I had not been in the ministry long and was brand new to the area I was living in. I immediately set about meeting with my local colleagues in the United Methodist network and beyond. McDowell County, West Virginia is a mission field for most major Christian denominations because of its complicated mixture of socioeconomic and environmental issues which have left a lasting impact on the culture and the land. So, it was no surprise when a couple local missionaries, based out of the deep South, but living in Welch, showed up at my office wanting to tell me about the work they were doing and invite me to join them.
Both men had fallen in love with the people of McDowell County when their churches made short-term mission trips to the area. As these men reached retirement age in their professions, they felt themselves called to launch a full-time ministry in the area.
They had a passion which matched my own, and a vision I could get onboard with. Their desire wasn’t simply to bring resources into “The County”, but to provide a dignified way in which those most in need could begin peicing together the necessary parts of their lives. I was sold pretty quickly.
A couple weeks passed and one of the missionaries, “Don”, called me and asked if I would like to see the Ieager (pronounced Yay-ger) site of their mission work. There was a work team from Georgia in town and he thought it would be nice if they could talk to a minister who was a West Virginia native. I agreed to go, but I was not familiar with the town of Ieager and needed help fining my way.
Don volunteered to drive me and we arranged to meet at my church and carpool out.
Everything was going great the day we made the trip. It was a beautiful summer day with bright blue skies and not a cloud in sight. Being an avid carpooler, I was perfectly comfortable in the passenger seat of Don’s pickup truck as we headed toward the little town a few mintues North.
All of a sudden Don made the whole thing very awkward and uncomfortable… and he waited until we were well out of Welch city limits, on an isolated stretch of highway.
“I usualy don’t run around alone in a car with a woman,” he said, “But I’m hoping anyone who sees us will understand the situation.”
Two colleagues sharing a ride to a ministry setting?
And… “running around”?
The worst part of it was that Don had just made my presence in his vehicle abot sex. The only reason he would have to be worried about my presence in his car was that it could be a threat to his marriage or viewed as such by someone else. Which was the furthest thing from my mind.
My hand to God, the only thing I thought this twenty minute ride was about was ministry: Driving from point A to point B so that we could do minstry. I wasn’t planning on doing anything other than ministry with Don.
But now it’s about sex.
I tried to make excuses for Don’s faux-pas. He was much older than me, so he was from a generation that honestly didn’t believe men and women could be friends without a sexual element involved. And he was Southern Baptist, so chances are he didn’t really see women as acutal ministry colleagues. He was respecting my position as a pastor because the ecumenical nature of mission work required him to, which was commendable… but on some subconcious level he probably had a hard time seeing me as an actual pastor.
While I didn’t view this as a sexual advance, it certainly raised a red flag because, for whatever reason, Don sees this as a sexual issue.
Don is thinking about sex.
Why is Don thinking about sex?
And why did he start thinking about sex only when we reached an isolated stretch of road?
Why didn’t he think about it before I got in his truck, when I could still opt to follow him in my own car rather than be closed up in a confined space with him?
I was uncomfortable. I leaned awkwardly against the door because that’s what I subconciously do when people act inappropriately around me, I lean away from them.
And I was offended.
I am a pastor. I am a well-educated woman. I have worked hard to accomplish these things in my life. I am well-read. I am disciplined (even if sometimes a procrastinator) and I have dedicated my life to full-time Christian service. I volunteered to serve in an isolated area with a unique set of economic and cultural obstacles–an area some of my colleagues wished to avoid. I am a hard worker. I am fiercly loyal. And I deserve to be treated with resepct and dignity as a Child of God; but, Don is treating me like a sexual object–as if anyone looking at me will see the entirety of my worth in my sexual attainablity. Don let me know, in one simple, awkward, offensive, intimidating statement, that he saw me only as something that could sexually corrupt since I wasn’t sexually connected to him through marriage.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that horrible carpool lately because of past comments Vice President Pence once made (which have recently come back into the limelight) about not dining with a woman. VP Pence and Don are both guilty of doing the same thing: reducing women to sexual objects. Women, in their estimation are either sexually acceptable or sexually inappopriate, but never anything other than sexual things.
We aren’t colleagues in their eyes. We aren’t people who have worked very hard and become very good at what we do, people who deserve an audience and an opportunity to excel. And should we forge a way for ourselves outside of our marriages in the professional world and seek to be treated as an equal, we are looked at with suspicion: as corruptors who are seeking to destroy the peace and happiness of men.
We deserve better.
Jesus, thankfully offered us better. When he met the Syrophonecian woman by the well and engaged her in a theological discussion (despite the obvious social taboo of speaking to a woman alone or associating with a Samaritan), he set an example–one which spit in the face of social norms and identified women as being worthy of the Gospel, of salvation, or standing before God. There were numerous other instances–when he allowed Mary to set at his feet and learn with the other disciples, when he intervened in the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, when he discussed the theological issues of Resurrection with Martha in Bethany… Jesus, over and over again was displaying the perfect relationship betweeen men and women. He didn’t identify us as sexual objects, even when sex was involved (the woman caught in adultery), but as children of the same Creator.