The Quest to Tell Stories Better

I begin this blog post with a rather shameless plug. The Reformed Church Center at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, working with the RCA Archives and the RCA office for Women’s Transformation and Leadership, announces the beginning of the First Stories Project. Congregations are being invited to conduct oral interviews with the first women to serve as elders, deacons, or elder delegates, as well as men who served with those first women.

It has been 48 years since women first started being ordained as deacons and elders, and, while it is becoming much more normal for congregations to have women in these offices, the first generation of such women is starting to slip away. This project aims to collect as many of these stories as possible, helping us understand this aspect of our past as a tool for looking forward to our future. Also, some of these interviews will be used at the second annual “Women’s Stories Day,” hosted by the Reformed Church Center and the RCA office for Women’s Transformation and Leadership on Saturday, 12 May, at NBTS.

There is, however, a larger reason for this project, and that is the true subject of this post. Our history lacks stories of deacons and elders. We don’t keep records of them on a national basis. The Historical Directory of the Reformed Church in America (Eerdmans, 2001) records, to the best of our knowledge, every congregation of the RCA that has ever been as well as every minister who has ever served in the RCA. Every congregation and just about every minister now alive should have a copy of the RCA Directory, published annually by the denominational staff, which also includes congregations and ministers—and General Synod professors—but not elders and deacons. Some of that is understandable: at any given moment, any given congregation has several deacons and elders for every minister, and they change far more often. The sheer numbers of occupants of those two offices would choke publication efforts.

On the other hand, there are unintended consequences to the records we collect: it makes it appear that ministers in the RCA are a separate, more important class of office bearers—a most un-Reformed idea. That is reinforced when the history that gets told is based on the written record that is readily available. This isn’t the fault of the historians, not really; what factual stories can any of us tell except for those for which we have data? But the result, whether it is by intent or accident, is an incomplete record. It is the story of ministers and maybe professors—important offices of the church, but only half of the offices. Because the ordination of women as ministers only dates back four decades, and the installation of women to the fourth office only two decades, it becomes a story that excludes women, if we are not careful. And while we can reach out with more difficulty to certain sets of women in the record—especially missionaries and women who supported them—people of color are almost entirely absent. Even so, we know that they existed. If we are using our past to learn how to approach our future, what will a distorted picture of our past do?

There are limits to the history we now have. This doesn’t make it bad history, or those who created it bad historians. They were simply mortal, limited, fallen historians. We need to acknowledge that, to acknowledge that we can tell only a partial story of the Reformed Church in America—and the stories of other churches are just as partial. We can, for example, tell the story of how the RCA responded to slavery, but we cannot responsibly tell the story of slavery and the Reformed Church, because we only have the records of white people—we are only starting to collect data that tells other parts of the story. Still, having acknowledged the depravity of such a history, we need to be constantly working to complete the record, digging in less obvious places for the stories which make our understanding more complete.

What we have only goes so far. This is a shortcoming which most of the storytellers and record-keepers who came before us couldn’t see. None of this was an act of volition; it was an act of people so caught up in systems of power and privilege that they didn’t see themselves perpetuating them. This does not excuse them, of course. But we must remember that they are loved by God and forgiven. Assigning blame is, in so many ways, a futile exercise. Instead, we learn from their mistakes, and we work to do better. We are just as fallen, of course, just as incomplete, but just as loved and forgiven.

The doing better, of course, involves working forward as well as backward. What sort of a record are we leaving for the future? The First Stories Project hopes to be a step toward leaving behind a more complete story, so that future generations will have a more complete history.

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