ALCHEMISTS AT WORK:
by Katharine Rhodes Henderson
This article was first presented at “Generation of Giving: Women, Philanthropy, and Faith,” a conference sponsored by The Women’s Studies in Religion Program of Harvard Divinity School held at the Aspen Institute, Aspen, Colorado, October 5–7, 2001.
I am happy to be here because the theme for this conference includes some of my favorite topics—women, God, and money. Each one would be wonderful to talk about separately, but when taken together, they become an irresistible assignment for me as minister, fundraiser, and mother of a daughter who has just entered college. Of the topics—God, money, and motherhood—surprisingly only talk of motherhood is allowed in most circumstances. God and money are both delicate topics, to negotiate carefully or maybe not at all. So it may be that what Eve Ensler, playwright and author of the popular off-Broadway play, The Vagina Monologues has done in raising the comfort zone for the word vagina, we are doing here this weekend for women’s relationships to God and money. Now I debated whether I could say the “v” word in this company or not, and tried it out on my 82-year-old mother—who liked it—and my 59-year-old sister—who didn’t. Yet, I decided that the squeamishness we feel about going public in any of these areas is precisely the point. Yes, vagina, God, and money are charged topics, but this means there is something of great value at stake, and we may find it well worth our time to learn to speak of it together.
In fact, these three words have more in common than we might think. The European root of the word “money” is mens, the same root from which menses , or monthly cycle, is derived. The word “money” is also derived from the Latin moneta meaning mint or money. Moneta was originally the name of the goddess in whose temple in Rome money was coined. Helen Luke, author of The Way of Woman (1972), has observed:
[the goddess Moneta] has acquired an ever-increasing autonomous power and is worshipped unashamedly as an end in itself. It was certainly not by chance that the Romans set their mint in the temple of a goddess and not a god—for money is a symbolic means of exchange and therefore belongs to the feminine principle of relatedness. If, therefore, the ‘goddess’ is missing—that third transpersonal factor which gives meaning to every exchange between human beings, (whether physical, emotional, spiritual or financial)—then [we] are in acute danger. . . .
So, what we’re here to explore is the meaningful use of money—the lifeblood of modern culture. We need to understand that when we hold these delicate topics together again, we are entering a sacred precinct. We need to appreciate that we, as women philanthropists, have a particular capacity to bring the goddess— the feminine principle, the spirit—to bear on the public issues of our time.
When I was eighteen—the age my daughter is now—I participated in a study- travel program in Germany. There I met Vera Von Trott, then in her eighties, who planted a seed in me that is only now yielding fruit, which is that women have a special role in healing the world. She grew up in a wealthy aristocratic Lutheran family in Germany. During the Holocaust her brother, Adam, participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler and was killed for doing so. Vera took the family’s fortune and land and founded a religious community to care for children orphaned during the war. Fifty years later, the community Imshausen is still there doing all kinds of risk-taking, frontline work. Just a few years ago, I realized that Vera’s example resonated with a burning, primal question which has been motivating me all my life: “Why in the face of suffering do some people simply walk by while others take notice, respond, and act?”
Before I tell you about some who have been doing just that, let me take a few moments to set the context. I have been a Presbyterian minister now for twenty years. Over that period of time I have seen a decline in my kind of religion— which is called the mainstream. Presbyterians, like Episcopalians, Methodists and others have declined numerically and are becoming invisible culturally. Presbyterians, like Jews, have some of the lowest birthrates, so issues of survival are very real. In fact, should current trends continue, we can chart the exact moment in time when Presbyterians will cease to exist at all; there’s actually a computer program to demonstrate this. In the course of these twenty years, I have seen other changes as well, like the silencing of progressive religious voices in the public sphere. I am using progressive in the sense of forward-thinking commitment to the values of justice, equity, tolerance, pluralism, as well as the transformation of society to achieve those ends.
Although Americans say they believe in God, increasingly they do not express their beliefs by belonging to organized religion. And, progressive forms of religion—like Vera Von Trott’s, or the civil rights movement, where religious conviction and progressive public commitments go hand-in-hand—have gone out of style. What we hear most are the voices of the Religious Right, while others of us are increasingly quiet so that we won’t be considered overzealous. As constitutional law scholar Stephen Carter puts it, “Religion has become a hobby; best if it’s kept to oneself, under cover and out of view.” Or, as a recent article about the Washington social scene put it, “if you use the ‘G’ word, you can’t be on the ‘A’ list.” I experience these trends viscerally—at a cocktail party—when the chatter moves to the question of, “What do you do?” Sometimes I hide behind the formal title of executive vice president of an educational institution. The word “seminary” tends to throw people off. If I’m feeling particularly provocative and say “Presbyterian minister,” this is sure to be a conversation stopper as people search their minds to make sure that nothing they previously said would have caused their eternal damnation.
Several years ago, I realized that even as progressive religion was going undercover, I was aware of a countervailing phenomenon. There were in fact women, some of whom I had known for years, who had caught my attention like Vera Von Trott did—women leaders, changing the world, who seemed to be faith motivated. God, in other words, seemed to be somewhere in their public work. It was at this point that my informal pursuit of people whose lives helped answer my primal question became formal research. I interviewed in depth twenty of these women leaders—Jews, Christians, Muslims and others—to see what I could learn about the sources and shape of their commitments. How had they found their special role to play in healing the world?
Let me give you a feel for who they are.
Over twenty years ago, Gretchen Buchenholz
was taking care of some business in a municipal building in New York
City when she happened to open the wrong door. She said: I was probably preoccupied, I no longer
remember, and I was supposed to go into 250 Church Street with
regard to something having to do with daycare, but instead I walked
into 251, and I saw what was sickening, shocking—little children,
knocking on a metal door begging for something to eat or drink.
There were about 75 families there, some on the floor sleeping. The
whole place stank, primarily of diarrhea. There were knuckle marks
on the door, but they only went up to the height where little
children could reach, and they were begging the people on the other
side of the door for food. I was really outraged, but at the same
time, moved to do something about it.
I was probably preoccupied, I no longer remember, and I was supposed to go into 250 Church Street with regard to something having to do with daycare, but instead I walked into 251, and I saw what was sickening, shocking—little children, knocking on a metal door begging for something to eat or drink. There were about 75 families there, some on the floor sleeping. The whole place stank, primarily of diarrhea. There were knuckle marks on the door, but they only went up to the height where little children could reach, and they were begging the people on the other side of the door for food. I was really outraged, but at the same time, moved to do something about it.
Gretchen left and instinctively went to make three phone calls. One was to the head of disaster relief of the Red Cross, whom she knew from volunteer work; the second was to the deputy mayor of operations to request an immediate food delivery; and the third was to the New York Times to get a photographer and reporter. She said, “It started to spin in the press. I also went to the neighborhood deli and to McDonald’s and brought back some bags of bread and peanut butter and juice, which wasn’t enough for everybody. . . .It was really something you would be sickened by in the developing world, but here in New York City, we’re talking about a very affluent time, something so foreign.”
This experience started Gretchen on a whole new path to the founding of something as basic as the Association to Benefit Children (ABC), a multimillion dollar non-profit to “challenge and to change the myriad threats to childhood” by providing all the things needed for optimal growth: food, shelter, safety, love and education. Gretchen’s organization was simultaneously a critique of society and an alternative , embodying values that mainstream society had seemingly forgotten, namely that everyone deserves a childhood. Gretchen never thought of herself as an activist. She simply said, “I was an innocent bystander. I had no training, gift, talent or knowledge. I had quarters to make a phone call.”
Sister Helen Prejean had been “following Jesus” all her life as a nun. She did acts of charity to help poor people, but had no direct knowledge of people in need. Then she moved to the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans and began to see some of this firsthand. She told me:
God. . .but it had never thrust horizontally with other people.
Then someone asked her to write to a man on death row, who was convicted of the rape, torture and murder of two teenagers. She wrote and then visited him. It changed her life.
And visiting him, it was just like
something happened in my soul. I was hooked for life. There was no
way I was going to turn away from this man. And I just ratcheted
along and watched him being executed in front of my eyes. And it was
like another baptism, that either paralyzes you or galvanizes you.
And it had an effect on me. I had a mission.
And visiting him, it was just like something happened in my soul. I was hooked for life. There was no way I was going to turn away from this man. And I just ratcheted along and watched him being executed in front of my eyes. And it was like another baptism, that either paralyzes you or galvanizes you. And it had an effect on me. I had a mission.
Her mission has grown into a movement against the death penalty in the United States and involves extensive speaking, nationally and internationally. She has become a well-known figure through her book, Dead Man Walking , and the movie based upon it, in which Susan Sarandon played Sister Helen.
And a third story. Originally from Pakistan, Riffat Hassan has been a successful academic in Islamic religious studies for decades. She was drawn into activism when women activists whose lives were literally at stake in Muslim countries begged her to help them counter the violence against women there. Perhaps some of you have seen the public television special on this kind of violence, called “honor” killings, where male family members—husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles—torture and kill women, often for imagined wrong-doings. Riffat has become the leader of an international organization to get assistance for these women victims; to internationalize the issue by making it visible.
Riffat’s strategy is to unite political
activism with better religious arguments, drawing upon her life-long
study of gender references in the Koran. She told me: I began to see very clearly that there was
a big discrepancy between what the Koran says about the rights of
women and what was actually
I began to see very clearly that there was a big discrepancy between what the Koran says about the rights of women and what was actually
Three women, three stories, and this is just a taste. What is important to note is that these encounters with need sparked a passion that had lain dormant and then reoriented these women towards unmapped territory in their lives. At close range each story is utterly distinctive and yet when you move back from them there begin to be common patterns that emerge, common themes— ways in which feminine wisdom is brought to bear on public issues. I want to tell you about three of these patterns which I feel have a direct bearing on our discussion here of God, money, and the common good.
I begin with a dance step. One I call the one-on-one systemic dance. Isn’t it interesting that the women’s first steps were intimate, modest acts between one human being and another—buying peanut butter, writing a letter and visiting a dying man, being called into action on the frontlines by colleagues? Who would think to call this leadership? Or healing the world? In fact, many of these women leaders had no prior training, no knowledge of directing non-profit organizations or leading public causes. They simply responded whole-heartedly to the particular need at hand. And yet over time, these initial acts of compassion connected the women to a nexus of complex public issues—criminal justice, child welfare, AIDS, violence against women. Individuals in need were the means by which societal ills came into focus for these women. And it was clear that they valued these concrete, intimate acts as ways of understanding the larger issues.
These women understood individuals as
microcosms of social systems, which gave glimpses of the whole. They
treated individuals and social systems as a continuum, so that
transformation in one sphere was key to transformation in the other.
There was remarkable consensus about the need to work with both
individuals and systems.
And to move back and forth between the two in an ongoing dance.
Sister Helen Prejean described it this way: If I get into a ministry to people on death
row and then I didn’t engage in any of the efforts to change the
system of it—abolish the Death
If I get into a ministry to people on death row and then I didn’t engage in any of the efforts to change the system of it—abolish the Death
Like Sister Prejean, many of the women leaders practiced this one-on-one systemic dance. Even after their organizations became larger and more complex, and they themselves more visible non-profit executives or spokespersons for a cause, they kept the lifeline going with the intimate one-on-one connections. In fact, these connections were essential to keep them fed and sustained.
Now, how does this phenomenon of the one-on-one systemic dance relate to our work as philanthropists concerned with the common good? The stories of these women leaders, taken together, tell us this: Go toward the need or the project that moves you, even if it carries you into unknown territory. Allow yourself to respond in intimate, instinctual, modest ways. Pay attention to your outrage. Know that if you care enough, you will find a way to take the next step and the next. In the meantime, know that the simple, intimate acts, when practiced across the country and around the globe, do change social systems. Justice is intimate caring writ large. Women, who have cared intimately for individuals for centuries, have a special role to play in healing the world.
This one on one/systemic dynamic provides another insight into our relationship with money. We know that for any of us money has the power to insulate us from the wider world. At the extreme we can be so focused on our own comfort, amidst our own circle of friends like us, that we lose perspective on what the common good might be. I know this as a New Yorker who sometimes takes cabs to avoid the subway; from my occasional exposure to the privacy of chartered planes, private hospital rooms and good medical care; and gated communities that make me feel safe.
None of these is by itself necessarily problematic, but taken together they should give us pause. These women leaders kept the one-on-one encounters in their lives because, however disturbing and heartbreaking they may have been, they were also somehow a lifeline for them. Money used to insulate and isolate us from others, especially those who seem different, may well end up isolating us from our deeper selves as well.
Money used as the Romans originally intended—as a medium of meaningful exchange—becomes a force for liberation and empowerment. In a meaningful exchange, both parties give and both parties receive. In this way money becomes part of a spiritual exchange in which people encounter each other and their own deepest selves.
This brings us to the second pattern I want to discuss, which has to do with how religious convictions connect with public work, regardless of whether that work is explicitly religious . I want to clarify here that the women I interviewed were for the most part not professional religious leaders—not ministers and rabbis; several were lay people with no formal religious education or title. Many were restless, even angry at the lack of response on the part of organized religious leaders and institutions in addressing the challenges and needs of public life, or even their own religious needs. They felt that mainstream religion had been tamed, domesticated, that religious leaders and institutions were inwardly focused, taking care of their own, but not attending to healing the world. One said poignantly: “The lights in all the cathedrals have gone out, there’s nothing but darkness.” A Jewish respondent revealed that she had founded her organization in part because “she could not find a place for herself religiously” in the Jewish community around her.
Yet, despite their ambivalence about being called religious leaders, I considered them to be faith-based leaders because every one of them acknowledged the importance of religious tradition and faith in fueling their work in the world. Their very critiques of religion, in my opinion, were a hallmark of their deeper faithfulness. In some cases their work was connected to religious institutions but often it happened in alternative structures. Many of my respondents were entrepreneurs, creating organizations of their own because traditional organizations were not addressing the needs at hand. They were practicing what might be called a “resistance” faith. This form of faith does not practice complacency and does not see itself as maintaining the status quo. It is not preoccupied with doctrine and dogma. “Resistance” faith is about liberating people to be the human beings God created them to be.
If we use this broad definition of what it means to offer faith-based leadership, then all of you are potentially faith-based leaders. You, like the women in this study, can let your faith show through in your work. This means that the images you hold of God and Spirit, and your deepest convictions about how life is or should be, will inform your philanthropy. For all of us, it is a matter of appropriating religious images, theologies, messages, models and rituals and mining them for the gold and guidance they contain, without relinquishing our valid critiques of their limitations. This is to proceed with faith.
Here’s how Henna Hahn did this. She founded the Rainbow Center, a shelter for Korean women who have been abused by their American G.I. husbands. She named it after the rainbow that appeared in the biblical story of Noah in which, after the devastation of a flood, God made a covenant or promise with the people that the world would not be destroyed again. In speaking of the name, Henna said: “they need the rainbow, no more punishment.”
The Rainbow Center was a not-for-profit that provided a full range of services to women who experience bi-cultural and bi-racial challenges: direct services of shelter and food, counseling, English and citizenship classes, legal assistance, work on immigration policy and advocacy. But Henna spoke of this nonprofit as a family, modeled after the Korean cultural concept of Chin-Jeong Jip, translated as a mother’s house. She explained that in traditional Korean culture, when a woman marries, she goes to her husband’s home, where she assumes a servant role for her husband’s family. In certain circumstances, however, she may return to her mother’s house, when she has morning sickness or for a family wedding. Having a living mother with a house gives her status in her husband’s home because she always has a place to which she can return.
Henna’s own mother died of cancer when she was a child during the Korean war and for years her self-concept was as a poor motherless child. Henna, like her clients, needed a mother’s house to shelter her. Henna said: “When I opened the Rainbow Center everybody told me you are the mother of the Rainbow Center. Not! So, who is mother? God! God is mother. God is the mother and we are all the sisters. So, I’m like a big sister.”
Henna’s image of God shaped the environment of her non-profit and her own leadership. God was lowly, not powerful and mighty in the puffed up sense. For her, the “power” meant “compassionate, hospitable mother.” You could say that she viewed her own work as “mothering” an ailing society toward more complete justice by reconstituting the dynamics of the mother-child dyad in the behavior of public organizations; bringing feminine wisdom to bear on difficult public issues.
How does God look to you sitting here this evening? How do these images help you to rethink strength, courage, power, compassion, and love? Because who God is for you, what God looks like—not in the physical sense but in the heart and mind sense—can go along way toward guiding your giving and the impact you wish to have in the world. Our sacred texts and religious teachings will not give us exact blueprints to follow as philanthropists. They cannot tell us which organizations to support, how much is enough, whether to spend income only or to invade capital, to tithe before or after taxes, to adjudicate the concepts of charity and justice. But God’s own behavior toward God’s people can give us real hints as to how to define generosity.
The Bible is replete with images and metaphors of abundance: manna in the desert, blossoms in the wilderness, streams of living water appearing when desperately needed, captives being released and coming at last to the Promised Land, God’s drying every tear, the bountiful harvest—just celebrated as Sukkoth. These are images of boundless generosity. Story after story of God’s taking risks and not playing it safe, going the distance to love us. Our sacred texts provide us with a theology of abundance . These powerful images can support us in making the improbable real. How much money would it take to address your greatest passion? Let God’s love that knows no bounds be your guide.
And, as you consider what needs to be done, let your religious traditions teach you about the gap between what is and what could be. The Jewish concepts of tikkun olam , repair of the world, or of tzedakah , the obligation to pursue justice, imply that the world is not yet put right; that there is work to be done and that we are part of it. These concepts support the restlessness of a resistance faith. For Christians, the whole concept of stewardship, of being stewards of the creation, implies that everything we have is gift and that we must commit ourselves to work now for the reign of God. The very concept of working for the reign of God implies the gap between where we are and where God wants us to be. The catalyst for our generosity as human beings, as those who are directed beyond ourselves, lives in the tension of that gap. Often we want to numb ourselves to that heartbreaking tension. But the more keenly we allow ourselves to feel it, the more we will become the stewards, the leaders God intends. Most of us know what would offend God. From that our imagination can quickly move to how it could be different. What would delight God? How would God define the common good? What will we risk to work in its behalf?
As you may know, women are already some of the biggest risk-takers in terms of giving. While traditional patterns of philanthropy favor the arts, cultural organizations, and alma maters, one study of elite giving showed that women and Jews in particular support riskier social causes. As individuals and private donors, women can give to marginal, unpopular causes in ways that foundations and corporations can’t or won’t touch. So, in some ways women are already on the right track.
Women currently control 60 percent of the personal wealth in America. In the next eight years, this will rise to 70 percent. Nearly half of Americans with assets of $500,000 or more are women; one third of working women in two- income households make more than their husbands. If women leverage this demographic power and decide to give more money away in meaningful exchange, think of what could happen. It could be argued that money coming from women in the next decade or two has greater potential for making a positive, powerful, progressive impact upon the world than any other single factor we know of.
My research suggests that our connection to
God may be the decisive factor in unlocking this potential. Sister
Helen Prejean said faith and courageous action are linked: If you don’t know your own desires, if
you haven’t touched base with your own soul, then you’re easily
prey to anybody coming along and saying, “You ought to do this.”
So the heart of it is to get in touch with your deepest desires.What motivates me is my faith at the core
of my action. My prayer is a whole way of aligning myself with the
energy of God. To me the big image is energy, movement, a stream. So
you put your little boat in the stream. And when you’re in the
stream and God’s love is flowing through, you can be bold. You
just say, for example: The death penalty is wrong, people are
suffering, there’s great injustice. I will take it on. Aligning ourselves with God carries us into
deeper relationship with ourselves and others. It can liberate our
greatest passions and sustain us in our struggle for a better world.
We will know better when to say yes and when to say no. But for this
to happen, we must practice the art of being a small boat in a
If you don’t know your own desires, if you haven’t touched base with your own soul, then you’re easily prey to anybody coming along and saying, “You ought to do this.” So the heart of it is to get in touch with your deepest desires.What motivates me is my faith at the core of my action. My prayer is a whole way of aligning myself with the energy of God. To me the big image is energy, movement, a stream. So you put your little boat in the stream. And when you’re in the stream and God’s love is flowing through, you can be bold. You just say, for example: The death penalty is wrong, people are suffering, there’s great injustice. I will take it on.
Aligning ourselves with God carries us into
deeper relationship with ourselves and others. It can liberate our
greatest passions and sustain us in our struggle for a better world.
We will know better when to say yes and when to say no. But for this
to happen, we must practice the art of being a small boat in a
If my study has wider relevance for women, and I believe it does, then there is another art that we must also practice—the art of living a seamless life. This is the third and last pattern that I want to speak to you about tonight. It has to do with living a life that overcomes classic separations between private and public, sacred and secular, matter and spirit. As we at this conference explore the meaningful use of money, we too are doing this connective work. Can God and mammon be held together?
Literally all of the women leaders in my
study exhibited this trait, but it was Laura Jervis who coined the
term seamlessness. Laura has spent the past twenty years developing
thousands of units of housing for the poor elderly on the west- side
of Manhattan. When I asked her if she considered this work a job, a
profession, or ministry, she said that the personal, professional,
and religious dimensions of her life all fit together as a whole:
My life on the West Side is really life in
community, and there is a sense of seamlessness to my life. . .which
I sometimes resent a little because it can feel like there’s no
escape. . . .That’s hard. But most of the time I think it’s the right way to live. But it is a kind of public life.
. .it’s the community board, it’s the churches and several
synagogues, it’s the community of my organization. . .and it’s
all really one. There’s a sense of symmetry and wholeness about
it, which, if I were asked to, I don’t think I could sacrifice.
My life on the West Side is really life in community, and there is a sense of seamlessness to my life. . .which I sometimes resent a little because it can feel like there’s no escape. . . .That’s hard. But most of the time I think it’s the right way to live. But it is a kind of public life. . .it’s the community board, it’s the churches and several synagogues, it’s the community of my organization. . .and it’s all really one. There’s a sense of symmetry and wholeness about it, which, if I were asked to, I don’t think I could sacrifice.
This conviction that life really is all of a piece I’ve called a “feminist ethic of connection.” It is not about seeking an elusive perfection or ignoring tensions and complexities. It is a conviction that everything is connected—everything— and that there is greater integrity in living as if this were so.
Now to be sure this may in part be pragmatic, for as women we may not have the luxury of separating the different parts of our lives in the ways that men do. For most of us multitasking taken to an exponential level is how we live. But for the women I studied, knitting together the various spheres of their lives was not simply practical. It was a conviction that acting in the home and in the world in harmony with one’s deepest beliefs is the way life can best be lived. These women consciously strove to put their beliefs into practice.
For instance, they wanted both the external aims and the internal structure of their public organizations to mirror their personal ethical convictions. Also, holding an ethic of seamlessness meant believing that religious values have a place in secular settings. Henna unabashedly said that in her experience complete healing did not take place without God. Yet she was clear that her work was not to make the Rainbow sister/clients Christians, but “to help them become the whole human beings God created them to be.
We can all recognize that living a seamless life is not supported by our culture. In fact being here trying to connect all of these different topics—God, money, the common good, motherhood—is countercultural, an act of resistance faith. Think about it, our culture teaches us to compartmentalize the various parts of our lives. We must be professional over here and keep our personal lives from impinging on that space; separate your private religious beliefs from your public commitments because I’m spiritual here and a citizen there; and please keep God separate from money. In the workplace, even at high levels, people have become soulless commodities with skill sets, who can easily be transferred from one company to the next. No wonder there are so many self-help books trying to make us “whole.”
I don’t think that God sees us as compartmentalized people. One of the haunting lines in the New Testament is this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” In other words, follow the money and you will find out what matters most in an individual’s life or the life of a family. . .or a society. But if we follow the money in our society, what appears to matter most? Where are the treasures accumulating in our economy? Salaries for ball players or actors, Internet consumerism, blockbuster movies. Are these truly what we value most? As philanthropists, how can we put our treasure and our hearts into better alignment?
Ganga Stone, one of the women in my study, gives us an important insight here. She says: “I guess when people ask me, how do you identify what your mission is, I think you look at the thing that you understand the best, or the thing that breaks your heart the most, and you go work there. Because when you’re working in one of those areas, nothing can stop you, when you really know.”
What Ganga reveals is that finding your mission, your life’s work, is the true treasure. We might well say, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.” The passion that flows from leading the seamless life is unstoppable. I have seen evidence of this in the remarkable work of the women I studied.
That same hunger for seamlessness is expressed in our best hopes for this conference. As you dare to align the financial resources at your disposal with your energy, passion, and deepest intuitions about how God wants us to live, nothing can get in your way. Nothing.
To be sure working for justice and helping
to heal the world can be heartbreaking work. I don’t want to
minimize that. Much of the transformation we hope for will not take
place in our lifetimes. But one of the most remarkable findings of
my study, and one which has been confirmed in other studies, is that
however difficult it is to work on behalf of the common good, it is
deeply gratifying, energizing work.When I asked these women leaders how they
sustained themselves in the work, they cited the support of women
friends and colleagues as one of their most important resources.
Laura said: My little cabal of women friends is really
very important to me. We intersect at these wonderful moments and
points, and we refer to each other as lifelines a lot of the time.
There’s nothing we can’t talk about; they’re a touchstone for
me. And we push each other. If one of us—I think it’s usually me—is
being a little timid, there’s that push to be more courageous. I
don’t know what I would do without that.
My little cabal of women friends is really very important to me. We intersect at these wonderful moments and points, and we refer to each other as lifelines a lot of the time. There’s nothing we can’t talk about; they’re a touchstone for me. And we push each other. If one of us—I think it’s usually me—is being a little timid, there’s that push to be more courageous. I don’t know what I would do without that.
In fact for those few leaders who felt the need to leave the frontline for a time, one of the biggest reasons was that they had not put enough time into meaningful relationships that supported and sustained them.
This is why we are really here; why some of us have come all the way across the country—overcoming all sorts of fears of flying—to be together. We are acknowledging that you can’t be a philanthropist/activist alone; that it takes a village to raise and sustain just one. We are here as mothers and daughters—one of the most intimate biological units, yet also one with potential for enormous conflict. Of this I am sure! So this alone is a huge step.
There are other steps just as large. We bring with us into this community- in-process all of our reluctance to trust; our desires to be loved and liked for ourselves and not for our money alone; our fear that there won’t be enough; or that we don’t know enough to do it right. We bring our experiences of the exhilaration of saying yes and the difficulty of saying no. Some of us share guilt over having money to begin with, or fears of losing it. We bring wounds of family fights and triumphs over doing well with what we have and who we are. We bring doubts about having any faith at all and experiences of faith the size of a mustard seed that can move even mountains.
And, we are not here alone. In the Christian idiom, we talk about a cloud of witnesses. There are many women who have come before, women known and unknown, the ancestors who are with us now—Gluckel of Hameln many centuries ago, a Jewish widow, who, after her husband’s death, took over his business and became a philanthropist; Catherine Beecher, who in her treatise On Domestic Economy , published in the 1830s, devoted a whole chapter to the Christian understanding of giving; she said it was the hardest chapter for her to write; Julia, the seller of purple in the Bible, who financed some of the activities of the early followers of Jesus; there are abolitionists and suffragists whose public work was undergirded by their religious convictions. There are those in your own families who belong to the cloud of witnesses: the grandmother who took you along to collect the money from the tzedakah box, who said that if someone asked you for money, they needed it more than you did, or the father with whom you went door to door every Sunday to sign up members for the ADL or B’nai B’rith; there are those of you whose mothers built houses of prayer on friendship, bake sales and bequests.
And there are those women leaders like those I interviewed who struggle on the frontlines to clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned, to preach release to the captives, a message of hope and peace in hearts of despair, who are not afraid to look teenagers in the eye, and who must micromanage budgets to the penny to meet the next payroll. Some of these are our partners and some of these women are desperately looking for potential partners, like you, who come with ideas and resources.
All of these women, known and unknown, are our partners too.
I began this evening with the wisdom of the Romans in locating their mint within the temple of the goddess Moneta. I have spoken of some of the ways that heart and treasure become one. Let me close with one more image about the desire to create gold.
You may know the Greek myth of King Midas, who was granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. At first it seemed an enviable gift. But when the food and drink he brought to his lips were also transformed to gold that he could not eat, he began to die of hunger and thirst. In one version of the story he sees his daughter approaching after a long absence and he runs to greet her with a warm embrace. To his horror she, too, turns to gold. Gold, in and of itself, is not the treasure.
I would like to suggest then that we work an alchemy of a different sort. We, like the women leaders I studied, can be social alchemists—those who see within the crying need at hand the potential, the possibility of healing and transformation, the gold within. May we rewrite the myth-mothers and daughters, sisters all—by investing all of the resources available to us—money, energy, imagination, boldness, wisdom, and love—to transform the reality that we see before us. In this way, we will feed our own hungers, slake our thirst, and turn the gold entrusted to us into living currency, the social currency of transformation. Let us take this on, not for our sakes alone, but, perhaps now more than ever, even for the sake of the whole world.
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