It is not easy to open one’s heart, nor does it happen instantly, but what emerges is well worth the time and trouble to get there. In a way, it felt like we healed an ancient divide, that we got to the deeper root of the problem.  The women talked about feeling heard and understood, having experienced  the kindness and good will of the men who showed up to be allies in the fight for gender equality. The men also spoke of feeling understood as they shared how they too have been harmed by patriarchy. 

As I reflect back on #WeHealTogetherNewEngland, I still carry an embodied feeling of the heart of empathy that emerged like a beautiful weave, story by story, as we sat in sacred circles together. Encircling the pain with love and understanding somehow makes the the bad stuff feel lighter and our mutual longings for a “gender healed world” more in reach.  

Below is one more glimpse of a creation from the retreat — a poem that was written and shared by the men in a closing ceremony honoring the women.

From the Men, Honoring the Women 

Before we were formed in the womb, O God,

You knew us. You knitted us 

together in our mother’s womb.


We honor you as our teachers, 

as our wives, as our daughters,

as our friends … as our mothers.


May we be re-formed together 

in love, knitted together in the strength 

of tenderness, in the power 

of self-giving, in the hope of re-birth.


You have shown us what it means

to be brave and bold, and truthful,

and righteously angry.

We thank you.
Group photo of participants in the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat at the Warren Conference Center in Framingham, MA.

 

For more on how you can participate in a gender reconciliation circle to do something about the deeper roots that lead to all these #MeToo stories, check out the work of Gender Reconciliation International.

Emily Nielsen Jones is Co-Founder Imago Dei Fund. For reflections about the circle which met in Seattle, gathering 33 leaders of the men’s and women’s movements, read Deep Listening Across the Gender Line.

Related:

An Unusual Women’s Giving Circle in Boston Fuels Social Change Globally

I’m With Her: Reboarding the Feminist Train to Build Local and Global Sisterhood

Difficult, Disturbing Times at Oxfam, but Gender Equality Mission Endures

Author: Emily Nielsen Jones

Emily is a donor-activist engaged in promoting human equality, justice, and peace around the world. She is particularly passionate and engaged in the nexus of faith, gender, and development and working to mobilize our faith traditions to more fully and unambiguously embrace gender equality. In her role at the Imago Dei Fund, Emily has helped the foundation adopt a “gender-lens” in its grantmaking with a particular focus on partnering with inspired female change agents, locally and around the world, to build bridges of peace and create a world where girls and women can thrive and achieve their full human potential. Emily is actively engaged in the women-led philanthropy movement, is the author of numerous articles, and is a member of Women Moving Millions and the Women's Donor Network. She is the recipient of the Christians for Biblical Equality 2013 Micah Award and was named a 2014 Women’s eNews “21 Leaders of the 21st Century” honoree. Emily serves on the advisory boards of Women Thrive, New England International Donor Network, the Boston Women’s Fund, Union Theological School, Nomi Network, Girl Rising, Tostan, and Sojourners Founders’ Circle. She was a proud supporter of the Women's March for America and is looking for ways to make sure this becomes not just a march but a movement.

One thought on “Encircling Our World’s Gender Pain: Reflections of a Donor Activist”

  1. Hi Emily! Thank you so much for this article
    I continue to thank God for you and your work. You inspire many to live out their call in Christ. Since we met, my life have never been the same. I’m to see you together with Michele whom I will meet next week over Skype. I’m proud of you all. Agape.

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