My interest in women’s issues deepened in seminary. Giving voice to women and their needs was a cause that resonated with me. I was born into a world surrounded by women: Mama, Grandmama and Aunt Mable, who was my Grandmama’s sister and my anointed Godmother. My Dad wasn’t there; he was stationed in England with the Air Force at the time. He and I did not meet until I was a year old, a fact that probably explains why he never really took to me. He and Mama separated when I was four.
In seminary, my service gravitated towards helping women and children. I spent one summer volunteering at a battered women’s safe house in southwest Atlanta, a poor, primarily African-American community. Seven hours from my husband, with no car, I lived in the house and was on duty 24/7 most days of the week.
Most, but not all, of the women who came to the house were African-American, and most had children in tow. Upon their arrival, we would show them around the house and make them comfortable. The house would be their home until they made arrangements to go somewhere else safe.
I had never before listened to victims of violence. My service stints in college were to happy places – conference centers, summer camp, even the World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN. I had interned once as a hospital chaplain, which was not the happiest place on earth, but the only fallout from violence I saw there was a vial of gallstones an old man proudly showed me.
Living in the safe-house, I quickly came to appreciate just how vulnerable women of limited means trapped in a patriarchal world of limited expectations are. I feared for them and their children, who were hungry for positive attention but didn’t always know how to obtain it appropriately. One night, one of the little girls in the house set a couch on fire. I stood in disbelief staring at the blackened and charred bedroom as I learned that setting fires was a habit of hers.
When I returned to seminary, I began volunteering at the local rape crisis center. I was on-call just a few nights a month. If called, I was required to rush to the hospital to meet a rape victim and accompany her through the process. Or, if lucky, the call would be from a victim who was having a hard time coping and just wanted to talk.
A couple of times my phone rang in the middle of the night – a woman had been raped. Now, I have always been really good in a crisis, particularly when focused on helping someone else through it. However, on these nights, I felt like a firefighter running into a burning building. A woman has been raped, now you woman rush out into the dark night, get into your car and drive to the hospital parking garage, get out of your car and go into the hospital. I had to fight the instinct to double check the locks on the doors and go back to bed where it was safe.