The race that is set before us

April 25th, 2016

On Patriot’s Day in 1966, fifty years ago, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb jumped out of the forsythia bushes and ran 26.2 miles to become the first female finisher of the Boston Marathon. When she had sent in her application to run the race, it had been denied on the grounds of her gender; so she took matters into her own hands. Once on the course, she found that the men who surrounded her were very encouraging and supportive. After witnessing her feat, more women ran the Boston Marathon, despite being unsanctioned until the 1972 race. And it wasn’t until 1996 that the Boston Athletic Association recognized the women winners of these races. In a moving moment this year, the winner of the 2016 Boston Marathon, Ethiopia’s Atsede Baysa, presented Bobbi Gibb with her champion’s trophy.

At that time, no one thought women were physically capable of running long distances, and the longest sanctioned race topped out at a mile and a half. Bobbi Gibb knew she had something to prove, and that kept her going despite the painful blisters that developed on her feet in the latter miles, despite running in a swimsuit and her brother’s Bermuda shorts. Once they saw her success  that she had managed to run a long distance without her uterus falling out or being any worse for the wear than any of the male competitors  other women wanted a go at it, though it would be 1984 when the Olympic marathon added a women’s race.

In Bobbi Gibb’s story and in the other stories of early women distance runners, I see parallels to the other barriers that women have overcome since that time, namely ordination in many Christian traditions. Many of my sister clergy were told that they couldn’t or shouldn’t be in the pulpit or by the hospital bedside. Many in traditions who still don’t ordain women continue to do the work of ministry, even preaching, without official recognition.

While listening to Bobbi Gibb tell her story on the Runner’s World podcast, I was struck by the male runners who cheered her throughout the race, and it brought to mind the men who have supported and encouraged me on my path to ordination. Without men speaking up, taking chances, identifying, promoting and hiring talented and called women clergy, many of us would not be where we are. In a patriarchal system, sometimes it takes men using their privilege to lift up those without their same benefits.

Like other women seeing Bobbi Gibb cross that finish line and thinking, “I could do that too,” nurturing the next generation of gifted clergywomen partially relies on them seeing women clergy in action  preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. However, we often feel the same pressure of having something to prove as Ms. Gibb: that if we are not successful, people will think women make bad pastors.

In the women’s race at the 2016 Boston Marathon, Atsede Baysa won with a gutsy, come-from-behind victory that was thrilling to watch. At the US Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, the women ran a similarly exciting race as teammates Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg exemplified a particular blend of camaraderie and competition, matching stride for stride in the lead until the last few miles. Watching these races, I cannot imagine a world in which I was not able to see women run marathons. I feel the same way when I hear a clergywoman deliver a powerful, grace-filled sermon or I hear a story of a clergywoman ministering to a person in need. That world in which women were not allowed or officially sanctioned to exercise these gifts was not long ago and still exists in many denominations.

While doors that were once closed have been opened, we are nowhere close to equality. We still live in a world where a company like PayPal can hold a panel on gender equality in the workplace and not have a single woman speaker, where the US women’s soccer team is threatening to boycott the Olympics over pay inequality, and where the highest ranks of the church are overwhelmingly populated by men. There’s a long road ahead, but I give thanks to God for the pioneers, women and men, who first started the race. 

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