As many of you know, last summer I spent nearly over a week in my “fatherland” of Sicily, from where my paternal grandfather’s family immigrated nearly one hundred years ago. For a few days, my nuclear family (including my spouse and my brother’s then-fiancée, now-wife) stayed in an apartment a short drive from Castellammare del Golfo where my grandfather had spent his childhood years before moving permanently to New York.
We had not researched ahead of time whether we still had relatives in Castellammare, but knew my great-great uncle had returned to the city for a few years before his death in the early 2000’s. My parents had written letters to him, and so had the address of his former home. While we took a few photographs outside his old apartment, we were approached by a local hotel operator who claimed she knew the family who owned the apartment building. We were genuinely shocked to learn, as it turned out, we have a whole branch of second cousins living in Castellammare!
We met our relatives late that evening at the hotel. There’s much I could write about that fascinating family reunion — like how we brought a platter of Sicilian desserts not realizing that Sicilians eat at 10 or 11 at night, or how my mother (not Italian, but a lover of the language) would ask us questions in English, speak to the hotel operator in “standard” Italian, who would then ask our relatives questions in Sicilian-Italian, and back again — but there was one exchange I found particularly notable.
I could tell that those second cousins were curious about what work my brother and I and our partners were doing (mostly because my brother works with computers which is the same word in both English and Italian). Before I could stop her, I realized my mother was telling my Sicilian second cousins that I was a pastore. I knew it was highly unlikely they would understand this, and they did not. My mother’s revelation sparked vigorous and confused conversation in Sicilian — I assume they were asking one another, “What does it mean that this woman cousin is a pastore? Do they know what that word means? She can’t be a padre!”
Finally, one of them declared, “Anglicano!” Silician conversation continued as they settled on this, the most reasonable explanation; based on their facial expressions, I assumed what they said was, “Our poor cousins, they’ve become Anglican! A tragedy!” I quickly told my mother it was not worth attempting a timeline of the Reformation through to the birth of American Unitarianism and Universalism, and that I could be assumed Episcopalian for an evening.
For me, of course, the tragedy was not that I had descended into Protestant heresy. These not-so-distant relatives barely knew that a woman could serve as minister of a church — it’s likely they had never met a woman pastor in person, perhaps only seeing them on television through popular programs like The Vicar of Dibley. That, to me, was a great tragedy indeed.
However, it also moved me to a deep feeling of gratitude. Though many of the first ordained Christian women in the United States were Universalist or Unitarian, our national denominations were not particularly supportive of women clergy until after the women’s movement of the 1970’s and significant work and direct pressure by Unitarian Universalist women and allies. Even just fifty years ago in the United States, women pastors of any denomination (including our own) were few and far between. For example, my home congregation in Fairfax, Virginia, had ordained religious educators on staff historically, there were no ordained women on staff when I joined the congregation; their first woman lead minister was called there in 2005. Similarly, First Parish called its first woman minister just in 1998. When I officiate memorial services at First Parish, I still always have at least one visitor express surprise and delight that women can serve as pastors at our congregation.
Today, over half of active Unitarian Universalist ministers are women. I do not feel alone or tokenized at collegial gatherings; underappreciated or discriminated against at First Parish nor by the regional or national denominational bodies; nor afraid that my gender will significantly hinder my call to the ministry. While I would not be so naïve as to say that sexism has been eliminated from Unitarian Universalist communities, I know and appreciate the work of Unitarian/Universalist women trailblazers who came before me as leaders of our denomination and others. I am grateful to the women ministers at First Parish, including Rev. Judy Mannheim, Rev. Katie Lee Crane, and many wonderful interns; to the Iowa Sisterhood of turn-of-the-century Midwestern Unitarian ministers, including Revs. Mary Safford, Eleanor Gordon, and Caroline Julia Bartlett Crane; to women ministers of color who began integrating our ministry in the 1980’s and who have served as key drivers in our fight against sexism and white supremacy in our denomination; and, to all the leaders and advocates of women’s liberation over the decades and centuries who have made it possible for me to thrive as a minister today.
I pray that perhaps some fifty years from now, the idea of a woman minister — and women leaders in all fields — won’t be so foreign to my second cousins nor to anyone, anywhere in the world. During this Women’s History Month, we remember and give thanks for our ancestors who have taken us this far on the path of equity and justice.