Professor Chung Hyung Kyung teaches at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, when she is not researching or talking with people around the world who are inspired by her story and her wisdom. Kidnapped and tortured in Korea as a university student, Hyun Kyung survived, emigrated to the United States and completed her graduate work in theology. She describes herself as a good Presbyterian girl growing up in Korea and has lived in a monastery in Tibet practicing Buddhist meditation, which she has incorporated into her faith and her feminism.
The Ted talk pictured above will give you a sense of her vibrant presence and how she views her Christian and Buddhist practice. An ongoing theme in her talk was breaking open – that hearts will be broken, but from that brokenness comes new life and new ways for the light to enter. She started her presentation with an invitation to forgive those who have wronged us and spoke about a series of men who were sent to torture her. Making a connection with her oppressors allowed her to postpone the inevitable torment, until she met a man whom she described as having suffered “soul loss.” Her talk was in honor of the man whose dead eyes betrayed no empathy for the young woman who had to choose between saving her lover or protecting her friends after withstanding the most violent abuse.
I spoke with many women who had been abused or even tortured. Some, as a result of government persecution and others, personally. They were all challenged to forgive what none could forget and they moved forward with courage and humor, some days better than others. Their hearts were broken and mended by an ongoing effort to live and love with respect for all. Dr. Irene Martinez was one of the wisdom circle presenters who spoke of her experience as a political prisoner in Argentina. In all these stories of abuse, the support of women for one another shined through, underscoring the intrinsically relational nature of who we are. We are partners in the dance of life, with much light to share.
Dr. Chung will lead a group of women across the DMZ into North Korea next summer. Women from the North and South have been meeting periodically to exchange recipes, talk about daily life and come to agreement that we all want a peaceful life. Our hearts are with them as they reach out in sisterhood across the barriers inflicted by war and famine in support of peace and healing.
Gloria Steinem is 80 years old, tall, unbowed and aging naturally. Her voice is strong and despite chronicling the setbacks women have faced in the last number of decades, she retains a light, dry sense of humor. Ms. Steinem took us on an historical tour of patriarchy – in religion, government and culture. Coming to the conference from Austin, TX (where women are fighting to retain control of their reproductive rights) I resonated with her statement that men control women by controlling reproduction. Patriarchy has institutionalized rape, genocide and created a capitalistic system in which fealty to God, King and husband have been legislated for centuries. She views monotheism as religious imperialism with an imperative to subjugate nature and thus, women and children. It’s hard to argue when women are still fighting the battle for fair and equitable representation in the workplace, at home and in government. What would the world look like if women were in charge?
In Texas, many of us have been struggling to get out the vote. Three of the young people in my office (students at a university) either were not registered to vote or did not know who was on the ballot. Among other important considerations, we are electing a Governor and Lt. Governor who will control the money and the laws that will represent the wishes of the people or those of powerful elites. Ms. Steinem rightly said that successful social movements are like a tree, starting with the roots and spreading upward. Our power lies in how and where we spend our money and in exercising our right to vote.
One of the most powerful stories Gloria told was the story of how Clarence Thomas eventually came to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. In 1982 John Danforth, a Congressman from Missouri narrowly defeated his Democratic challenger, Harriet Woods, by roughly 2,000 votes in his bid for reelection. He had earlier appointed Clarence Thomas as his aide, introducing him to highly placed Republicans in Washington DC. Thomas was subsequently appointed to the United States court of Appeals by President GHW Bush. Then, only 16 months later he survived a hard fought confirmation hearing by a 52-48 vote (after Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment). He was now the most conservative supreme court justice in the United States and has cast pivotal votes in electing George W Bush, among other decisions that have changed the course of history and will continue to do so. This is one of the best arguments I’ve heard for voting. Many people feel disenfranchised and unrepresented by their elected leaders. But I agree with Gloria; we really can make a difference by using our dollars wisely and by voting. There was a 13 year old girl at the conference who stood up on the last evening as we were summarizing what we would take home from our experience. She spoke passionately about how grateful she was to know that feminism is alive and well and that she now knew that whether or not she was considered weird by her friends, she had people. Let’s continue to fight the good fight for we are not done.
is always the same; wherever Life
I want to stick my toe
& soon my whole body
into the water.
I want to shake out a fat broom
& sweep dried leaves
I want to grow
It seems impossible that desire
can sometimes transform into devotion;
but this has happened.
And that is how I’ve survived:
how the hole
I carefully tended
in the garden of my heart
grew a heart
to fill it. Alice Walker
Alice Walker began her talk by giving us permission to be afraid, that in times of danger it was a sane response. It was not what I expected from the woman whose grace touched the audience with such warmth, simplicity and humor. She was not patronizing, did not preach – but led us through war, then into peace and eventually, joy. We did not look away from the pain of families crushed by bombs as she reminded us that women and children just want to come home, sit in a cozy chair and pet their dog. We honored the sorrow and the tragedy of the innocent victims of endless war and were advised to “feel everything and want less” in order to come to peace despite the suffering – to care and to do something for those who need our help.
She acknowledged the struggle of our divided people to get over the feeling that “she might smell nice, but . . ” when breaking bread with those whose skin is different. She encouraged us to “get to know who stands beside you, to see her as she really is.”
Alice Walker has fought so many good fights, not least being the right for women to freely claim and respect their own bodies, and to ask for the same respect from everyone else. Womanism, a term she coined decades ago, is now the subject of a class at the University of Texas “Beyonce Feminism and Rihanna Womanism“. She has inspired many scholars, authors and poets, including our moderator for this event, Dr. Melanie Harris, an associate professor of Religion at Texas Christian University. To Walker, womanists are to feminists as purple is to lavender – they also recognize the struggle for racial and class equality (particularly for black women) as a central tenant of their social activism. Also noted – wise elders can teach younger women the difference between freedom and stupidity.
Using ones’ imagination: allowing for fluid gender identities in the 11th grade and sophomore years of college are among the many ideas put forth by our wise earth woman. Joy in non-attachment, allowing it to reside in your heart is the fruit of many years of meditation and the infusion of spirit into all aspects of her life. I spoke with her briefly, to extend an invitation to come and speak to the students in our graduate program here at UT, and found myself teary eyed. Her energy was so kind that it allowed a very delicate aspect of myself to engage openly in our conversation. I will remember that impression and the other funny and poignant moments with gratitude and reverence for the wholly spirit – that which makes us whole. Many thanks to the noble soul who is Alice Walker. Our world is better for her caring.